Episode 368 -Kutná Hora

The four of us headed out on a full day private today (November 22), guided again by Šarka through Tours By Locals. Our destination was Kutná Hora, once a rich silver mining town that was actually in the running to become the capital of what is now the Czech Republic. Prague prevailed in that role, largely because of its location on a river. Once silver mining was no longer viable, Kutná Hora receded into the background, along with its two cathedrals and Italianate royal court. Now those buildings are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Kutná Hora’s fame today, as a city of only around 20,000 people, is largely due to its “bone church”.

The Gothic Church of All Saints dates to the late 14th century, and was arranged over 2 storeys: the upper containing the chapel (“heaven”) and the lower an ossuary (“hell”). Visitors are encouraged to visit hell first, lest they seal their own fate by choosing hell over heaven as their final destination. The lower level was the site of the communal graves of over 70,000 people, about 30,000 of whom died of famine in 1318, another 30,000 in the plague of 1348, and up to 10,000 during the Hussite Wars at the beginning of the 15th century.

The exterior of the church, showing its 2 levels. Note the skull motif on the side spires.

Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Italian architect Jan Blažej Santini Aichel (known simply as Santini) began the project of turning all those bones into pyramids and divine designs, the premise being that all of the intermixed bones of unknown victims of disaster would be honoured on equal footing regardless of their social status in life. The more elaborate and somewhat fanciful Romantic style elements were added in the 19th century by František Rint.

The church was NOTHING like what I expected. (Note: no photos allowed inside, so the only pictures Ted got were from the open doorway.) What could have been creepy was actually quite beautiful, with a central chandelier made of bones, skull garlands, and an angel made of bones, as well as wall decorations which included a huge Schwartzenberg family crest. Each of the 4 corners of the lower level contains a vast pyramid of bones, held together only by the arrangement of their shapes, i.e. no adhesive. The bones of one of the pyramids were in the process of being cleaned, with archeological staff painstakingly fitting them back together.

The few designs visible from the door do not nearly reflect the beauty or intricacy of those inside, but all of the elements are considered “memento mori” (reminders that death comes to everyone)

In the upstairs chapel is a working bellows organ with the bellows on top of the instrument. We’ve definitely never seen that before.

After leaving the “bone church” we walked through Kutná Hora past a LEGO café/museum/store/hotel en route to one of the city’s two cathedrals.

Al and I got into the spirit of the LEGO creations.

The Gothic exterior of the Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady and St John the Baptist.

The Cathedral was a former Cistercian Monastery, founded in 1142, burnt down during the Hussite Wars, and rebuilt in the 18th century by Santini (of bone church fame).

Inside it holds the original Šedlec Monstrance, the oldest surviving monstrance (relic holder) in the world.

When the monastery was burnt down, the monks in it perished. Their skulls are on display in the church, as are the relics of St. Vincent of Saragossa and St. Felix.

What is really interesting about these full body relics (although apparently not as unique as I’d thought) is that they have “faces” that are basically wax death masks attached to their skulls. For me, the strangest/creepiest aspect of bone relics is always that they are dressed.

There was gorgeous art in the church, including polychrome wooden statues, a delicately carved and painted wooden altar, and a piéta in which Mary’s face was unspeakably sad.

We were able to climb the spiral staircase, which has no central pillar but is supported only by the walls, to go into the upper gallery across from the organ, and walk through some of the roof construction area.

Bottom: 5 of the 13 apostolic statues that adorned the church prior to it being destroyed by fire. There is a legend that says that if all 13 figures are ever restored to the church roof, a great treasure will be revealed.

The next place we visited merited lots of time: The Cathedral of Saint Barbara. Construction of this UNESCO world heritage site began in 1388, and continued – with several interruptions – until 1905, meaning that it is Gothic/Baroque/Neo-Gothic/Classic Revival … and lovely.

The actual cathedral (top), and the scale models (bottom) show just how impressive the construction is. Note the many flying buttresses along both sides.

While Passau’s baroque St. Stephen’s with its hundreds of angels remains my favourite church, the windows in Saint Barbara’s are the most beautiful I have ever seen. They all date to around 1890-1925 as part of the building’s restoration, and look incredibly like Art Deco period Tiffany stained glass, with floral designs and sinuous vines framing the figures. Interesting, too, are the modern themes: many of the windows include representations of working miners, the “common citizenry” of Kutná Hora.

We noticed that the cathedral itself appears in many of the windows! In this particular one (below), the cathedral is being presented to Saint Barbara, symbolic of its dedication to her.

The architectural framing of the windows is interesting too. Each window has a different “cut-out” pattern in the stone at the top of the arch, which is also something we’ve not noticed elsewhere.

Frescoes from the 14th and 15th centuries have been uncovered. In accordance with UNESCO rules, the “empty” areas cannot simply be painted in/restored without specific documentation as to their original subject matter and colours. Again, the local miners are honoured in the cathedral’s artwork.

Once again we were able to access the upper galleries, this time via wide stone stairs. Upstairs we got a close-up look at the flying buttresses, the organ’s golden angel decorations and its wooden and metal pipes, and a display of casts from gargoyles and decorations spanning the full building period.

We’ve never been at the level of flying buttresses before to see their detail.

Looking down into the workings of the pipe organ.

L to R: plaster cast of one of the cathedral’s 14th century gargoyles; cast of an early 19th century man’s portrait from exterior decoration; two winged angels carrying the miners’ coat of arms (guild crest)

The nave ceiling is decorated with guild and family crests.

Top left: a polychrome wooden statue on the ground floor of the cathedral. Top right & bottom left: wooden statues from the altar decoration, decorated with silver and gold paint (not gold leaf). Bottom right: an original wooden statue of Saint Barbara, now on display in the upper gallery.

Before we left Kutná Hora, we got a peek inside the 15th century Corpus Christi Chapel adjacent to The Cathedral of Saint Barbara. This is the basement of the chapel, originally intended as an ossuary. It is among the few structures preserved intact from the late Gothic period.

On our way back to our guide’s van we walked across Kutná Hora’s bridge leading past the old Jesuit monastery/college. Back when Kutná Hora was vying with Prague for the status of capital city, this bridge with its statues was designed to mimic Prague’s Charles Bridge.

Top: the Jesuit college. Bottom: the Kutná Hora bridge.

It was damp and cold. We were frozen.
But we still had fun and enjoyed being together.

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