Monday, October 31, 2011

A selection of exhibits at the National Museum of Medieval and Early Renaissance Art, St Agnes Convent, Old Town, Prague

I have been asked about photography here and they were happy as long as you did not use flash (I was surprised). - or touch the exhibits. On the latter my friend felt the urge to touch something which fascinated him, for a split second apparently. Suddenly alarms went off, there was chatter in Czech over radios, people appeared from several directions and a stern woman appeared shouting at us both "No touch, no touch". I was lagging behind so had not realised what had happened. Needless to say we were not left alone for the rest of the visit upstairs in the gallery although the staff pretended to do other things . He cannot explain why he did it, but this briefest compulsion was directly opposite a security camera apparently and not set off by any sensors. "No touch" became a recurring comment for the rest of the holiday, reducing us to hapless chuckles at times.

St Agnes Convent, Old Town, Prague

This next entry is difficult to write and accordingly I will send a second message about this rather special place. The complex of buildings today date back to the C13, and include the original cloister walks, three chapels confusingly sited together, plus some other convent buildings. It belonged to the Poor Clares, and did not survive the various troubles unscathed and was indeed rebuilt on several occasions including lastly a baroque makeover. However towards the end of the C18 the convent was closed and the buildings fell into disrepair and became workshops and stores. It was even proposed at one time to demolish the entire site. From 1940 there has been careful restoration and de-/re-construction, and today it houses a collection of medieval art from across Central Europe, although mainly from Bohemia and Moravia. The largest church is that of St Salvator with nave and lower apsidal chancel, then adjoining the nave to the south west is that of Our Lady, smaller also with an apse, and to the west of both are the remains of the church of St Francis. The first two churches have been restored back to a medieval appearance and are devoid of furnishings. The latter church has a modern sloping beamed roof and concrete gable, and is a large space often used for concerts. I do not normally like museums but some of the exhibits here are truely stunning, and nearly all have been collected here by the National Gallery from churches across the country. Statues, paintings and reliefs show the stylistic changes over three centuries. I will send a second post of uncaptioned exhibits, but including a haunting depiction of the platter with the head of John the Baptist and the handsome bust reliquary of St Wenceslas himself; who is shown of a similar appearance in all pictures and statues I saw.

Friday, October 28, 2011

St Simon & St Jude (Kostel svatých Šimona a Judy), Old Town, Prague

This is a late C14 hospital chapel, reconstructed twice in the early C17 but some of the walls may be in part original. Mid C18 baroque makeover included the addition of a tower at the east end of the church. Following the second world war the communists used the church as a repository, but in 1990 it was given back to the Order of the Merciful Brethren of John of God who restored the church and improved facilities making this into a premier concert venue for the city. It is now the home of the Prague Symphony Orchestra and was not open to visitors when I called.

Holy Spirit (sv Duch), Old Town, Prague

Built in the first half of the C14, a Benedictine foundation, this is the closest catholic church to the Jewish Quarter, and to the NE is the Spanish Synagogue. Single nave and slightly lower and narrower apsidal chancel. Following a fire in 1689 the church was given a baroque makeover when rebuilt. The tower on the north side of the church dates from 1807. I cam e here on two different days and both times it was locked.

St Nicholas, Old Town, Prague

Along with the Tyn church, probably the most memorable church in the Old Town, gleaming white exterior with dome and two towers and a crowd of black marble statues look down from above. The church is by Dientzhofer and was built 1732-5. All this show is actually along the south side of the church. For forty years this church was used by the Russian Orthodox church but since 1920 it has belonged to the Czech Hussite congregation. On entering the eyes are drawn upward, first to a huge crystal chandelier, and then upward again to an amazing domed space over the nave, or is it a a lantern tower as the space is like a square with chamfered corners? I'll stick with dome I think. After the cathedral and the Tyn church (more later too) this church was the most packed of all the churches I went to.

Church of St Giles (sv Jilji), Old Town, Prague

East of the Charles Bridge is a maze of tiny narrow streets and here is the parish church of St Giles with two dissimilar west towers and a lofty four bayed hall church attached, Gothic originally (1238-1371) but given a baroque makeover in 1731. The church was open and fairly busy as Confessions were being taken. This makes me a little hesitant about taking photographs but in the end I did risk three. The height and relative short length of the church made photography a bit of a challenge.

St Saviour (sv Salvator), Old Town, Prague

The second church by the Charles Bridge is dedicated to St Saviour (shown left with the church of St Francis), and is in the corner of a former Dominican complex which was taken over by the Jesuits and turned into a University Complex, the Clementinum. From the square you first have to cross a busy road running directly in front of the church facade. Given the number of tourists outside in the square, the church was surprisingly quiet and empty. There is a large metal screen which I suspect is often locked but for my visit these were open and a lady manned a souvenir and information desk but there was no charge to enter. The church may incorporate parts of the medieval Dominican church (St Bartholomew) and I suspect its plan which is entirely medieval, cruciform with aisles, transepts, central tower and long apsidal chancel. The reconstructed church was begun in 1579 and completed in 1602, but then received a baroque makeover 1649-54 when the upper floor to the aisles was built with the pretty balustrades and the central octagonal lantern was added. The final embellishments were the twin towers flanking the east end with their onion domes.

St Francis of Assisi, Old Town, Prague

On the Stare Mesto (Old Town) side of the Charles Bridge there is a small square which was perpetually thronged with tourists. Here are two churches, that of St Francis and another to St Saviour (or Salvator - top left). St Francis is built on a medieval site and replaced a church dedicated to the Holy Spirit. In common with other Prague churches entry was permitted to the west end only and photography was not allowed, but a sweet young girl at the door said I could take some but "no flash". In common with other places it seems the sheer number of visitors means that stopping photography is nigh on impossible, but there are good reasons why flash photography is discouraged as it is said to damage paintings and murals. The church was built 1679-85 and is basically a large square in which is set four pillars supporting a dome above and thus creating a cruciform interior with corner side chapels. The dome has a fresco depicting the Last Judgement.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sunday Morning Prague

St Ursula (sv Vorsila), Narodni, Nove Mesto, Prague

Close by this church in the street "Narodni" the 1989 Velvet Revolution began where crowds of students marched from the river towards Wenceslas Square to find their way blocked by Communist riot police. The students sat down and some handed out flowers to the police. Without warning the police attacked and beat the students although thankfully no-one died. Within days the number of protestors gathering swelled to half a million and to other cities. Within two weeks the communist government had resigned. Today it is again a busy main street with trams. The church dates from 1699-1704 and is remarkable for the surviving original statues adorning the exterior. The single naved interior is richly decorated and as I arrived a service led by a trio of elderly nuns was finishing. The church was well lit but within five minutes the lights were all extinguished and all plunged into a comparative gloom.

St Martin in the Wall (sv Martina ve sdi), Stare Mesto, Prague

Tucked away down a maze of small streets is this medieval church, which was a Romanesque foundation and became cut off from the larger part of its parish in the C13 when the Old Town was walled, the church's south side being right on the wall (hence the name). It was much rebuilt in the C14 and C15, and inside - apparently - are some original C12 arches. There are some baroque embellishments (such as the north doorway) but the church was restored back to its Gothic appearance in 1906. I came here twice, once a concert was in progress and the second it was locked. It is a Protestant church. 

St Ludmila (kostel svaté Ludmily), Vinohrady, Prague

A very prominent hilltop church, neo-Gothic, 1888-93 with twin west spires and by the same architect as St Peter and St Paul (Josef Mocker, also responsible for the completion of Prague Cathedral). A long avenue leads upwards from the river to the west front, and the church is prominent in views from Prague Castle but not from the riverside. This was quite a walk from Visehrad, and the roads we took did not offer any further churches, but consulting a map had we taken a road a little to the south I would have passed two or three more! A crowd was gathered in the square in front of the church, and a large flea market was in progress. The church steps were lined with people in suits and finery as a wedding was just chucking out - good news as this meant I could see inside the church for sure, although I suspect it is normally open for visitors. I preferred the interior of this church to St Peter & St Paul, the decoration scheme was more muted, the side windows larger and the pillars slimmer and better proportioned. I snapped away until a funny man came scuttling up the nave to where I had just taken my last picture "no photo, no photo". Tough! No delete no delete ;-)

Vysehrad, Prague

The only two residents of the cemetery that I knew of, plus the view from the walls towards the centre of the city.

St Peter & St Paul. Vysehrad, Prague

My friend Jamie recommended coming here for its setting, its views and comparative peace and quiet (to the centre of the city). To be honest one glimpse of this twin spired church high on a cliff alongside the Vltava river would have attracted me here without a recommendation. The area around the church is flat and heavily fortified, with a park to the south and a cemetery of notable Czechs to the north and east. The church is the third on the site, a Gothic village church was followed by a baroque but still humble larger church, before the present neo-Gothic basilica was built 1885-87. There was an entry charge and a fierce woman was enforcing the no photography signs. The interior was rather dark and gloomy at first before the eyes adjusted to admire the series of wall paintings, frescoes and decoration. However everyone must take a break and luckily this lady took a brief (toilet?) break away from the desk leaving me with a short opportunity to brace the camera against the west doorway. He He! Not sure if I really liked this church overmuch inside, it is more impressive outside and from afar.

Trinity Church, Podskali, Prague

An odd looking church thanks to its bulbous turret over the east end in competition with the later west tower. This is a medieval church of a poor parish, often destroyed and renovated, in particular 1728-9 when the dedication was changed from St Antony, and 1781-82 (the date of the tower). It was locked.

St John Nepomuk at Skalka (Kostel svatého Jana Nepomuckého na Skalce), Prague

Another church by Dientzhofer, this one dating from 1730-38. It stands just to the east of the Emauzy Abbey church, across the road which drops steeply downhill between the churches. This gave the church the opportunity to construct two staircases to the west door which are decorated with figures of saints (far left in the photo - the other stairs belong to the hotel next door which may have been linked to the church originally). This church is also distinctive in having two west towers, rotated 45 degrees, and thus placed diagonally to the facade. Sadly the church gates were locked and chained and restoration work was in progress on the north side. However maybe the church is open when the Emauzy Abbey is open during the week; sadly time did not permit a return here to find out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Emmaus Abbey (Emauzy), Podskali, Prague

The abbey church has the dubious distinction of being the most important historical building damaged in the Second World War US bombing of the city when it was mistaken by one lost air group of 60 planes for Dresden, their intended target. Founded in 1347, the abbey is sadly not open to visitors at the weekends. There are gothic cloisters with paintings, and the abbey church itself has remains of wall paintings in the aisles. It was baroquised in the 1718, but returned to Gothic / neo-Gothic form in the 1880s. The Benedictines, having been evicted by the Germans during the war (when the abbey became a Red Cross hospital), started to rebuild after the war but were then evicted by the communists. The building was rebuilt in the 1960s and given a distinctive pair of twisting concrete spires which I rather like. The monks returned in 1990 and the church was reopened for services in 2003. NW of the west door (which was open) is a small baroque church about which I have discovered nothing. It was also locked.

St Wenceslas (sv Vaclav), Smichov, Prague

South of Mala Strana, and south of our hotel, is the area of Smichov with its huge Staropramen brewery, Andel shopping centres, and a large Italianate church of 1881-85 with twin west towers. The church was open and rather impressive inside and out. Classical in style, it belongs more to the well-mannered churches of Rome, and gone are the baroque and rococo excesses in decoration of previous years.