St. Vitus Cathedral
It would be hard to find a work of art in Bohemia that rivals St.Vitus Cathedral. The history of its construction is a condensed expression of the history of the fine arts in Bohemia from the 10th to the 20th centuries. Its tangible mass and its space, together with its artistic content, form a polymorphous organism. For thousands of years, traces of highly-developed cultural efforts from distinct periods accumulated in vertical and horizontal layers. From the beginning, the edifice was the most notable and dominant feature of Prague Castle, as well as of the city of Prague.
The older parts of the cathedral are the remains of St. Vitus Rotunda, which was begun by St. Wenceslaus and completed after his martyrdom. The shape took the high Carolingian axis as a model. It was dedicated to three saints: St. Vitus, St. Wenceslaus, and St. Adalbert. In addition, an earlier building preserved under the cathedral’s grounds, which was built in conjunction with the tomb of St. Wenceslaus by Spytihnev and Vratislav II, used to be an iconic church devoted primarily to the country’s saints, namely St. Wenceslaus, St. Adalbert, and St. Ludmila; however, its architectural form was already more complex. The basilica’s final appearance resulted from reconstruction in the 12th century and by stretching the vault above the nave in the second half of the 13th century. The capitular residence by its side, which was begun at the beginning of the 14th century, was already gothic in form, but it was not finished. By then St. Vitus Basilica had been surrounded by the stone buildings of the Palace, St. George Church, and massive fortifications. Despite this, the basilica already dominated the site, and together with St. George’s towers, created the newly formed panorama of Prague.
The promotion of the Prague bishopric to archbishopric led to the erection of a stately cathedral. At that time, the castle had already grown into a large group of buildings, for which the narrow Hradcany bluff had to be broadened and elevated with embankments. It was on this upper layer that the new cathedral of Charles IV, the magnificent work of great artists of the Middle Ages, arose. The building was conceived by the French master Mathias of Arras in 1344. Later, from 1354 until 1399, the young and talented Petr Parler worked on the building. After that, his son Jan and masters Vaclav and Petr continued his intended work until the outbreak of the violent Hussite wars in 1420 discontinued the construction.
The destructive conflagration that broke out on June 2, 1541, in the Lesser Town destroyed, among other buildings, the royal castle and ignited the tower and the roof of the cathedral, from where the flames reached the inside and wrought devastation. The architects at court, Bonifac Wohlmut and Hans Tirol, were charged with the task of reconstruction, which took more than twenty years. Between 1556 and 1561, they built a Renaissance organ loft, the so called Wohlmut organ loft, on the temporary closing wall. During the reconstruction, the tower obtained the Renaissance cupola, which became the distinctive feature of Prague.
It almost seemed that the metropolitan cathedral would remain a building fragment, when on October 1, 1873 (on the occasion of celebrating 900 years of the bishopric), Cardinal Schwarzenberg laid the foundation stone of the new part of St. Vitus Cathedral. Initially it was Josef Ondrej Kranner who worked towards the cathedral completion. He drew on experience he had gained in France, Germany and Italy, not only for the reconstruction of the old part of the cathedral, but also for his own project of completing the cathedral in the Romantic Gothic style. After that, Josef Mocker, an exponent of rigorous restoration purism (i.e., preserving purity of a style) and the pseudo-Gothic style, took over the construction. The last man who participated in the cathedral’s completion was Kamil Hilbert. He was the man who also made finishing touches on the Cathedral on the threshold of the St. Wenceslaus millennium. Nothing remained but to proceed to the ceremony of consecrating the completed metropolitan cathedral, an act which many generations of Czech people awaited and were looking forward to. The consecration took place on May 12, 1929, and the cathedral was officially opened on September 28, 1929. Thus, hundreds of years of lasting effort to build an august cathedral on the Prague Castle grounds culminated. No one who was present at the celebration, anticipated, thank God, that this cathedral should face many further difficulties, particularly during the communist regime or in the years that followed.