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The New Town and Vyšehrad – Prague as a European Capital

The intention to establish a New Town of Prague was implemented by Charles IV only after careful preparation. Its founding Charter was issued on 8 March 1348 and just a few weeks later, attended by the Monarch and many guests from the Empire, the foundation stone of the new town fortifications was laid. The Gothic fortifications, stretching almost 3.5 km in length, with twenty-four defensive towers and four gates, were completed in just two years. The New Town is one of the greatest medieval establishments in Europe whose generosity drew on the ancient principles of city building, about a hundred years before their resurgence under the Italian Renaissance. Prague became in size, administrative and economic security and its number of places of worship, the third most important city in Europe. The principles of founding the New Town meant much more to Charles IV, as a palpable manifestation of Heavenly Jerusalem.

  • The Church of Our Lady of the Snows
  • The Church of Our Lady Na Slovanech
  • The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and of St Charlemagne
  • The Church of St Apollinaire
  • The Church of Our Lady Na trávníčku
  • The Church of St Henry and Kunhuta
  • New Town Hall
  • Vyšehrad

Heavenly Jerusalem

While Charles IV surely considered extending his residence important, even more important was the effort to build a new Jerusalem, a place medieval mysticism deemed the ideal city, the dwelling place of the redeemed. This intention corresponded to the thoughtful layout of squares and church buildings, and their distinctiveness. The five New Town churches are located at regular intervals which, when viewed from above, mark out a cruciform blessing of the city. Also the consecration of each shrine, which links Prague with key imperial cities, shows Charles’ aim to make Prague the Capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the Centre of secular government in the Christian world. The sacred halo of the New Town was crowned in 1350 with the transfer of the Imperial Crown jewels to Prague. The jewels, along with rare relics then were always displayed on the first Sunday after Good Friday to large crowds of the faithful at the New Town cattle market, today’s Karlovo (Charles’) Square. Perhaps it was already then the intent to build for this purpose the exceptionally showy Chapel of Corpus Christi, albeit its implementation was left to the next generation.

Church of Our Lady of the Snows

A sign of the future intention to found the town was the founding of the Carmelites monastery with the Church of Our Lady of the Snows. Charles IV founded it together with his wife, Blanche of Valois, the day after coronation as Czech King, on 3 September 1347. The sovereign bequeathed land and timber for the construction of the Church and the monastic buildings. Indeed, he deployed the material left from the temporary constructions for the coronation banquet. Yet, of the monumental temple conceived in the project, which was to have a total length of 100 metres, by 1397 only the chancel had been built, rising to a height of almost 40 metres, over the roofs of New Town houses. The temple was to have become the dominant feature of Prague’s towns on the right bank, which Charles sought to unite. Also interesting was the consecration of the Church, which linked it to Rome’s basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, symbolic of the spiritual bond between Prague and Rome. Further construction was halted by the Hussite wars. The Carmelitans eventually returned, too late to save this shrine, which was in a very bad condition. Its current form dates from the 17th century, at the onset of which Rudolf II chose to cede the monastery to the Franciscan order. They then managed to repair the dilapidated temple, restoring its roof span and significance.

Church of Our Lady Na Slovanech

The Slavic Benedictines monastery with the Church of the Virgin Mary, St Jerome, Cyril and Methodius, and Adalbert and Procopius held a very specific role in Charles’ Prague. It was founded in November 1347 as the only monastery with Slavic rites in Western Christendom, “trial run” by the Croatian monks that Charles IV brought to Prague from the Benedictine Abbey of the island of Pašman near Zadar. They served the Roman Liturgy in the Old Church Slavonic tongue, and under Charles’ concept were a symbolic bridge between Western and Eastern Christianity, one of his aspirations.

The magnificent monastery church, devoted to the Virgin Mary and Slavic patrons, was consecrated in the presence of the Emperor on Easter Monday in the year 1372. Drawing on the Gospel account of Jesus’ journey and meeting his disciples in Emmaus, which was read at the occasion, the monastery became known as Emmaus. The monastery quickly became a centre of Slavic liturgy and survived unscathed through the Hussite wars.

Its history is remarkable, relating both to its Beuron decoration and due to events during World War II, when the area was heavily damaged by Allied bombing. Its present and very interesting appearance is the result of extensive post-war reconstruction. Singular in Europe are its Gothic frescoes in the cloister, called the Emmaus cycle, that takes us back to the reign of Charles IV.

Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and of St Charlemagne

The Augustinian canonry with the Church of the Virgin Mary and of St Charlemagne was founded by Emperor Charles IV in 1350. The Gothic centrepiece has its place on the highest elevated point of the New Town, on the hill opposite Vyšehrad, which was thus given the honorific name Karlov – Mons Caroli Sancti. The consecration of the Church refers to the beatification of the Emperor Charlemagne, whom Charles IV was related to and saw as his personal and monarchic role model. By this extraordinary temple, Prague was connected with the city of Aachen, where the Kings of the Romans were crowned. The Church was in fact built according to the layout of the temple in which Charles IV was garlanded with the Crown of Rome in 1349. It took a whole 27 years before the Church was largely finished and consecrated. The original form of the temple has been retained only partly, but it is still a remarkable work of Charles’ Prague.

The Church of St Catherine

The Augustinian monastery with its Church of St Catherine was another temple of the New Jerusalem. Charles IV founded it in 1355 and the consecration was, once again, not at all arbitrary. Saint Catherine of Alexandria was held in much esteem by Charles. The Monarch believed that her intercession had won him the near-lost battle of San Felice on 25 November 1332. He did not forget his patroness when founding this New Town temple in Prague. Of the original Gothic church only the tall steeple tower remains. Otherwise, it is predominantly the work of the Baroque architect Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer.

The Church of St Apollinaire

The set of five key temples includes this unmissable hilltop church at Větrov. It was founded by Emperor Charles IV in 1362, along with the collegiate chapter transferred from Sadská in Eastern Bohemia. The consecration of the Church to St Apollinaire refers to the Italian Ravenna, where, tradition tells us, Apollinaris was the first bishop. The Church dedicated to his name in Prague creates a spiritual connection with Ravenna, a place which in the 5th century was the seat of Roman emperors and whose Basilica di Sant’ Apollinare in Classe architecturally inspired the Prague shrine.

Church of Our Lady Na trávníčku

The monastery of the Servite alms order, and the Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary Na trávníčku (also known as Na Slupi) were also founded by Charles IV, in 1360. Legend has it, the Emperor so promised before the Virgin Mary’s depiction in the Florentine monastery of the Servite order, giving thanks for his restored health. Charles IV held the Marian devotional cult in special reverence and dedicated a number of shrines accordingly. This temple is remarkable for its rectangular ground plan and for the most leaning tower in Prague. Even despite its partial neo-Gothic refit in the 19th century the building remains a significant example of the architectural and spiritual intentions of Charles.

Yet the founding of the New Town of Prague was not just about the aforementioned symbolism. Older parishes located on the newly commandeered territory were respected and included. Two new parish churches were built, dividing the unusually large territory into two parts.

The Church of St Stephen

The parish church of the upper part of the New Town was built in the 2nd half of the 14th century and entrusted to the order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star. Worth a mention is its being the only order originating from the Czech Lands and moreover a male order founded by a woman – St Agnes of Bohemia. The land around the Church used to be the largest cemetery in the New Town of Prague.

The Church of St Henry and Kunhuta

The parish church of the lower part of the New Town was consecrated in 1351 by the Prague Archbishop, Arnošt of Pardubice. This shrine was entrusted to the Crusaders, from whom Charles IV acquired most of the land for the New Town. The Church was consecrated in honour of the Roman imperial couple Henry II and his wife Kunhuta. An interesting dedication once again, this time referencing not only the Imperial tradition, but also the only Patron Saint of the Luxembourg dynasty.

Marketplaces were a major aspect of the New Town. The Horse market (Wenceslas square), The Grain market (Senovážné square) and the Cattle market (Karlovo square) astounded with their unprecedented size, in the case of the central Cattle market extending over 8 hectares (20 acres). No wonder the New Town Hall came to be built right here.

New Town Hall

As is clear from its timing, Charles IV supported the construction of the New Town Hall, featuring a massive corner tower, as the seat of local government. The supremely Gothic architecture of the Great Hall with its original arches and columns as well as the remnants of Gothic wall paintings bear this out; one of the most beautifulinteriors of medieval Prague.

Vyšehrad

This Royal Castle and legendary Czech site, associated with the first ruler of the Přemyslid dynasty, played a key role in Charles’ ideas. Vyšehrad stood for the continuity of the Přemyslid dynasty, which the Luxembourgs joined when ascending to the Czech throne. Charles’ beloved mother, Queen Elizabeth, died there in 1330. Also, under the new coronation regulations, every incumbent Czech King was to stop there in prayer on the eve of his coronation. The Vyšehrad acropolis was connected to the New Town in the 1350s, with a rebuilding of the chapter-house Church of Sts Peter and Paul, whose symbolic conjoining to the cross of Heavenly Jerusalem underscored this site’s significance.

“What Augustus did for Rome, Charles IV did for the Capital of Bohemia“ (Uberto Decembrio, 1399)