Prague, Czech Republic
Prague has one of the most colorful religious histories of any city in Europe. Evangelized by Saints Cyril and Methodius, and home to the good king and saint, Wenceslaus, it was also the site where the first major showdown took place between Catholic and Protestant Christians. The Second Defenestration of Prague kicked off the Thirty Years War, the most violent inter-Christian conflict in history. Prague’s multicultural heritage has left it with a wealth of important religious sites from across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, and it is now venerated by Protestants, Catholics and Jews alike. For Catholics, however, the site of greatest import is St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle, where Wenceslaus is enshrined. Prague Castle is part of the Historic Center of Prague UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Good King Wenceslaus is one of the most famous Catholic rulers in the history of Eastern Europe, though his fame beyond Bohemia is due primarily to his namesake 19th century Christmas Carol. Although this famous holiday song gives little information about the life of this famous ruler, his true story is interesting enough. To start, Wenceslaus I was technically not a king, but rather a duke whose family ruled over Bohemia, or the modern-day Czech Republic.
A semi-automonomous province of the Holy Roman Empire, Bohemia in the early 10th century stood on the frontier between Christian and Pagan Europe. Wenceslaus’ father is believed to have been personally converted to Christianity by fame missionaries Cyril and Methodius. Wenceslaus himself was a champion of the Church, endeavoring to convert the subjects of his kingdom to Christianity in the face of difficult odds. An able ruler, Wenceslaus spent most of is reign beset by enemies on all sides. In the end he was assassinated by agents of his pagan brother, Boleslaus. Because Boleslaus’ motiviations were purely political, the conversion of Bohemia continued and was largely completed during his reign. Wenceslaus was buried in the Cathedral of St. Vitus which he had founded.
Prague Castle, where St. Vitus Cathedral now stands, was the site of several incredibly important showdowns between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant Christian elements. In the early 1400s, local religious activist Jan Hus began to speak openly in Prague against several doctrines of the Church. His death in 1415 led to the First Defenestration of Prague, wherin Jan Hus’ followers seized the Catholic leaders of the city and tossed them out of a window to their deaths. Violence flared here again in 1618 at when a Protestant tribunal found several Catholic officials guilty of violating Protestant rights and tossed them out of a window of the castle into a pile of manure. This Second Defenestration of Prague sparked off the Thirty Years War.
Prague spent much of the next thirty years annexed by foreign powers, including the Catholic Hapsburgs. After the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, Prague, battered and bruised, remained in Austrian hands, but quietly returned to its policies of religious tolerance. However, through it all, St. Vitus’ Cathedral remained a stoic reminder of the city’s Christian, specifically Catholic, roots. While Prague would go on to become a shining example of religious tolerance, the cathedral continued to be a steadfast beacon to Bohemia’s Catholic population.
The sprawling Prague Castle covers almost fifteen acres and is one of the largest intact medieval castles in the world. It is actually more like a small city, with an architectural trove of palaces, churches and houses. Originally constructed in the 9th century, it has been heavily damaged on several occasions. Much of the current structure dates from the 16th century and this in turn was largely restored in the 18th century. All told the walls contain five palaces, two cathedrals, the imperial stables, numerous other buildings and seven gardens.
St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the royal cathedral of Prague, is a massive Gothic structure which took nearly six centuries to complete. It was built in the traditional cross-style with a pair of massive bell-tower steeples over the entrance. The interior of the Cathedral, where many of the Bohemian kings were coronated, is an artistic masterpiece as well as a vast mausoleum. Most of Bohemia’s monarchs are buried here in the royal crypt. The chief attraction is the St. Wenceslas Chapel, the earliest part of the Cathedral, built over the site of the saint’s tomb. The Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept in a room next door.
Prague Castle crowns a large hilltop overlooking the Mala Strana district of western Prague. It is easily reached on foot or by public transportation from the Old Town and city center. The castle is open November through March from 6:00am-11:00pm, and April through October from 5:00am-midnight. However, most of the attractions inside, including the palaces and cathedral, are generally open from 9am-6pm. The cost of admission to full access to the castle is CZK350. Web: http://old.hrad.cz (official website)
Prague’s multicultural history has left it with a diverse collection of interesting religious sites. In addition to the St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle also houses the Basilica of St. George. The city’s two great Christian martyrs are honored in Prague with statues: Wenceslaus in Wenceslaus Square and Jan Hus in the Old Town Square. During the period of his excommunication, Jan Hus preached in Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel. The Tyn Church is home to the tomb of one of science’s great heroes, Tycho Brahe. The Brevnov Monastery is the oldest abbey in Bohemia.