I waited to schedule day trips outside Prague, because there was so much to do in Prague proper. During this trip, I’ve seen and learned many new things! Last week, I booked a day tour of two castles, Karlestejn and Konopiště, but the trip was cancelled.
Another choice was Kutná Hora, a UNESCO-listed medieval town known for its majestic gothic Cathedral of St. Barbara. It’s about an hour east of Prague via train. I opted in, since I’ve long been fascinated with ancient religious sites.
Although it was another fast-paced tour with an ambitious, hectic itinerary, I was glad the day involved walking – exercise for body and mind. We met in Old Town, and on the way to Praha Hlavni Nadrazi, walked by iconic landmarks like Old Town Square, Czech National Bank, Powder Tower, Church of St. James, Municipal House, and Jerusalem Synagogue. There were ten in the group, mostly Europeans. All were great company.
Kutná Hora was a new experience for me. Its significance and history are fascinating. We learned much while touring the medieval town. At 3 p.m. we stopped at a Czech restaurant for late lunch. We focused on four extraordinary sites:
- Cemetery Church of All Saints and the Ossuary Bone Chapel
- Church of Saint James
- St. Barbara’s Cathedral
- Italian Court
There were other Kutná Hora points of interest, but not enough time to explore them:
- Cathedral of Assumption of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist
- Jesuit College Park
- Corpus Christi Chapel
- Hradek Museum of Silver
Kutná Hora History
During the Middle Ages, Kutná Hora was known as the “silver treasury of the Czech kingdom”. Today, it still exhibits the wealth of Czech “silver nobility“. In 1995, the town was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Sedlec – The Roman Catholic Parish at Kutná Hora consists of three primary buildings. All have dramatic history, including wars and invasions. Some were destroyed and rebuilt:
- Roman Catholic Cemetery Church of All Saints with Ossuary – Underground Chapel
- Sedlec Cathedral – The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. John the Baptist
- St. Peter’s Church of St. James – Romanesque Church
Jan Blažej Santini Baroque Gothic Architect
At the beginning of the 18th century, Jan Blažej Santini, a renowned Baroque Gothic architect, was contracted to restore the Cistercian Abbey and make architectural alterations to the underground ossuary. Founded in 1142, Cistercian is the oldest abbey in Bohemia.
“The church’s imaginative and bizarre decorations include a chandelier composed of all the bones of the human body”.
Ossuoric Cemetery Church
The cemetery church is a two-floor charnel-type building from the 14th century. Photography is not allowed inside the ossuary, so I’ve used media shots in this post. The world-famous Ossuoric, an underground chapel of the Cemetery Church of All Saints, is one of Central Bohemia’s most visited monuments. Originally part of the Cistercian Abbey, it was built in the 14th century as a karner and consists of two chapels built on top of each other. The structure “follows designs from Hakeldama Field in Jerusalem”. The bodies of pilgrims buried there were said to miraculously decompose in 24 hours.
According to legend, one of the local abbots was sent by the Czech king to Jerusalem around the year 1278. The abbot visited legendary Golgotha and brought back a handful of clay soil to scatter over the grounds of Sedlec cemetery.
Soil from the Holy Land was used for consecrating and healing, so the oldest monastery cemetery in Central Europe became a Holy Field. It was a much sought-after burial ground.”
After the Black Death of 1318 and during the Hussite Wars, the cemetery was expanded. Deceased victims of famine and plague epidemics were buried there. The cemetery was abolished at the end of the 15th century. “A semi-blind peasant monk folded exhumed bones stored inside and outside the chapel into six large pyramids.”
“Over 30,000 were buried in Sedlec after the Black Plague in 1318, with another 10,000 deceased finding their final resting place at the cemetery.” In total, the cemetery is said to contain the bones of over 60,000 people.
Sedlec monastery was dissolved by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II in 1784, and the property was sold at auction. The abbey was purchased and refurbished by the Schwarzenberg family from Orlík. They renewed Sedlec Ossuary and its Baroque bone decoration.
In 1870, František Rint from Česká Skalice, a Czech woodcarver, “disinfected and bleached the bones using chlorinated lime”. He then placed them back into their original patterns:
- A chandelier in the middle of the chapel
- Schwarzenberg Coat of Arms
Cathedral – Sedlec
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist is a “rare and unique UNESCO monument”. It was built between 1290 and 1302 and is a “convent temple of the oldest Cistercian abbey in Bohemia”.
The cathedral “combines Northern French Gothic cathedral architecture with German elements”. The construction of the temple began under Abbott Heidenreich. It stemmed from the economic growth of the Cistercian Monastery, after development of silver mining in the area.
The original structure was a cathedral and the largest sacral building in Bohemia and Moravia. It was a massive early Gothic stone building in the shape of a Latin cross. In 1421, the local Cistercian Monastery and temple were ransacked and burned down by Hussite troops. The cathedral’s original appearance wasn’t preserved.
The temple remained in ruins for 279 years, but was restored under Abbott Henry Snopek in the 1700s. The architect of the first stage of the reconstruction was Pavel Ignác Bayer, followed by Jan Blažej Santini who “realized his architectural ideas of Baroque Gothic on the temple”.
Sculptural work was carried out by Matěj Václav Jäckel. Most of the original statues are still located inside the temple. Parts of the monastery became a flour warehouse, and in 1812, a tobacco factory. The tobacco factory still exists, and is owned by the Philip Morris Group.
The temple was returned to church use in 1806. After extensive reconstruction through the Programme for the Preservation of Architectural Heritage of the Czech Republic. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and reopened to the public in 2009.
St. Peter’s Church James
St. Peter’s Church James was built between 1148 and 1156 as a traditional building. It’s original features and “artistically rich exterior makes it one of the most important Romanesque sacral buildings in Bohemia”.
The altar’s authenticity is verified by a written document inserted into the altar canteen by Prague Bishop Daniel I, together with the remains of saints. This important document was “found in 1846 in the front wall of the grandstand along with a lead box”. It’s stored at the National Museum in Prague. According to Bishop Daniel, King Vladislav II and Queen Judith personally participated in the edification of the church in 1165.
The church’s southern façade is especially unique, because of a “high artistic level that was rare in the Czech Republic at the time”. The sandstone decoration represents the Czech Republics “largest preserved set of sculptures from the Romanesque period”. The original construction date is unknown.
In 2020, after the bell tower and the interior staircase were reconstructed, the church was opened to the public. Construction was carried out “using the original carpenter method, without modern technology”. From the tower, there’s a beautiful view of the Iron Mountains and the surrounding towns of Čáslav and Kutna Hora.
St. Barbara Cathedral
The Cathedral of St. Barbara is a “jewel of the Late Gothic period and one of the four cathedral-type buildings in Bohemia“. The cathedral dates back to the second half of the 14th century. It was the most spectacular building we toured! I’ve never seen a more beautiful cathedral!
To proclaim their wealth, rich Kutná Hora burghers built the church dedicated to St. Barbara, patron saint of miners. The first builders of the “generously designed Gothic building” included medieval architect Peter Parléř from the Parléř family. Completed in the early 20th century, the church has a late Gothic interior, with an exquisite wreath of spectacular chapels behind the altar and magnificent stained-glass windows!
The cathedral’s splendor is a “tangible testament to the fame and silver riches of Kutná Hora and the deep devotion of its creators”. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, together with the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady and St John the Baptist and the historical centre of Kutná Hora.
“Miners contributed the most to the medieval town of Kutná Hora blossoming, and the construction of St. Barbara’s cathedral, which they dedicated to their holy protectress.”
Virgin Barbara was an “early Christian martyr”. She was invoked as a helper in need, an intercessor for a good death, and a patron of all who carry on dangerous occupations, especially miners”.
The cathedral was created by “ingenious artists and builders,” including famous architect Benedikt Ried. Construction was “temporarily suspended in the mid-16th century, when Kutná Hora’s mines ran out of silver”.
In later centuries, there was a wave of reconstruction of the cathedral‘s fixtures in Baroque style. The cathedral‘s present-day appearance “dates back to the 19th and 20th centuries, when the church underwent regothisation and total restoration”.
St. Barbara has “rare Gothic frescoes and stone-cutting art”. Many generations of artisans left their mark on the magnificent cathedral. The main nave is dominated by a Renaissance pulpit with baroque paneling, altars, and sculptures. The structure is embellished with striking medieval frescoes, flying buttresses, paintings, and stained-glass!
Our last point of tour, the Italian Court, is the former royal mint and palace. It’s a “national cultural monument of pan-European significance with a thousand-year history”. In 1300, King Wenceslas II converted the Kutná Hora settlement into a royal mint and introduced a new coin, the Prague groschen.
“The Italian Court was known as the “jewel in the crown of Czech kings.”
King Wenceslas IV often stayed at Kutná Hora and “adapted the Italian Court to the needs of a royal residence”. He added a royal palace and the Chapel of St Wenceslas. The new royal residence became the venue for important and historical Czech events. In 1471, Polish Prince Vladislav Jagiello was elected King of Bohemia at Kutná Hora.
At the end of the 19th century, a more extensive and costly neo-Gothic reconstruction was completed. It “gave the Italian Court its present appearance, restoring its original nobility, lustre, and grandeur”. The Italian Court houses the royal palace, town hall, minting exhibition, audience hall, and a Gothic chapel with art-nouveau murals.
It was a full day, with way too much information to absorb. For me, the most interesting discovery was the Cathedral of St. Barbara, an absolute marvel to behold! Another person in the group offered to take photos of me during the tour. Unbelievably, none of them turned out, which was disappointing. Photos or not, I’ll long remember the fascinating town of Kutná Hora. I leave Prague tomorrow morning and will post from Novi Sad along the Danube River.