The History of the Treasury
From the era of St. Wenceslaus to Charles IV
The beginnings of the Treasury of St. Vitus can be traced to a bygone age. We would be right to observe that the Treasury emerged together with the first shrine to St. Vitus, which St. Wenceslaus (929-935) erected at Prague Castle. In a magnificent case, the relic that gave cause for the shrine to be built, the shoulder of St. Vitus, was displayed. St. Wenceslaus obtained the arm from King Jindrich. The historic accounts tell us that the bones from the arm of St. Vitus were deposited in a metal case that was shaped like an arm, gold-plated, and set with cameos. Soon, relics of St. Wenceslaus himself were added to the one of St. Vitus. In 939, the burial ceremony for St. Wenceslaus took place and items of remembrance were also placed here: his sword, lance, casque, and armor. The oldest inventory of the Treasury mentions a valuable reminder of St. Ludmila, the standard that the saint herself made. The Prague church also obtained some relics from Mlada, the sister of Prince Boleslav II, who brought them from Rome in 971 as a present from Pope John XIII. We can say for certain that the establishment of the bishopric in 973 increased the flow of gifts and cathedral equipment, although the evidence is weak. Furthermore, the Treasury of the church of St. Vitus was significantly enlarged by copious spoils that Bretislav brought from his campaigns in Poland in 1039, most importantly the relics of St. Adalbert. When Spytihnev and Vratislav had erected the glorious basilica in the second half of the 12th century, all the treasures were moved to this new shrine.
Old sources, however, show that the Treasury was not only enlarged but also plundered, particularly under Svatopluk's reign (1107 - 1109). Bishop Herman had to give him seventy talents of gold for King Jindrich. Nevertheless, the generosity of devout donors soon made up for the damage done, so Bishop Menhart could passionately attend to the embellishment of the cathedral that was commended to him. He restored the tomb of St. Adalbert (1129) and decorated it with gold, silver, and crystal. Many of the relics, which Menhart and others before him donated to the church of St. Vitus were destroyed in a fire during the siege of Prague in 1142. While the burnt cathedral was being restored, the skull of St. Adalbert and woven fur vesture of St. Wenceslaus were found there. Since then, the skull of St. Adalbert has been kept in a separate reliquary. To the most prominent benefactors of the St. Vitus' church in the 13th century definitely belonged Capitular Dean Vit (1235 - 1271). He was an exceptionally devoted patron, thanks to whom St. Vitus was decorated at vast expense. He also provided for all that was necessary for the church services. At that time, the members of the monarchal family also remembered to give the cathedral splendid gifts (Konstancie, the second wife of Premysl Otakar I, King Premysl Otakar II).
The accumulated cathedral treasures were much reduced during the sacrilegious robberies under the unfortunate guardianship of Otto of Brandenburg (1279 - 1280). This looting was however remedied by King Vaclav II, who received help and useful advice from Bishop Tobias (1279 - 1296). There were many other donors who contributed to the Treasury's glory and they cannot be all listed here, but one of the best known of all donors was Prince Royal Charles, later King and Emperor Charles IV.
The Era of Charles
As early as 1333, before he had become the king, the young prince saw to the Treasury's growth. Even his father Jan (John of Luxemburg), who was constantly in financial straights and used to take from the Treasury, introduced, in 1341, an obligatory tithe for the chapter that all silver mines had to pay from what they passed on to the royal treasury. In addition, the first wife of Charles, Blanka, contributed to the Treasury with further magnificent gifts. In 1346 Charles had a crown made, which was put on the skull of St. Wenceslaus and could be used only on the occasion of coronations. It is still called the St. Wenceslaus crown. Charles IV had accumulated so many precious objects and relics during his reign, that it is beyond the scope of this text to list them all. Therefore, we recommend to everyone interested in the history of the Treasury a publication by Dr. Antonín Podlaha and Eduard Šitller, “The Cathedral Treasury at St. Vitus in Prague”. King Charles also introduced church services that enabled ordinary people to see some of the relics gathered in the Treasury on a regular basis. By doing this, the King wanted to raise the religious consciousness of the Czech people and in a way also their knowledge. At that time, not only liturgical items were part of the Treasury but there were also the royal deeds of gift as well as other texts. Unfortunately, very little was preserved from the dazzling wealth of artistic works. The overwhelming majority of the gems that Charles' days produced for the cathedral vanished in the later unkind ages. A faint glint of this former splendor shines only from the sober words of the old inventories.
The history up until the present
Perhaps the most precious gift of the later years was the Tomb of St. Wenceslaus, which was generously decorated with the artistically worked gold. Again, unfortunately, the gold diminished greatly during the siege of Karlstejn Castle since it paid for the garrison defending the Castle. Also, when hard times came, the Treasury used to be moved, and it was always to the castle which was unconquerable at that particular time. Once it was Karlstejn, the next time Oybin. However, in later years, until 1618, the Treasury did have donors as well (e.g., Zdenek Lev of Rozmital, Archbishop Berka of Duba, and others).
The most difficult times, both for the cathedral and the Treasury, began with the Calvinistic era after the year 1619. What was happening then was truly destruction on a large scale. Paintings, sculptures, crosses -- these all were destroyed. Even thefts of liturgical objects were occurring. On the other hand, however, there were always new patrons who kept contributing to the Treasury, although not to such a degree as was common in the past. During the Habsburgs reign, the funeral imperial crown jewels and other items from the rulers’ coronation process became part of the Treasury. Nowadays the Treasury is housed at St. Vitus Cathedral in a new (Hilbert's) treasury and is kept off limits to the public at the moment. However, with God help it shall be put on permanent display at Prague Castle in 2010.