Jemniště Chateau Diary

I arrived at Baroque Jemniště Chateau for the third time during July of 2021. While I had traveled to the chateau by bus on previous visits, this time I came with a friend in a car.  The chateau was an hour or so from Prague.

It was a place I wanted my parents to see, but both of them were in their eighties, and they weren’t about to travel here during the pandemic. I doubted they would ever return to Prague.

I already was familiar with the history of the chateau, which had come into existence during 1725. However, a fire destroyed it in 1754. The front section of the chapel, which included the main altar and a ceiling fresco, was the only part of the place that wasn’t reduced to ashes. Then two master artists took control of the reconstruction – Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun. They made the structure an architectural gem. I recalled Reiner’s dramatic painting at Duchcov Chateau, which I had visited for the second time the two years earlier, the year before the pandemic hit. How I missed those times! Braun was best known for his sculptural groupings on Prague’s Charles Bridge.

In 1868 Zdeněk Sternberg bought the chateau, and this family would own Jemniště for many decades. In fact, the Sternbergs currently owned the chateau, and Jiří Sternberg even lived there with his family. Filip Sternberg inherited Jemniště when Zdeněk died. A talented artist, he created renditions of children and horses that were exhibited in the chateau. He had been taught by the best Art Nouveau artist of the day – Alphonse Mucha. I recalled visiting the Mucha Museum with my parents, who loved Mucha’s art. I had also seen some of the Slav Epic canvases in the Municipal House and, years before that, in the chateau at Moravský Krumlov. The Sternbergs held on to the chateau until the Nazis took it away from them in 1943 because the family would not accept German citizenship. The Nazis gave the Sternbergs two weeks to move, and they were able to move original furniture. During Communism, Jemniště Chateau was controlled by the state. Jemniště wasn’t returned to the Sternbergs until 1995, six years after the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime.

We had about an hour before our tour so we walked through the charming park, which featured goats, a kangaroo, a donkey and exotic birds. It was tranquil. I found wondering if I would get back to the USA for a trip this year or if the pandemic would keep me in Prague. I wondered if there would come a day when I could show my parents Jemniště and maybe Kozel Chateau as well. While perusing the park, we did not have on our masks because we did not have to wear them outside. Inside, though, it was strictly forbidden not to wear a mask. I firmly believed that wearing masks inside was the right decision.

Then it was time for the tour. There were about 40 people there. I was surprised that so many people were allowed on the tour. Most chateaus I had visited during the pandemic had limited the number of participants on each tour. I was also surprised that the tour guide said that we didn’t have to wear masks. Only my friend and I wore them. Some of those on the tour were children under twelve, definitely unvaccinated. The Delta variant was gaining ground in the Czech Republic. I was dismayed that so many people didn’t seem to take the virus seriously.

I tried not to stand close to anyone, but it was not possible to social distance. Still, the tour was just as breathtaking as I remembered it. In the Sala Terena two of Braun’s statues portraying cherubs were a highlight of the space. The entrance hall featured watercolors of a castle and two chateaus that the Sternbergs own – Jemniště, Častolovice and Český Šternberk. I mused that I hadn’t been to Český Šternberk and Častolovice for some years and would like to go back there. The tour guide also mentioned that Franz Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sofia Chotek had visited the chateau in 1909. I recalled the three impressive tours at Konopiště Chateau, where Franz Ferdinand d’Este had lived with his family before he and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914. In fact, Konopiště was the last chateau we had visited last year before more and more people came down with the coronavirus.

I liked the three painted windows in one Baroque room. They were painted across from three real windows, and it made for a pleasant contrast. In the Small Dining Room, I was entranced with the intarsia furnishings. A Delft tiled stove caught my attention in the Study. I would also be enthralled with miniature figures of furnishings in the Delft style later in the tour. The red upholstered chairs made the space look cozy and warm for a winter evening. Intriguing porcelain, including Meissen, was exhibited throughout the tour.

The Main Hall was a delight. Portraits of four Habsburg rulers dominated the walls. The gods of Olympus were displayed on the ceiling. Gods from antiquity and the three allegories of the four seasons were other painted creations that stunned viewers.

The last space we visited was Saint Joseph’s Chapel with its thrilling frescoes. Reiner was responsible for the fresco sporting the Holy Trinity. Another showed off allegorical figures. The main altar dazzled with gold décor, portraying Christ crucified as well as statues of the Virgin Mary and Saint John of Nepomuk.

After the tour, again I wished my parents could have joined me on this visit. I had taken them to many chateaus and castles, and they always enjoyed seeing an impressive chateau. I think my mom would have especially liked the porcelain and Delft objects. I wondered if my dad would have been most moved by the frescoes.

Soon, we left Jemniště Chateau and searched for a restaurant. We found a nondescript one after the railroad tracks, near Benešov. The food was excellent, but I wouldn’t remember this place for its food. My keys, in a padded container, dropped out of my rucksack.

When I got home, I realized I did not have my keys! Luckily, my friend had my extra set of keys in her car. One of the keys could not be copied. If I didn’t find them, it would mean a great deal of trouble for me financially and for my landlord, who would have to get new keys made. Luckily, the restaurant owner informed me that he had the keys when I wrote him a text message.

The restaurant was about an hour from Prague, so I asked them to send the keys to me cash-on-delivery. They sent them the next day by regular, standard mail not cash-on-delivery, so there was no receipt. It took eight days for the keys to travel from the Benešov environs to Prague. During those days, I was so stressed and panicked. I should have gone back there to get the keys in person. When they arrived, I noticed that the envelope was open, but the keys were still inside. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.

Osek Monastery Diary

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Note: No photos were allowed inside

I traveled to the picturesque region below the Krušné Mountains to see Osek Monastery in 2018. It was my second visit in eight years. I remembered shivering with cold as I wore my rather thin jacket during that first visit, probably in October of 2010. Feeling partially frozen, I waited patiently for the bus back to Prague after a wonderful tour. I had enjoyed my time there immensely, but what I remember most is the cold that seeped through my garments.

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It was July when I came back for another look at the Cistercian monastery that was founded in the early 13th century, though monks had called the area home even at the end of the 12th century. This time, I arrived by car with a friend.

The Church of Our Lady at the monastery was a Romanesque creation, built as a three-aisled basilica in the shape of a Latin cross. The chapels and choir are rectangular. Measuring 76 meters long, during Romanesque days it was the biggest monasterial church in Bohemia.

The monastery was damaged during the Hussite wars of the 15th century during two years. The Hussites detested the Cistercians because, among other reasons, they were the wealthiest order in the Czech lands. The Thirty Years’ War brought devastation to the holy place. From 1580 to 1628, the monastery was closed.

Osek Church facade 2

In the early 18th century, the Abbot Benedict Littweig ordered Baroque reconstruction. Two cupolas, the façade, sculptural ornamentation and the main altar all hail from that time period. The main architect of the makeover was an Italian born in Bohemia, Octavian Broggio from the Litoměřice region. He favored radical Baroque style and had experience working in Prague and in the area where he was born.

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During 1945 and 1946, the German monks who were living there were resettled in Germany for a while, and during 1961, they were sent to Germany again. At one point, the Salesians lived there, but the order was closed in 1950. The year 1950 would be the beginning of dreadful times. From 1950 to 1953, the monastery was used a detention center for priests. After that, it became a detention center for nuns. The Cistercian monks reclaimed the property in 1991 and left in 2010, when Abbot Bernard Thebej, who had overseen the monastery from 1991, died.

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I waited for the tour as I gazed at the Baroque façade with a superb portico. Saints John, Mark, Luke and Matouš faced me. I saw Saints Peter and Paul above them. I thought of the other Cistercian monasteries I had visited. In south Bohemia, I had seen both Vyšší Brod and Zlatá Koruna. At Vyšší Brod, I was most enamored by the library of 70,000 volumes, the third Czech monastic library. The Theological Hall with one of the largest collections of Bibles in Central Europe had also captivated me. I recalled the elaborate Rococo stucco decoration and numerous Rococo wall paintings at Zlatá Koruna as well as the early Gothic Chapel of Guardian Angels. Near Kutná Hora, not far from Prague, Sedlec Monastery had amazed me with its Santini-created Baroque Gothic style interior and paintings by Baroque master Petr Brandl. Plasy in west Bohemia also came to mind. Santini had done his magic there as well, and the Baroque pharmacy had such superbly painted drawers. I had toured Plasy at least three times. I had been impressed by Velehrad in Moravia, but I had been there so many, too many, years ago.

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The guide took us inside. The superb interior was pure Baroque with much stucco ornamentation. I was particularly drawn to one side altar because of its extremely morbid character. The altar featured Christ on the Cross, flanked by two angels, but the ornamentation made it feel creepy. It was adorned with figures of skulls and bones in Classicist style. At the foot of the Cross, there was a golden skull. I recalled the Cycle of Death murals at Kuks, a former hospital in splendid Baroque style. I had visited it on several occasions, so I was well-versed with the Baroque obsession for skeletons, skulls and bones. At the altar, there was a reliquary with remnants of Saint John the Baptist and other saints. All the chapels were impressive, but this one especially caught my attention.

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Interior of the church, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

There were two Baroque cupolas. I saw painted windows on one – a trademark of the Baroque style. Two Baroque organs graced the church. One of them had 666 pedals, giving it a mystical quality.

The choir benches – Baroque, of course – were amazing, made with intarsia decoration of wood on wood. The inlays were breathtaking. Black spiral columns and gold ornamentation added to the Baroque ambience. The guide opened a cabinet behind a bench: Hymnbooks were stored there. I could imagine the Cistercian monks singing in celebration and could almost hear their voices resound through the church. In front of the choir, there were modern benches where services were currently held. Facing these benches, underneath the floor, was the tomb of the last abbot.

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The main altar included impressive sculptures of the four apostles. Figures of angels also had prominent roles in the adornment. The painting of Assumption of Our Lady – the patron saint of the Cistercians – was the work of Jan Krištof Liška, a truly remarkable Czech artist. Václav Vavřinec Reiner, whose monumental painting I had seen at Duchcov Chateau a few months earlier, was responsible for the painting of the side altars as was Michael Leopold Willmann. Reiner also had created, along with Jan Jakub Steinfels, the ceiling paintings in the main nave and chancel. They portrayed scenes from the life of Christ and from the Old Testament.

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Aerial view of Osek, from http://www.mapio.net

The cloister surrounds a garden that is decorated with three tombstones from the 14th to 16th centuries. Eighteenth century paintings promoting the history of the order are features of the cloister. I could see Romanesque traits in the entrance portal to the cloister from the church.

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Vaulted ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

We passed by Well Chapel. A well, the monks’ source of water for a lengthy period, was the central element of the chapel, as the name suggests. Sculptural decoration adorned the well. On the wall behind it, there was a bright orange sliver of glass. This piece was original, dating back to the Gothic era. At that time, the glass had been brightly colored.

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Reader’s Lectern in Chapter Hall, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

The Chapter Hall was a Gothic delight. Constructed from 1225 to 1250, it was one of the first Gothic buildings in the Czech lands. The sandstone sculptures from this era were impressive. A Gothic statue of the Madonna hails from around 1430. Monks had frequented this area every day. In the middle of a room was a reader’s lectern from which monks would read aloud to those gathered in the space. A Gothic mechanism allowed the top of the lectern to swivel from side to side. In the chapel, the altar looked a bit flamboyant for late Gothic, with white and gold decoration. The wall paintings illustrating the history of the order were newer, dating from 1750.

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Gothic ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

Near the entranceway to the chapter hall was a dog’s paw print. I wondered what kind of dog had made the imprint and if the dog had lived during the Gothic period or Baroque era.

I loved that the monastery’s architecture celebrated both spectacular Baroque and Gothic styles. After the tour, my friend and I found a busy restaurant with outside tables, where we had delicious food. The establishment seemed to be the popular place for lunch in the town.

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Our stomachs filled with a satisfying lunch, we headed back to Prague. I had learned during the tour that the monastery would soon be closing for three years to have the entire interior renovated. I felt lucky I had had the chance to visit before the renovation and knew I had to come back in three years, to see an even more superb Baroque and Gothic creation.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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