Church of St. Barbara – Gothic Grandeur

The Cathedral that Isn’t 

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The front facade of St. Barbara’s church in Kutná Hora.

Five centuries in the making, the late Gothic style Church of St. Barbara is the de facto trade mark and centrepiece of the Central Bohemian city of Kutná Hora.

The structure’s distinctive three spired tented roofline is used in stylized form on many of the city’s plentiful souvenir items. Inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites with the rest of the city’s preserved centre in 1995, St. Barbara’s is the country’s second most visited church.

Started in 1388 and not fully completed until the early 20th century, St. Barbara’s stands as testament to the city’s former wealth in silver and the grand and lofty visions the local burghers had for the city during its heyday and status as a royal city.

The burghers of Kutná Hora commissioned the church to be built in cathedral style in the hopes of having a diocese established in the city to compete with those of nearby Sedlec and Prague.

Ultimately, the city’s silver mines were exhausted before the church could be completed and the much desired diocese was never established. As a result, despite its grand facades, St. Barabara’s has only ever been a church.

In spite of much contemporary toursit information referring to the structure as a cathedral, it most certainly is not one.

Built on Grand Visions 

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The church from the side, showing the distinctive roofline.

The silver heyday of Kutná Hora lasted from the 13th to the end of the 16th century.

The city’s mines were rich with the metal and Kutná Hora was given the status of a royal city and made the seat of the royal mint of the Bohemian lands. Such things put the city in status of importance after only Prague itself.

Through the silver, the city attracted a strong upper class with great ideas for the city’s future and the money to make many of their visions for it into reality. Their visions included a bishopric and cathedral of their own.

The first architect responsible for the church was Jan Parléř (1359-1406). A member of the famous Parléř family of architects, Jan was the son of Petr Parléř (1330-1399) who had been responsible for St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge in Prague.

Using nearby quarried sandstone, work on the church carried on until it was interupted by the Hussite Wars that raged through the early to mid 1400s.

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The curch interior seen from the second level.

Work resumed on the structure in the late 1400s and continued to the late 1500s when the city’s silver mines had been depleted.

The distinctive roof was put on the church and it has stood, at only half its intended size, to the present.

Shortly after the second period of construction was concluded, the church saw a number of renovations under the watch of the Jesuit order that brought Baroque styling to it.

The final stages of construction, carried out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the restoration of much of the church’s original Gothic look.

While the church did not achieve the grand status of a cathedral, it most certainly has achieved a level of greatness through its inclusion on the UNESCO list. A placement it earned through its authenticity, tangible connection to the city’s history and it’s influence on the architecture of subsequent structures around Europe.

The Right Saint for the Job 

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Sculpture of a silver miner.

Owing to the very risky nature of their work, miners have always been an understandably very religious group of people.

In light of this fact, consecrating this church to St. Barbara could be seen as a very obvious choice. Barbara is the patron saint of miners and anyone who works around explosives and thus faces the risk of a very sudden and violent death on a regular basis.

Historically, it was typical to install a small shrine to the saint at the entry or junctions of mineshafts and near military gunpowder storage facilities.

Many organisations, both civilian and military, continue to honour St. Barbara to the present. December 4 is the traditional day of the saint.

When depicted in art, St. Barbara is typically recognised by her attribute of a tower with three windows. Other attributes associated with her are a chalice, palm leaf and lightning.

Paying a Visit and Learning More 

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The church’s vault.

Being highly visible and on Kutná Hora’s main tourist route, St. Barbara’s is not at all difficult to find or visit when in the city.

While it is open daily, it should be kept in mind that it is still a functioning church and that respect should be exercised by visitors towards those worshipping there.

Regular services are held there on Sundays.

The following links will give you further information on the church from historical and tourism aspects:
http://www.kutna-hora.net/en/barbara.php/
http://destinace.kutnahora.cz/d/cathedral-of-st-barbara

This link will take you to a page outlining the most current opening hours, entry fees and rules for visiting the church:
http://www.khfarnost.cz/wordpress/?page_id=417

This is a link to the UNESCO page about Kutná Hora and includes details about the church:
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/732

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Litomyšl – The Renaissance Remains

A Pocketful of Culture 

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Litomyšl’s main attraction: the stunning UNESCO listed Renaissance chateau.

Tucked into the far reaches of Eastern Bohemia, in the Bohemia-Moravia borderlands, is the historic city of Litomyšl.

Owing to the fact that it is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the birthplace of famed composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884), Litomyšl is one of the country’s better known tourist destinations and many visitors have read about it before they arrive in the country.

Officially gaining status as a city in the 13th century, Litomyšl has its origins in 11th and 12th century settlement in the area. In its history, the city has served as the seat of nobility and bishops as well as an important centre of education and culture.

Because of Litomyšl’s importance as a centre of education through the 19th century, many notable names in the Czech arts and culture scene were attracted to living there during that period. The influence of many of those people can still be seen and felt in the city today.

The modern city is very aware and in touch with its past and uses it to good advantage in guiding the tourist.

At that, let’s spend some time in Litomyšl:

Show Yourself Around 

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Smetana Square, one of the largest public squares in the country.

Perhaps befitting a place with education and enlightenment playing a major role in its history, Litomyšl invites and encourages visitors to show themselves around and learn about the city via a well prepared self-guided tour map available in city tourism offices or online at the city website. The map covers almost 20 points of interest in the very walkable centre of the city.

The recommended start and finish point for the self-guided tour is the 500 metre long Smetana Square. One of the largest public squares in the Czech lands, it is lined with arcaded facades in Baroque, Classicist and Renaissance styles. Also on the square is the Gothic styled town hall tower.

Leaving the square from the north end will take you past the statue of Bedřich Smetana and put you in the vicinity of the Neo-Renaissance style Smetana Hall and the Pedagogical High School with its sgraffito decorated exteriors.

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Front of the Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross.

Further along the route, you will find a monument to writer and educator Alois Jirásek (1851-1930). Jirásek spent several years in Litomyšl as a high school history teacher and is considered to be one of the most important Czech authors of his time.

In the same area, you will find the Baroque style Church of the Discovery of the Holy Cross. This church belonged to the Piarist order who were invited to Litomyšl in 1640. Dedicated to education, the Piarists played a major role in the city’s reputation as a learning centre for centuries. The order left the city in 1948, leaving the church behind.

It is worth travelling up the towers of the church as a great view of the chateau can be enjoyed from the balcony between the towers.

Between the Piarist church and the city’s other major holy building, the Presbytery Church of the Raising of the Holy Cross, you’ll find the monastery gardens. For many years after the Piarists left, this area was left untended and blocked off to the public. In the late 1990s, work took place to restore and refresh the gardens to the beautiful and relaxing park that it is today bracketed by the two churches.

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Monastery gardens with the Piarist church in the background.

Contained in the park is a fountain that features a group of statues by contemporary Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek (1926-2017).

Leaving the park will take you past the Gothic style Presbytery Church of the Raising of the Holy Cross. This church originally belonged to the Augustinian order which had a monastery in the city from 1356 to 1428.

From the Augustinian church, you can go in two directions:

A short walk east of the church will take you to the Portmoneum, a museum dedicated to Josef Váchal (1884-1969). Váchal was a writer, illustrator and printmaker who was a unique character with a rather enigmatic art style. Admittedly, his own connection to Litomyšl is somewhat tenuous as he was there relatively briefly at the invitation of a local art collector and fan of his work, Josef Portman. Portman contracted Váchal to paint two rooms in his house, the resulting work was a sweepingly complex collection of imagery that is very difficult to interpret.

The art in Portmoneum certainly is not everyone’s cup of tea and it is a lot to absorb at once. However, if your tastes include Avant-garde, you may want to pay it a visit.

If you follow the street directly outside the church entrance, you will find the oldest church in the city as well as Váchal street.

Váchal street is a short lane leading back to Smetana Square. It is notable for the arches over it and the walls of the buildings on either side of it covered in sgrafitto images from one of Váchal’s books.

Renaissance Resplendent 

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The impossing and spectacular chateau.

Near the Piarist church, you will find the star attraction of Litomyšl: the Renaissance style UNESCO listed chateau.

The chateau was commissioned by the powerful Pernštejn family and built between the 1560s and 1580s. When finished, it was a rare example of an Italian Renaissance arcaded palace outside of Italy.

In 1649, the chateau and city came into possession of the Trautmannsdorf family and shifted to the Valdštejn-Vartenberk family in 1758. Under Valdštejn-Vartenberk ownership, the chateau underwent extensive alterations that added a number of Baroque features to the structure.

It was during the Valdštejn-Vartenberk ownership period that Bedřich Smetana, son of the chateau brewery’s brewmaster, was born in 1824. It is possible to visit the apartment where the composer was born when you visit the chateau.

The chateau and city would switch hands again in 1855 to the German noble house of Thurn und Taxis. This house would be the last noble owner of the chateau. They held it until the end of the Second World War when all Germanic families were expelled from the Czech lands and their properties seized by the state.

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Looking into the chateau’s arcaded courtyard structures.

The chateau has remained under state ownership since the end of World War II and it was declared a national cultural monument in 1962.

In the 1970s restoration work on the chateau’s extensively sgraffito covered exterior began with the work being overseen by Olbram Zoubek.

In 1999, the chateau and its grounds were inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. The chateau is considered a textbook example of an Italian Renaissance style arcaded castle unique in both the level of preservation and its location outside of Italy.

Honouring the Past 

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The statue of Bedřich Smetana on the square that bears his name.

As mentioned earlier in the article, Litomyšl is a city very much aware and in touch with its past.

Since 1946, the city has hosted an annual classical music and opera festival called “Smetana’s Litomyšl”. It is one of the oldest and biggest music festivals of its sort in the country.

There is also a youth version of the music festival that has been held annually since the early 1970s.

Another historical resident of the city has been commemorated through having a festival bear their name. Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová (1785-1845), wrote what was for many years the only cookbook available in the Czech language. Entitled “A Household Cookery Book or A Treatise on Meat and Fasting Dishes for Bohemian and Moravian Lasses”, the book was first published in 1826 and was a bestseller through much of the 19th century. The book has been republished countless times and modern printings of it can still be found regularly in Czech bookshops.

The city’s annual gastronomy festival, held since 2012, is named after Rettigová.

Paying a visit and Learning More 

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The sgraffito walls of  Váchal street.

Outside of the centre, Litomyšl is a quite normal town with no touristy feeling. as such, it can be done as a day trip from several other places. However, it is not the most direct of places to access if you are travelling by bus or rail.

If you are travelling by train, it’s best to plan Česká Třebová as your end stop and take a bus from there to Litomyšl as there is regular bus service between the two cities. The bus platforms in Česká Třebová are directly outside the train station entrance.

If you want to learn more about the city, it’s attractions and calendar of events; this is a good link to start with:
https://www.litomysl.cz/?lang=en

The tourist portal for East Bohemia also has some good information:
https://www.east-bohemia.info/litomysl/