Undoubtedly, the Prague Castle landmark, the Cathedral of Saints Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert, originated around 935, when Duke of Bohemia Wenceslas I ordered for the construction of a Romanesque rotunda of Saint Vitus. It was to this place that Wenceslas’s remains were moved three years after his death. Interestingly enough, his tomb remained in the same place even after all the reconstruction works and adjustments the monument had gone through. In the period 973 – 976, the rotunda was elevated to a bishop church. Construction works continued until 1060, when Spytihnev II established a three-nave basilica.
It was in 1344 that king John of Bohemia, accompanied by his two sons Charles and John Henry, and the first Prague Archbishop Arnošt of Pardubice, laid the foundation stone of the Gothic cathedral. Construction works started under French architect Matthias of Arras, and when he died they were taken over by Peter Parler. This very young architect brought a number of new ideas, such as suspended keystones placed in the sacristy.
Interrupted because of the 15th century Hussite Wars, larger reconstruction works were not resumed until the end of the 19th century in a Gothic revival style. The works were first directed by Josef Mocker and later by Kamil Hilbert. Other famous persons connected with the cathedral reconstruction include Alfons Mucha and Max Švabinský, who were involved in the creation of the stained glass windows. Finally, the cathedral was completed and officially consecrated in 1929.
When initiating the renovation in Gothic style, Charles IV was inspired by French cathedrals – in terms of their appearance, function and dedication. French cathedrals are dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus (Notre Dame); in Saint Vitus Cathedral, the choir is dedicated to Mary. French kings particularly used two key cathedrals – the Cathedral in Reims for coronation, and Saint-Denis Cathedral as their burial place.
Charles IV decided to join several functions, making Saint Vitus Cathedral a venue for the coronation of Czech kings and queens, as well as a place of burial and pilgrimage destination. Consequently, the cathedral houses the tombstones of Ottokar I of Bohemia, Ottokar II of Bohemia, Břetislav I. and Bořivoj II, among others. The remains of saints can also be found here, including those of Adalbert of Prague and others.
Of course, the cathedral also contains the tomb of the main patron – Saint Vitus. The first relic of St. Vitus – his arm – was acquired by duke Wenceslas back in 929. In the 14th century, Charles IV took possession of the whole body of St. Vitus, having placed it in the tomb next to the main altar.
It is a three-nave cathedral with apse chapels. Triforium features Peter Parler’s busts of Charles IV and his family, as well as those of both architects and Prague bishops. The external side features busts of Jesus Christ, Mary, Mother of Jesus, and Czech saints.
The cathedral boasts a large number of chapels, the most significant of which is Saint Wenceslas Chapel, situated in the area of the ancient Saint Vitus rotunda with Saint Wenceslas’s tomb. The new Saint Wenceslas Chapel, most probably designed by Pater Parler, was erected under Charles IV and officially consecrated in 1367.
With its square ground plan, the chapel features so-called inlay decoration, i.e. by means of precious stones, on top of which two zones of wall paintings depicting Passion scenes and the Saint Wenceslas legend are situated.
The Chapel also contains a 1543 panel painting of St. Wenceslas murder by Master IW. Another interesting feature is the Church tabernacle lattice that dates back to the 14th century; the tabernacle was most probably used for storing anointing oils for newly crowned kings. Last but not least, the bronze door knocker in the shape of a lion’s head is reputedly what St. Wenceslas held as he died.
Saint Wenceslas Chapel also features seven-lock door hiding winding stairs that lead to the chamber where the Czech crown jewels are stored. Interestingly, Saint Wenceslas’s crown really belonged to Saint Wenceslas, and kings were only allowed to use it for special events: even Charles IV only wore it only twice – when he was crowned and when he was buried.
The original entrance into the Cathedral, the so-called “Golden Gate” is decorated with the Saint Vitus mosaic from 1371, depicting the Last Judgment, with Jesus the Judge in the center in a mandorla carried by angels. Czech saint patrons are depicted below him, and Charles IV, the detonator, is right above the portal with his fourth wife, Elizabeth of Pomerania. The left portal depicts those who have lived a virtuous life and are taken by angels to Heaven, while those condemned to Hell are depicted on the right.