Sunday, July 8, 2012

Day 7/8: St. Vitus Cathedral

grotesque gargoyle
St. Vitus Cathedral is an art-history buff's wonderland. I've chosen just a few of the images we took there the evening we were looking for the organ concert (Day 7) and the next morning during our guided tour (Day 8). The seat of the local archbishop, its official name is St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas, St. Adalbert Cathedral. Although rarely used for worship, it is an extremely popular tourist destination. The cathedral now stands in a courtyard surrounded by the castle, so it is nearly impossible to get a photograph of its full height from the front (below left). To the right is the "butt" of the cathedral with external flying buttresses around the nave.

organ loft
According to Church lore, St. Vitus was a Christian boy who lived in Lucania, Sicily, in the fourth century. He supposedly healed the emperor Diocletian's son of a demon but was tortured to death for his faith, along with his tutor and his nurse. He is often depicted as a young boy, unscathed and haloed, in a cauldron of boiling tar or lead.

St. Vitus (Sveti Vid) became particularly popular in Slavic and Germanic parts of Europe, where he replaced the pagan cult of Svantovit, a god of light and/or fertility. "St. Vitus Dance" comes from the late medieval practice of frenetic dancing in front of his statue and was historically applied to the motor disorder renamed Sydenham's chorea in the 17th century. (It's a delayed sequel to acute rheumatic fever, caused by Group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus, and mostly seen in children.) St. Vitus is the patron saint of dancers, actors, comedians, and epileptics. (Wikipedia also tells me he is said to protect against lightning strikes, animal attacks, and oversleeping--a particular woe of actors?) Below is the altar to St. John of Nepomuk (patron saint of bridges, as you may remember).

In 925 C.E., King Henry I of Germany presented the reputed hand bones of St. Vitus to Wenceslaus, Duke of Bohemia. They are now kept in a reliquary in the third and current iteration of the church founded at that time and on that spot. The Gothic phase of construction began in 1344 and was greatly promoted by Charles IV of Charles-Bridge fame. Deaths and insufficient funding kept the project moving along very slowly, but the cathedral was finally consecrated 585 years later, in 1929. Along the way, Czech kings and queens were crowned there, and a hidden room with seven keys holds the Bohemian crown jewels, which are brought out for display only when a presidential election causes one of the keys to be handed to the successor.

St. Vitus is the patron saint of Bohemia, and his saint day is June 15, the day after we visited the cathedral. According to folklore, "If St. Vitus Day be rainy weather, it shall rain for 30 days together." It did not rain the next day, but I understand from the news that much of central Europe has since suffered from a heat wave (like the East and Midwest here in the US).

In the image to the right you get a little idea of the height of the nave, with tall skinny windows to let in the light and the repeating motif of peaked Gothic arches. The photo was taken from the center of the building looking toward the famous rose window at the front. The stained-glass window to the left is one of many unique windows in the cathedral, each designed by a different artist in the 20th century to replace the ones lost over hundreds of years. It's by famous Czech artist Alphons Mucha in the Art-Nouveau style he made so popular. Completed in 1931, it depicts "Good King Wenceslas" and other Slavic icons. (This traveler [not in our group] had a much better camera; click for really good close-up images.) 

First we gathered in the center of the cathedral to hear a bit of history. Then, the group sang an impromptu concert--there, in the middle, among the tourists. It was special to listen. Then, we split into two to go around the chancel area and hear about just a few of the more famous installations, including an old wooden relief of the town and a peek into the lavish St. Wenceslas Chapel. Then we gathered on the bus for the long, slow ride down the hill through the rain and traffic to the Old Town Square. Still left on Day 8: two concerts in two more churches, and a folksy dinner.

DH took the four small photos, while I snapped the three large ones.

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