Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle

St. Vitus Cathedral

St. Vitus Cathedral is a church that adorns the historic center of the Czech capital; it is the dominant feature of Prague Castle. This is one of the most famous fortresses in Europe: the original medieval Gothic style is organically combined with Baroque elements and skilful Neo-Gothic stylizations. Travelers who have been to Western European churches like Notre Dame de Paris have a strong impression of the spectacular, but somewhat gloomy art of the Middle Ages. St. Vitus cathedral, bursting with light, completely destroys this stereotype. As it turns out, the Gothic can not only remind us of the insignificance of man, but also inspire us and give us new strength.

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History of St. Vitus Cathedral

As is typical of many religious buildings, St. Vitus Cathedral did not arise from nothing. About 4 centuries before it, a compact round Romanesque church was built, later a larger basilica where the monarchs of the first Czech Przemyslovich dynasty were crowned. The new building, founded in 1344, had equally serious tasks: the cathedral was to be a coronation and burial place for royalty, and also the main treasury of the country.

St. Vitus Cathedral Eastern part of the cathedral Neo-Gothic elements of the cathedral coexist with XX century bas-reliefs

Originally the project was designed by the famous Flemish architect Matthias of Arras, but because of his death the task was taken over by the German architect Peter Parlerz, who had defined the architectural appearance of the entire historic center of Prague. His works include the Charles Bridge and the Church of All Saints in Prague, as well as many smaller churches in Bohemia and Germany. The new master was an experienced sculptor, so he emphasized the volumetric decoration of the cathedral. By the end of his life he managed to finish only a part of the transept and the choir. The architect’s sons finished the southern side of the temple and a part of the tower. He did not manage to complete what was started, too was the scale of the plan. In the next centuries, the construction progressed very slowly for financial reasons or because of the war.

In XV-XVI centuries the work on the St. Vitus Cathedral was continued by architects B. Reith and B. Wolmuth. Thanks to their efforts the northern part of the cathedral with the tower was built, which allowed in the still unfinished temple to hold services and ceremonies.

The construction of the cathedral was completed only in the early XX century. The western part was finished according to the design by Peter Parlerz Czech architects. The basic works on the decoration of the temple were finished by 1929.

Name of the cathedral

St. Vitus, the patron saint of the temple, was a Roman martyr from the early days of Christianity. In 1997, in honor of the thousandth anniversary of the death of Bishop Adalbert of Prague, or, in Czech tradition, Vojtech, the cathedral received a new name, St. Vitus, Vaclav and Vojtech. Wenceslas is also a significant figure: he is a prince of the Přemyslovich family, the patron saint of Bohemia. Tourists, however, still use the old name by which the temple became world famous.

The significance of the temple for modern Bohemia

Each new era added its own characteristic features to St. Vitus Cathedral. A new outburst of patriotic feelings in the nineteenth century forced the Czechs once again to return to the question of the completion of the building. A group of architects, connoisseurs of Gothicism, designed the western part of the building as close to the original as possible. Bright stained glass windows in the northern part of the cathedral appeared in the twentieth century. Finally, it was not until 1929 that construction was officially completed. Now it is the largest museum and religious center of the capital, an organ hall with wonderful acoustics, a repository of Czech history and a symbol of national unity. It is still the site of important ceremonies, such as the farewell ceremony for Vaclav Havel, the first president of the Czech Republic.

Facade Elements of St. Vitus Cathedral The interior of St. Vitus Cathedral

Architectural features

You can appreciate the gigantic size of the building from afar when you admire the panorama of Prague. Up close because of the dense square construction it is impossible to take a complete picture of the entire building with its dark Gothic walls and baroque copper domes covered with patina. To appreciate the beauty of the cathedral one has to walk around with his eyes raised to heaven – perhaps that was the architects’ intent. The length of the temple is 124 m, height of towers is from 82 to 96,5 m. The circular rosette window on the facade of the cathedral, one of the last additions of the XX century, reaches 10 m in diameter.

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Interior of the Cathedral of St. Vitus

The grandeur of the building is fully appreciated once inside. The high vaults, lancet arches and windows, preserved since the Middle Ages, the mysterious galleries in the side aisles, separated from the main space by powerful columns, can be viewed for hours. Light enters the cathedral through colorful stained-glass windows based on biblical history. The most recent ones were made by craftsmen based on sketches by Alphonse Mucha, the greatest Czech artist of the Art Nouveau era. In the upper tiers, a balcony with busts runs along the perimeter of the temple: not only monarchs and figures of the church, but also architects who participated in the construction are depicted for history.

Tombstone of Jan Nepomutsky in silver Ceiling of the Cathedral of St. Vitus The circular rose window

Royal Regalia

St. Vitus Cathedral is still the repository of royal treasures, even though the Czech Republic has long ceased to be a monarchy. The St. Wenceslas Chapel, built during the reign of Charles IV by Peter Parlerz (completed by 1367), is called the treasury of Gothic art. Here rests the body of the eternal ruler and protector of the country, and above the chapel in the Crown Chamber is carefully guarded from prying eyes the golden crown of Saint Wenceslas, consisting of 4 heraldic lines decorated with large stones – blood-red spinels and rubies, bottomless blue sapphires and dark green emeralds. The legend says that the one who will wear it will not live a year. It is said that only Hitler’s protector R. Heydrich dared to wear it, and in less than a year he was killed in an assassination attempt (1942). The masterpiece of jewelry art, slightly overstuffed with jewels, was created in the XIV century, the more modest orb with reliefs from the history of King David and Adam and the scepter – somewhat later. The relics are not on display more than once a decade, but exact copies of the monarch’s regalia are on display for the comfort of tourists. You can see them in the Sejm Hall, in the Old Royal Palace, located right at the southern wall of the cathedral.

The vault of the temple is supported by 28 columns. Twenty masters at various times created stained glass paintings for the temple, among them the modernist Alphonse Mucha. The organ of St. Vitus Cathedral is considered one of the most beautiful in Europe.

The walls of the chapel are decorated with intricate frescoes and decorated with gold and mosaic of semi-precious stones. In the middle is the figure of St. Wenceslas in martial armor.

Stained-glass window by Alphonse Mucha

In the chapels of the choir one can see the tombstones of Czech rulers and bishops. In the Chapel of St. Mary Magdalene rest the remains of Matthias of Aras and Peter Parlerz. In the chapel of Jan Nepomuk there is a tombstone made of silver and weighing about two tons. In all, there are 23 chapels in the cathedral.

The space of the temple is divided in two by the triforium. This balcony-gallery divides the Cathedral of St. Vitus horizontally into an earthly part and a heavenly sphere. The triforium contains busts of representatives of royal dynasties, archbishops and the architects who built the cathedral.

In front of the main altar, created in the 19th century by artists Kranner and Moker, is a white marble tombstone by Dutchman Molina (1589). Its lid is decorated with relief images of Ferdinand I, his wife Anna Jagiellonka, and their son Maximilian II. This is the above-ground part of the mausoleum – below is the royal crypt. The entrance to it opens from the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

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Once down in the crypt, visitors will see the remains of the foundation of the old rotunda, discovered by archaeologists. The royal crypt with the sarcophagi of Charles IV, Wenceslas IV, Jiří of Podebrady, Rudolf II and other Czech rulers can also be found here.

St. Vitus Cathedral is one of the must-see sites during a tour of Prague Castle.

Crypt of St. Vitus Cathedral The square in front of the cathedral

For tourists

The Cathedral is open for visitors from 9 am to 6 pm during peak tourist season from April to October. From November to March it closes earlier, at 16 hours. On Sunday, visitors are welcomed from noon. Entrance to the Cathedral of St. Vitus is free, but to see all the chapels and the secret rooms can only be part of a paid guided tour of Prague Castle. Acquaintance with the so-called “small district” costs 250 Czech crowns, the “big” – 350. There are organ music concerts with a special time schedule, which you can check on the official website.

How to get there

Prague Castle is closed to transport, so tourists have to walk a lot. To get to St. Vitus Cathedral the best way is to get off at the streetcar stop on route 22 “Prague Castle”. The streetcar in Prague is the main mode of public transport on a par with the subway; during the working hours of the temple, it runs strictly according to a schedule on average once every 10 minutes. From the bus stop you walk about 300 meters to the south, turning east just behind the Prague Castle Picture Gallery. If you have energy left after seeing the cathedral, you can for 150 crowns visit this interesting museum with paintings by Titian and Rubens.

St. Vitus Cathedral – a Gothic architectural masterpiece

St. Vitus Cathedral is a landmark of Prague, the pride and national monument of Czech Republic. It dominates the third courtyard of Prague Castle and thanks to its almost 100 meter height it is clearly visible even from the opposite bank of the Vltava River.

St. Vitus Cathedral

“The Cathedral of St. Vitus, Wenceslas and Vojtěch” is the official name of the world famous Prague landmark. For centuries, it has been home to the baptisms, coronations and weddings of the kings of Bohemia and the archbishops of Prague.

Historical background

The history of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague is very old, perhaps even earlier than the construction of the building.

Before the reigning princes of the land began to forcibly introduce Christianity at the end of the 9th century, there was a temple of Svyatovit. Svyatovit was a pagan deity of war, and was revered by the local population as the supreme god.

St. Vitus Cathedral

Since Christianity did not take root very well, in the early years of the X century, Prince Wenceslas resorted to cunning: where the temple of Svyatovit was, he erected the rotunda of St. Vitus. The logic behind such actions was as follows: if one worshipped Svyatovit, one would pray to St. Vitus.

Synopsis! Vitus (290-303) was a young man about whose life no reliable information has survived. According to an ancient legend, while in Rome, Vitus cast out demons from one of the noble citizens of the city. When Vitus did not want to pray to the Roman gods, he was executed.

Prince Wenceslas, who was killed in 935, was buried in the rotunda of St. Vitus. A couple of years later, he was canonized and became the first deeply revered saint in Bohemia. The rotunda (diameter 13 meters), as the place where St. Wenceslas was buried, was remodeled and completed as a basilica in 1060-1096. Besides the already mentioned St. Vitus and St. Wenceslas, the new shrine was also dedicated to St. Vojtěch.

Synopsis! Vojtech (955-997) was the second bishop of Prague who was well respected in Bohemia, Poland, Hungary and Germany for his zealous service to the Church.

Charles IV

Charles IV of Luxembourg

King Charles IV of Luxembourg, who wanted to turn Prague into the best European city, decided to build a new great religious building on the site of the former rotunda. By the way, the ruins of the walls and the foundation of the rotunda have been preserved to this day.

The construction of the St. Vitus Cathedral was not easy and lasted for 6 centuries: it began in the middle of the XIV century, and was completed only in the middle of the XX century. During this time there were many events: the Hussite wars which hindered the construction, the fire which destroyed part of the building, the Revolt of the estates, the artillery bombardments during the War of the Austrian Succession and even a lightning strike that destroyed the dome of the bell tower. There are many articles on the Internet about the history of the construction of the religious shrine, but now let’s just name the architects who made it exist:

  • The Flemish Matthieu of Arass – who managed to create the design and in 1344 laid the foundation of the cathedral in the place where the rotunda had been;
  • Peter Parlezhar of Swabia – at the age of 23, he led the construction work;
  • Peter Parležar’s sons, Jan, Petr and Václav Parležr, continued their father’s work;
  • Master Petrilk completed the bell tower and the Golden Gate;
  • Benedict Reit worked from 1566 to 1561;
  • Vorclav Pesina and Josef Kranner developed a plan for the completion of the building and carried out repairs to parts of the building that already existed (from 1844 to1866):
  • Josef Mocker did the renovation from 1873-1899;
  • Camille Gilbert was the last architect to complete the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral in 1929.
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Architecture and exterior

It is possible to assess the magnitude of the construction only from a distance. The square is very densely built up, which makes it impossible to grasp the whole view and get a complete photo of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Dimensions of the building, of course, are astonishing: the length is 124 m, and the towers have a height of 82 to 96.5 m.

The façade of St. Vitus Cathedral

Tip: If this is your first time touring St. Vitus Cathedral, be sure to approach it from the main entrance to Prague Castle. The building appears in front of you completely unexpectedly, amazed by its grandiosity and power!

You should not hurry to go inside, the structure should be walked around. The picturesque facades look like stone lace in which branches, leaves, and flowers are intertwined. And the expressive figures of chimeras and gargoyles decorating the gutters are guards, scaring away evil spirits.

West Facade

Now enter St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague through one of three entrances, which are arranged on the west facade. The doors of the central entrance are made of bronze and are covered with reliefs depicting the construction of the church, while the side doors depict events from the lives of Prince Wenceslas and St. Vojtěch.

Above the central portal there is a very beautiful stained glass window-rose (10 m in diameter), showing plots about the creation of the world.

On both sides of the stained glass window, above the side entrances, majestic twin towers rush upward at 82 meters.

On the south side is the main ceremonial portal used by the clergy of the high priesthood only on special occasions – the Golden Gate. The gate is so called because of the unique mosaic over the arches, made of gold-plated glass and multicolored smalt. To create such a creation, Venetian craftsmen made more than 1,000,000 small mosaic tiles in 33 colors.

Golden Gate

Golden Gate

In the center of the mosaic picture is Jesus Christ performing the Last Judgment, and the intercessors of the Czech land crying out for mercy. On the right side of the painting are the saved believers, and on the left is the ungodly sent to hell.

It is impossible not to mention the original fence in front of the Golden Gate of St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle. On the lattice you can see 12 stylized architectural compositions showing various crafts for all the signs of the Zodiac. The subject matter is really unique, because the Church has always been against astrology.

South Bell Tower

South Bell Tower

On the south façade of the cathedral is the South Bell Tower. Crowning the tower, which reaches a height of 97 m, is a shining Czech lion on a spire 3 m high.

At the height of the second tier, hidden by elegant gilded bars, are the bells. Sigismund, cast in the 16th century, is the largest and heaviest bell in Bohemia, 2m high and weighing between 14 and 16 tons. “Sigismund is rung only on the biggest holidays and on special occasions (e.g. during the visit of the Pope to Prague). Other ancient and significant bells are “Wenceslas” (4500 kg) and “John the Baptist” (3500 kg).

Tip: Go on a tour on Sundays, by 9:45 or 11:59 when the bells chime over the Prague Castle. The sound of the chime is literally mesmerizing and makes you freeze in delight.

Even higher there is an amazing clock from 1597. This clock has two dials, which are located one above the other: the upper dial shows hours, and the lower – minutes.

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On the South Bell Tower, at the level of 56 meters, is a viewing platform. The site leads to a very narrow and long spiral staircase with about 300 steps (according to tourist estimates, from 287 to 298). From the platform there are stunning panoramic views of Prague with its houses covered with red tiles.

Tip! To visit the Cathedral of St. Vitus in the Czech Republic, try to choose a good weather day, because in bad weather no one is allowed to visit the tower.

The full grandeur of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague can be comprehended by being inside.

St. Vitus Cathedral

The room is huge, in the shape of a Latin cross, 124 x 60 m. The beautiful arched vault is supported by 28 powerful columns 33 m high. These columns separate from the main space 17 chapels – small rooms for prayers. Along all outer walls of the building, at a height of 14 m, there is a triforium – a gallery with busts of monarchs, archbishops and architects who created this building. There is also an organ in the building, which, although considered the best in Europe, sounds only on major church festivals.

Special mention should be made of the colorful stained-glass windows, most of which were created in the early 20th century by the best Czech artists (including the famous Alphonse Mucha). It was believed that since a religious building was a holy place, the light there should be special. This is why stained glass windows were installed: the sunlight entering through them was refracted, separating the surrounding world and the holy world.

Tip! In the huge stone building it is always cold, even when the hottest summer days are outside. When going on a tour, take care not to get cold.

High altar and mausoleum of the kings of Bohemia

The main altar and mausoleum of the Czech kings

The main altar, which was made in the 19th century according to the design of craftsmen Kranner and Mocker, is situated in the eastern part of the room. The base of the altar is a throne decorated with small sculptural portraits of the prophets of the Old Testament.

In front of the altar, behind the Renaissance grating, there is a white marble sarcophagus (1589, sculptor Molin) with relief portraits of Maximilian II, Ferdinand I and Anne of Jagiellonia carved on the lid. This is only a part of the crypt – most of the crypts are underground.

Steps lead down into the crypt, which are next to the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The crypt contains 16 burials; among other famous people, Charles IV and his wives, Wenceslas IV and Rudolf II are buried here. The surviving ruins of the Romanesque rotunda of St. Vitus in Prague are also here in the crypt.

St. Wenceslas Chapel

A chapel was built over the crypt where the rotunda containing St. Wenceslas’ tomb had stood since the 10th century. It is known as a concentration of the best masterpieces of Gothic art. The walls of the sanctuary are painted with very beautiful frescoes depicting scenes from the Bible and decorated with gold. The glitter of 1345 gems (agate, carnelian, amethyst, jasper, chalcedony), of which mosaics are laid out on the walls, serves as a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem.

At the right wall of the chapel is the tomb of St. Wenceslas, and in the center is his statue in armor.

Tomb of Jan Nepomutsky

The sarcophagus of St. John of Nepomuk is placed next to the altar, but it is perfectly visible from the very entrance. This unique monument was created at the beginning of the 18th century by the famous Fischer von Erlach from Vienna. The master used two tons of pure silver for his creation, which is a true masterpiece of Baroque art.

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Opposite the tomb is the chapel of St. John of Nepomuk.

Practical information

The church of St. Vitus is situated at III. Nadvori 48/2, Pražský hrad 119 01 Praha 1, Czech Republic.

View from the observation deck

View from viewing platform

During the summer tourist season (April 1 – October 31):

  • Monday-Saturday (inclusive) from 9:00 to 17:00;
  • Sunday from 12:00 to 17:00.

During the winter season (November 1 to March 31):

  • Monday-Saturday (inclusive) – 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m;
  • Sunday from 12:00 to 16:00.

Please note that the last call is 20 minutes before closing time.

Advice! Try to visit this place of interest in Prague before 12 noon, when there are not so many tourists.

The shrine is closed to visitors during religious services, which start at that time:

  • Monday through Thursday (inclusive) and Saturday at 7:00;
  • Friday at 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m;
  • Sunday at 8:30 and 10:00.

Changes in the working schedule and times of services on holidays can be viewed on the Cathedral’s official website: https://www.katedralasvatehovita.cz/en.

Stained glass window in St. Wenceslas Cathedral

The small space, which is located at the very entrance on the west side of the church, is free to enter and take a look at its interior. To be able to really see everything that is interesting (and everything is interesting without exception) inside St. Vitus Cathedral, you have to buy a ticket. But it is impossible to buy tickets only for St. Vitus Cathedral, because there are excursion routes for tourists around the Prague Castle. You only have to choose a tour, based on what else you want to see in the area.

There are 2 tours and, accordingly, 2 types of tickets. The table shows their cost in Czech crowns.

Prague Castle – route A Prague Castle – route B
for adults 350 250
for pupils and students from 6 to 26 years old and for persons older than 65 years old 175 125
family ticket (1-5 children up to 16 years old and 1-2 adults) 700 500
children up to 6 years old free of charge free of charge

To go up to the observation platform of the South Tower you have to buy a separate ticket for 150 CZK for tourists of any age.

Viewpoint

Tickets are sold in the Prague Castle information centers, which are located in the 2nd and 3rd Courtyards. Centers are open daily at these times:

  • during the summer season from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m;
  • In winter season from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.

Tickets are valid for 2 days (day of purchase and the next day), non-refundable.

Tip: If you are for the first time in Prague, at the Cathedral of St. Vitus – be sure to buy an audio guide (available in Russian). The recording lasts about 3 hours, and you can choose the topic on which you want to learn more. The price is 350 CZK for 3 hours and 450 CZK per day.

Prices and schedule on the page are for May 2019.

How to behave as a tourist

Since the temple is active, there are certain rules to follow on its territory.

  1. Taking photos in the Cathedral of St. Vitus is allowed, but only without a flash and tripod.
  2. For men, the best clothing would be classic pants and a shirt with long sleeves. For women, a dress or skirt that covers the knees, a blouse with long sleeves. Women are required to wear headdresses and men are required to remove them.
  3. It is forbidden in the temple to talk loudly, touch the inventory, sit on the floor, smoke, talk on the phone, eat and drink.
  4. Tourists must adhere to the tour route so as not to create traffic jams or block the entrance/exit to the building.

If you adhere to these recommendations, the tour to St. Vitus Cathedral will go not only interesting, but also comfortable.

Walk around Prague with a visit to St. Vitus Cathedral:

Author: Irina Kovaleva

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