Holy Mountain (Svatá Hora) Diary


The bus from Prague to the central Bohemian town of Příbram, 54 kilometers southwest of the capital, took about an hour. When it made a stop on the main square in Dobříš, I remembered visiting that lovely chateau with the quaint restaurant in its courtyard. I got off in Příbram and walked uphill for a while until I reached the Holy Mountain (Svatá Hora) pilgrimage site, a former Baroque monastery complex that included ambulatories, open altars, closed corner chapels and a basilica with three open altars on its loggia. On the bus I read some historical information about the place to which the devout had been flocking for centuries.

According to one legend, the original chapel was constructed courtesy of Knight Malovec in 1261 as his way of showing thanks to the Virgin Mary, who had protected him from robbers at the site. Another legend claims that the first Archbishop Arnošt of Pardubice, had the chapel erected during his tenure in that function from 1344 to 1364. (The first Archbishop also had been an active diplomat during Emperor Charles IV’s reign.) Some speculate that the original chapel may have been built in the 15th century or at the beginning of the 16th century.

ImageThe statuette of the Holy Virgin, now placed in front of the silver main altar of the basilica, is Bohemian, from the Gothic period, probably created in the 14th century. Pilgrims had begun traveling from afar to see the Madonna in the first half of the 16th century. The figurine was hidden in the tunnels of mines and other places during the Hussite wars of the 15th century and then returned to Holy Mountain, which witnessed dismal days again during the pillaging and destruction of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. During those battle-ridden times, the statuette had been transported from place to place again. The chapel had even been used as a stable when the Emperor’s troops took over Holy Mountain.

The blind beggar Jan Procházka dreamed of regaining his sight at Holy Mountain in 1632, and his dream came true.  The popularity of Holy Mountain soared, major repairs were made and even Emperor Ferdinand II paid homage there on several occasions.

After the Jesuits took control of Holy Mountain in 1647, the Baroque complex was built. Chapels and ambulatories were erected, and the place was decorated with stucco and paintings. In 1732 the statuette was allowed to don a crown made of gold, as one of the Virgin’s titles is Regina Coeli, Queen of Heaven.

ImageIn 1773 the Jesuit Order was abolished because European leaders felt threatened it, and Pope Clement XIV succumbed to the secular demands. The Order only carried on in Prussia and Russia. In other countries it was suppressed for 40 years. In 1773 the state took over Holy Mountain. The site became dilapidated. The Redemptorists came into the picture during 1861. Extensive restoration was carried out in the early 20th century.  Pope Saint Pius X raised the status of the church to a basilica in 1905. After Czechoslovakia was created in 1918, Holy Mountain continued to be a favorite pilgrimage site.

But Holy Mountain once again faced difficult times during the Occupation and Communism.  Under the Nazi regime the Redemptorists had been allowed to carry out a limited number of activities, but in 1950, during the Communist era, the Redemptorists were expelled from the site. On April 13, 1950 the Communists closed down all the monasteries in the country and transported the monks and friars to internment camps or put them in prison. Still, that did not stop the devout from making the arduous journeys to the complex. Then, in April of 1978, a fire destroyed part of the site. The police claimed some mischievous children had accidently started the blaze. When the complex was returned to the Redemptorists in 1990, extensive reconstruction took place. Now there are six priests who take care of Holy Mountain.

ImageAs I approached the Holy Mountain complex of buildings, I noticed how austere the exterior looked. I stopped in front of the main gate, called the Prague Gate, which was created in the early 18th century in collaboration with the legendary architect Kryštof Dientzenhofer.  The statuary adorning the gate was spectacular. Seven statues of prophets from the Old Testament and seven busts of saints decorated the balustrade. I spotted Saint Wenceslas, the Czech patron saint, and Saint George, among others.

ImageThe basilica was situated on a terrace in the middle of the courtyard. The terrace was decorated with spectacular statuary. Surrounding the basilica were ambulatories with 16 arcades and four closed, corner chapels. Many open chapels adorned the ambulatories that also featured 21 lunette paintings focusing on the legends and history of Holy Mountain. The 100 paintings on the vaults of the ambulatories portrayed tragedies in which the Holy Virgin of Holy Mountain saved the believers in acts of miracles and grace. One ambulatory featured falling from a tower and falling from a horse, for instance. Other vault decoration portrayed the dangers of the plague, fire and lightning. Catastrophes triggered by water were also represented. The stucco work on the ambulatory chapels was original, though the altar paintings were redone by Jan Umlouf during the late 19th century.

The first closed chapel that we came to was the Prague Chapel, named after the capital city because the Old Town, the New Town and the Lesser Quarter of Prague had contributed funds to have it built. The coats-of-arms from these towns prominently decorated the chapel that harkened back to the late 17th century and early 18th century. The exquisite stucco decoration enthralled me as did the eight paintings of saints on the ceiling, but what really got my attention was the painting decorating the main altar.

ImageIt had been created by my favorite Czech Baroque artist, Petr Brandl. I loved the detail of the fluttering angel clad in dynamic drapery in Brandl’s energetic work, “The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.” The angel’s gaze at the Virgin Mary appeared so protective, yet so fragile. The cupola featured portrayals of eight Czech saints with Saint Wenceslas and Saint Ludmila among them. On one wall I saw a painting of the Saints Cyril and Methodius, Byzantine Greek brothers, who, during the 9th century, introduced the Slavic language to the area that is now the Czech Republic and other regions. I also admired the stucco decoration with garlands and putti.

ImageI explored the open chapels. The Nativity of the Virgin Mary Chapel hailed from the 17th century, with a painting on that theme in the center of the altar.  Saint Catherine and Saint Wenceslas fIanked the main altar. I liked the appearance of the spiraling columns at the sides of the central panel and the white stucco on the ceiling adorned with exquisite, small paintings.

I also studied a painting of a pilgrimage from Prague to Příbram, a journey which had taken three days during the 17th century. I recognized Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge in the background. Those were two sights I rarely visited these days but adored despite the never-ending flow of tourists.

ImageThe Triumphant Virgin Mary Chapel from 1674 was certainly unique. General and Count Jan (Johann) von Sporck had it decorated with symbols of war, such as weaponry.  A general of the Habsburg armies famous for his successes during the Thirty Years’ War of the 17th century, Sporck had certainly proved himself as a military leader, but he was also known for his avarice and cruelty. Serfs disliked him so much that they were convinced he knew witchcraft and had ties with the Devil. His son Count Frantíšek Antonín von Sporck was well-respected for his patronage of the arts.

On the altar Jan von Sporck emphasized the theme of war to the extreme. The paintings featured battles showing the defeated Turks. The central panel featured a soldier wielding a sword and shield showing the head of a Turk.  White with gold stucco decoration included a child fighter armed with a sword in one hand and the head of a Turk in the other. I found the war themes appalling, especially the depiction of the child as a soldier holding a severed head. 

ImageSeeing the altar made me think about all the wars in which the United States had been embroiled during recent years. I have always been against the war with Iraq. I remember watching the beginning of the Iraq war unfold on CNN through the early morning hours, my gaze glued to the battles on the screen, horrified by what I saw, yet unable to turn away. It made me feel sick to my stomach. I did not think that the USA should get involved in Syria’s conflict, though the situation was far from simple. I wondered if there would ever be a time again when the USA would not be at war and if I would be alive to see America at peace.

The open chapel showing the engagement of the Virgin Mary to Saint Joseph portrayed the Holy Virgin receiving Saint Joseph’s ring in the central panel.  Landscapes adorned with stucco were featured on the walls. Landscape depictions during the Baroque period were rare, the guide told me. We also passed musical instruments made of stucco, the violins and trumpets getting most of my attention. Another painting showed a procession of pilgrims with children approaching Holy Mountain.

The closed Březnice Chapel hailed from 1665. The stucco work was impressive. I gazed at the ceiling paintings, showing the flight into Egypt, the burial of Christ, soldiers guarding Christ’s Tomb and other scenes. I wondered who had painted them – the artist was unknown.

I noticed skulls decorating a column of another open altar. Scenes from Hell and sudden death were depicted on the vaults of the ceiling and walls. Another chapel featured the death of the Virgin Mary surrounded by paintings of the 12 apostles on the wall and ceiling.

ImageThen we came to a closed, corner chapel named after the west Bohemian town of Pilsen. The main altar featured a painting of the patron saint of Pilsen, Saint Bartholomew, holding a book. The Virgin Mary of Pilsen and Saint Michael also made appearances. I noticed that Saint Nicholas was clad in elegant, golden robes. Angels accompanied the saints, playing various instruments. I also noticed the exquisite carvings on the benches.

Next we went outside the ambulatories and down to the Chapel of Mary Magdalene, which looked like a cave thanks to artificial stalactites, created in 1665. A statue of Saint Mary Magdalene, who, according to a medieval legend, had lived in a cave for 30 years after Christ’s resurrection, made up the main altar while scenes from her life were painted on the cupola. Figures of other saints surrounded her. The effect of the cave-like room was eerie and creepy, but stunning all the same.  I had never seen anything like it except for a church in a cave in Palermo, Sicily. Outside the guide pointed out one of the 12 crosses on the Stations of the Cross that the devout could follow, saying prayers at each station, symbolically following in the footsteps of Christ to the Cross.

Don’t let me forget the closed chapel called Mníšek. It dated from the late 17th century and early 18th century. Its altar painting showed Saint John of Nepomuk kneeling before the Virgin Mary and hailed from 1871. Statues on the balustrades of the chapel featured saints and angels.

ImageWe continued to the basilica in the middle of the courtyard. I admired its balustrade with impressive statues of Bohemian patron saints and angels. There were three open chapels in the loggia. I liked the Coronation Chapel the best. It hailed from 1667 with stucco adornment, paintings and a marble altar. Twelve paintings representing the 12 sections of the prayer “Ave Maria” caught my attention. Czech saints, apostles, prophets from the Old Testament and archangels were gathered on the ceiling vault. On one side a painting showed the 1732 coronation ceremony of the statuette of the Holy Virgin of Holy Mountain. I wondered what it would have felt like to be at such a formal, lavish celebration during the 18th century. It must have been enthralling to see the figurine decked in golden armor. The ceremony still takes place once a year.

Impressive painting and stucco decorated the Chapel of Saint Joachim and Saint Ann. Paintings showed scenes from the life of the Holy Virgin’s parents. The Chapel of Saint Joseph, which hailed from 1667, featured the altar painting “The Death of Saint Joseph” from 1873.

ImageThe interior was amazing. The Chapel of Saint Ignatius featured 10 paintings of scenes from the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. I noticed a coat-of-arms with a star and eagle and knew it stood for the Šternberk clan, who owned Šternberk Castle not far from Prague. That family had helped finance the building of this altar. Another chapel called the Assumption of the Virgin or the Chapel of Saint Wenceslas featured exquisite stucco adornment and ceiling paintings from the life of Saint Wenceslas.  Silver statues of saints also decorated the space. The Chapel of Saint Elizabeth had exquisite stucco decoration, and the ceiling painting featured Saint John the Baptist with his parents.

The main altar was the big treat, though. Divided into tiers, it glittered silver. The statuette of the Holy Virgin looked so delicate inside the silver box. Silver figures of kneeling angels and Baroque reliefs added to the decoration. The antependium on the front of the altar could be traced back to 1686, and the tabernacle was constructed two years later.

I went to check out the other entrance, the south Březnice Gate. Above the portal was a stone replica of the Holy Virgin of Holy Mountain. Six stone busts from 1707 included Mary Magdalene. The sculptural adornment was undoubtedly impressive.

I said goodbye to the guide and descended the hidden staircase of more than 300 stairs that connected the complex with downtown Příbram. The Jesuits built it from 1727 to 1728 to protect pilgrims from bad weather. It was very austere, without decoration. After exiting the tunnel-like staircase, I walked down some picturesque, narrow streets with ceramic shops and small cafes. Then I came to the main square, where I found a restaurant that served my beloved chicken. After lunch I walked to the bus stop, and transportation to Prague came within five minutes.

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



Plasy Monastery Diary



NOTE: I added photos of the interior from my third visit.

I have been to Plasy twice, both times changing trains in Plzeň (Pilsen). It is only 45 minutes from the home of pilsner beer. The exterior of the building did not impress me, but when I got inside, I was in for a treat.

First, a bit about the history of the monastery: Founded in the 12th century by Prince Vladislav II, Plasy was burned down by the Hussites, followers of the martyr and preacher Jan Hus, in 1421 during the Hussite Wars, which pitted radical Hussites against the more moderate ones teamed up with the Holy Roman Empire, Royalists, Hungary and The Pope. (The Radical Hussites lost, and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund put on the Bohemian crown.) In the 18th century architects J.B. Mathey, Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel and Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer (the younger of the two Dientzenhofers, who hailed from Bavaria but worked in Bohemia during the 18th century) gave it a High Baroque appearance.


Things took a turn for the worst, though, when Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II closed down the monastery in 1785. Austro-Hungarian Empire chancellor, diplomat and politician Klement Václav Lothar Metternich bought it in the early 1800s, and his family tomb is located in the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas) across the street from the monastery, Plasy is also associated with one particular composer: famous Czech Bedřich Smetana spent a week here. He was not the only Czech personality to set foot in Plasy, though: Czech King Václav I (Wenceslas I) also stayed here on several occasions.


At the beginning of the tour, I walked along the 61-meter long Cloister Hallway, boasting eight ceiling frescoes by Jakub Antonín Pink. One tripartite fresco depicted the Virgin Mary offering food to monks while another showed the Virgin Mary helping monks work in the fields. I noticed the modern art on the walls of the hallway: All the paintings shared the theme of Saint Jan Nepomucký (whom English speakers might better know as John Nepomuk). The works of modern art seemed out of place, though.


My group continued to the Chapel of Saint Bernard. Surprisingly, there was no furniture in this room. That was because Metternich sold all of it during his tenure there. Stunning, though, was the high wall painting of Saint Bernard, painted by premiere Czech Baroque artist Petr Brandl, whose works I greatly admired. Saint Bernard was leaning on a rock in a forest as angels flocked above. The ceiling fresco depicted Jesus Christ and the 14 disciples.


The Chapter Hall, measuring 27 meters in height, was designed by famous architect Kilian Ignác Dientzenhofer. This was where new monks used to be accepted, and where monks had cast their votes for new abbots. I glanced up at the ceiling and was impressed with what I saw – a fresco of the Virgin Mary and a gathering of monks. The tour guide told us to bang our fists on one of the wooden benches: The echo would last more than nine seconds, she claimed. She was right.


One step into the first part of the library and I wondered where the books were: In the second part there were indeed three tall bookcases, though one was almost empty. There was a reason for this, the guide explained: Metternich had changed the library into a smoking room and theatre. The first section, the former smoking room, featured a ceiling fresco. What did it depict? Hard to tell. All the smoke that had lingered in the air had turned the fresco black. In the other area Metternich had installed a seating area and stage, but I saw a Secession bureau, the three tall bookcases and a ceiling fresco depicting an allegory concerning medicine, philosophy and theology.

The former circular Reading Room was intriguing, too. It was home to eight larger-than-life canvases by Pink. These 18th century Baroque paintings all dealt with themes about eating and drinking, taken from the Old Testament.


When I walked into Winter Dining Room, I noticed that there were no tables or chairs. Instead, I saw an impressive sculptural grouping of Saint Luitgarda standing in the otherwise empty space. Created by legendary Czech sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun, its original could be seen on Prague’s Charles Bridge. On the far right-hand side, I peeked into a small window of the monastery prison, where monks were sent if they came late for prayer, for instance.


I also viewed two foundation water basins set there because the monastery was so close to the Střela River. These were part of the elaborate water pressure system designed by Czech architect Santini-Aichel, who, in order to give the monastery a firm foundation, constructed the convent on 5,100 oak piles and also created a system of connecting channels as a sort of defense against flooding. He specifically used oak wood because oak hardens in water. It fascinated me that Santini also came up with a unique hydrological system for the monastery.


I didn’t miss the Baroque toilets, which were composed of circular holes in wooden benches. I looked down through the toilet seat and saw water below. On the way to the Hospital Wing, our group stopped at a self-supporting, winding staircase designed by Santini-Aichel, who I knew for his unique Baroque-Gothic style in a church at Sedlec, near Kutná Hora. I stretched my neck to glimpse the ceiling fresco of Archangel Michael fighting a dragon.

Then we moved to the Hospital Wing, where the pharmacy exhibitions were situated. First, I came across the Baroque pharmacy: I noticed the hand-made, exquisitely painted pictures on the drawers. My eyes were especially drawn to the drawer marked “opium.” It was the only one with a lock on it, the guide said.


The Classicist pharmacy featured a white theme: wooden shelves were stocked with white jars, and the glass jars had white labels. All the labels on the drawers were white as well. Before reaching the Secession pharmacy, I stopped in the small hospital chapel. The Virgin Mary and 14 saintly helpers stared down at me from the ceiling. The Secession pharmacy flaunted many decorations of flowers and plants on the walls and cabinets. A chandelier impressed me, too. I liked the glass jars with white labels and the red and green fancy trim.


Then our group left the main building of the monastery, crossed the street, passed the bust of Smetana in the small park and entered the Church of Saint Václav (Wenceslas), where Metternich’s family tomb was located. Originally a Gothic church, it had been reconstructed in Baroque style. Richard Metternich, Klement V. L. Metternich’s son, was the last of the family to be buried in the tomb, during 1938. Several abbots were also buried here.

After the remarkable tour I went to a restaurant nearby and had my usual, chicken with peaches and cheese. Then it was time to return to Prague, so I set off for the small train station. The numerous works of Baroque art had been stunning. Two paintings by master Karel Škréta, a creation by Esther I. Raab and six more canvases by Jan Kryštof Liška also helped to represent the rich Baroque art in the monastery. I better appreciated the differences among the three artistic styles by visiting the pharmacies. The Baroque ceiling and wall frescoes were unforgettable.Image