The Architectural Sculpture of Prague
Prague (Praha) is the capital city of the Czech Republic with a history dating back to Bohemia over a thousand years ago. On a recent visit my wife and I had the opportunity to tour several districts in Prague including Prague Castle, Malá Strana, the Jewish Quarter, Old Town, and New Town. To put things into historical perspective, New Town is over 100 years old, and elements of Prague Castle date back a thousand years. One of the things I found so impressive was the architectural sculpture of Prague, that is, the sculpture that was not necessarily part of a monument or memorial, but instead was integrated into the building facade or interior to simply celebrate the beauty and creativity of the human spirit.
Prague Castle (Pražský Hrad) was built beginning in the 9th century and today includes the official office of the President of the Czech Republic. It is noted as the largest castle complex in the world and includes several palaces, Saint George’s Basilica, and Saint Vitus Cathedral.
Saint Vitus Cathedral (Katedrála Sv. Víta) is a Roman Catholic cathedral founded in 930 with construction beginning on its current form around 1344 and completed in 1929. It was designed primarily in a Gothic architectural style by Matthias of Arras (1290–1352) a French architect, and completed by Peter Parler (1333–1399) a German-Bohemian architect and sculptor, with many additional architects, sculptors, and artisans continuing the work over the following 600 years. The entire building is a beautiful sculptural work containing many spires, flying buttresses, sculptures, murals, and stone tracery supporting large stained glass window.
Malá Strana meaning Little Quarter, and similar variations over time, was founded in 1257 and is a district of Prague located between Prague Castle, Petřín Hill, and the Vitava River where it connects to Old Town to the east by way of the Charles Bridge.
Saint Nicholas Church (Kostel sv. Mikuláše) at Malá Strana is recognizable from Petrin Hill by its prominent green dome which is difficult to see from street level in Malá Strana. It is a Roman Catholic church established in 1704 and completed in 1755 in a Baroque Basilica architectural style by the architect Christoph Dientzenhofer (1655–1722) and his son Kilian Ignac Dientzenhofer (1689–1751), a notable family of architects during this time period. In addition a belfry was added in 1751 to 1756 in a Rococo architectural style by Anselmo Lurago, a son-in-law of Kilian Ignac Dientzenhofer. The interior is the most elaborately decorated building I have seen to date including frescos by Jan Lukáš Kracker (1717–1779) and František Xaver Palko (1724–1767), and sculptures by František Ignác Platzer. The exterior facade has eight sculptures depicting saints and the interior has about a dozen large sculptures of saints and perhaps hundreds of smaller sculptures depicting angels and other biblical characters.
Old Town (Staré Město) as seen to the east from Petrin Tower is located across the Vitava River from Malá Strana and is connected by the medieval Charles Bridge and others. To the north of Old Town is the Jewish Quarter and to the south is New Town.
The Charles Bridge (Karlův most) is a medieval stone bridge that spans the Vitava River connecting Malá Strana to Old Town. It was designed by Peter Parler (1333–1399) the same architect and sculptor that assisted in the design and construction of Saint Vitus Cathedral. The bridge was constructed from 1357 to 1402 and included Gothic architectural style guard towers at each end. From 1683 to 1714 baroque style sculptural works were added on the balustrades between each arch along the length of the bridge depicting about thirty saints, patron saints, and biblical characters known to that era.
At the east end of the Charles Bridge is Old Town where two churches are noteworthy, Saint Francis Of Assisi Church and the Church of Saint Salvator.
Saint Francis Of Assisi Church (Kostel Svatého Františka Z Assisi) (below left) was completed in 1688 in a Baroque architectural style by Jean Baptiste Mathey (1630–1696) a French architect and painter, and Marek Antonín Canevalle (1652–1711) and Italian architect and master builder. The facade includes sculptures of Bohemian patron saints.
Church of Saint Salvator (Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora) (below right) was built by various architects beginning in 1578, but completed in 1659 with a design primarily by Carlo Lurago (1615–1684) an Italian architect in a Baroque architectural style. Updates and modifications by Francesco Caratti (1615–1677), and František Maxmilián Kaňka (1674–1766) were completed in 1714. The facade includes sculptures of saints by Jan Jirí Bendl (1620–1680).
Municipal Library of Prague (Městská Knihovna v Praze — Ústřední knihovna) facing Virgin Mary Square (Mariánské Náměstí) in Old Town was designed by František Roith (1875–1942) through an award from a 1923 competition and completed in 1928. The Art Nouveau architectural style includes six allegorical sculptures over the front entrance portico by Ladislav Kofránek (1880–1954).
New City Hall (Nová Radnice) completed in 1911, also faces Virgin Mary Square (Mariánské Náměstí) in Old Town and was designed by Osvald Polivka (1859–1931) an Austrian architect known for collaborating with many artist and sculptors to enhance the aesthetic effect of his designs. This can be seen in the prominent sculptural effect provide by the reliefs of the people at each side of the main entrance and the carved out corner alcoves for the Iron Knight and Rabbi Lowe. The sculptures including the allegorical figures above the main entrance are by Stanislav Sucharda (1866–1916), Josef Mařatka (1874–1937), and Ladislav Šaloun (1870–1946).
Clam-Gallas Palace (Clam-Gallasovský Palác) completed in 1718 was designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656–1723) in a Baroque architectural style which included these allegorical sculptures by Matthias Bernhard Braun (1684–1738) at the entrances on Husova Street. The palace is noted to have held concerts and balls during the latter part of the 18th century attended by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827). Today the palace is owned by the city and in recent years has been used for cultural events.
Švejk Restaurant at the corner of Husova and Karlova Streets is a Bohemian restaurant and one of about fifty in Prague named after the main character in the book “Good Soldier Švejk”. The book is famous in Czechia and regionally in part for its dark comedy from World War I and its depiction of the pointlessness of war. The relief sculpture appears to be a possible character in the book from that era.
Old Town Hall (Staroměstská Radnice) located on the west side of Old Town Square (Staroměstské Náměstí) was designed in a medieval Gothic architectural style. It was built by combining several houses over the centuries but its tower being the most prominent element was completed in 1364 and has been relatively unchanged. The architect is unknown but it is likely that it was Peter Parler (1333–1399) or someone from his family since it has similar characteristics to the Charles Bridge Towers and the Saint Vitus Cathedral. The sculptures of a Madonna and saints on the south wall of the chapel were likely done in the same time period. The original sculptures have been removed and preserved with replicas installed on the current building facade.
The Prague Astronomical Clock (Pražský Orloj) (above left) was installed at the base of the Old Town Hall tower in 1410 with additional modifications and sculptures added in 1490. The clockmakers Mikuláš of Kadaň (1350–1419) and Jan Šindela (1370–1455) both professors of mathematics and astronomy at Charles University are credited with its creation.
Saint Nicholas Church (Kostel svatého Mikuláše) at Old Town Square was completed in 1737 in a Baroque Basilica architectural style designed by the architect Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer (1689–1751) of the Dientzenhofer family of architects, and completed by his son-in-law Anselmo Martino Lurago. The exterior sculptures are the work of Antonín Braun (1709–1742) a nephew of Matyáš Bernard Braun from whom he inherited his sculpture studio and workshop. The sculptures include statues of Saint Nicholas, Saint Prokop, Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastics, and allegorical sculptures from the Old and New Testaments representing Faith, Hope, Love and Temperance.
Schier's House (Schierův dům) on Old Town Square is a Baroque Revival architectural style building completed in 1897 and designed by the architects Rudolf Kříženecký (1861–1939) and Otakar Materna (1860–1928). The building is 5 stories in height with businesses along the street level and a grand entrance to residential units above. The corner bay window is supported by two allegorical giants and the gated entrance to the upper floor units is flanked by two additional allegorical figures by sculptors Vilím Amort (1880–1950), Jindřich Říha (1862-1914) and Josef Kropáček. Franz Kafka (1883–1924) a noted Czech writer said to have lived in one of the residential units.
Storch’s House (Štorchův dům) or The House at the Stone Virgin Mary on Old Town Square is a Gothic architectural style design completed in 1897 by Friedrich Ohmann (1858–1927) an Austrian architect. The house is known for the frescos covering the front facade by Mikoláš Alš (1852–1913).
Powder Tower (Prašná brána) is a Gothic architectural style city gate constructed in varying stages from 1475 to 1592 as the east entrance to Old Town. It was modeled after the Charles Bridge towers on the west side of Old Town designed by the architect Peter Parler (1333–1399). In 1875 and 1886 updates were made by architect Josef Mocker (1835–1899) including the replacement the damaged sculptures of the Bohemian kings, George of Podebrady, Vladislav II, Premysl Otakar II and Charles IV, and several Bohemian patron saints, and a variety of gargoyles and allegorical figures.
National Theater (Národní divadlo) was completed in 1883 in a Baroque architectural style. The original design was created by architect Josef Zítek (1832–1909) with updates later made by Jakub Klusák and Jan Muchna. The interior artwork was done by Mikoláš Aleš (1852–1913) and František Ženíšek (1849–1916). The exterior of the theater has several sculptural works including a three-horse chariot and ten allegorical sculptures by Bohuslav Schnirch (1845–1901), with additional sculptures by Antonín Pavel Wagner (1834–1895) and Max Verich. The interior sculpted pediment over the stage was also done by Bohuslav Schnirch. We had the privilege of attending the opera Turandot here during our stay in Old Town.
10 Wenceslas Square (Václavské Náměstí 10) built in 1900 and today occupied by the Prague Business Club with additional businesses at street level and possibly some residential units on the upper levels. It appears to be designed in a Baroque architectural style but no information has been found on the architect or sculptor for this beautiful building.
8 Wenceslas Square (Václavské Náměstí 8) is occupied by Adam’s Pharmacy at street level with residential units on the upper floors. It appears to be designed in an Art Deco architectural style indicating that it was probably built in the 1920s. No information has been found on the architect or sculptor for this unique building.
29 Rytířská Street is a former bank now occupied by the Preciosa department store at street level with commercial office space above. It is a Baroque architectural style built in the early 1900s but with no information on the architect or sculptors.
National Museum (Národní Muzeum) was completed in 1891 leading to the construction of the business district up Wenceslas Square in the early 1900s known as New Town. The museum was designed in a Neo-Renaissance architecture style by Josef Schulz (1840–1917) and the sculptures on the front facade are by Bohuslav Schnirch (1845–1901). The four allegorical groups around the main dome represent “Dedication”, “Enthusiasm”, “Love for the Truth” and “Love for the Past”.
In conclusion I found Prague to be an amazing place to visit that is rich in art, architecture, sculpture, and history. Through this visit and the research that followed I have found that I barely scratched the surface exploring the beauty of this city and its rich heritage. For me it has been a mind boggling experience learning that so much of its history and beauty came about before my own country was even founded. Wow!
Notes and References:
Story and photographs by David Smitherman with site visits made in March 2023.
Historical data collected from brochures, onsite inscriptions, Wikipedia, and Google Maps.
Google Translate for text translation from Czech to English.
Apple iPhoto and iMaps for GPS tracking and Google Maps for site location information.
National Monument Institute, https://pamatkovykatalog.cz/storchuv-dum-1568882
Saint Francis Of Assisi Church, https://www.prague.eu/en/object/places/499/church-of-st-francis-seraph-kostel-sv-frantiska-serafinskeho
Church of Saint Salvator, https://www.pragueexperience.com/places.asp?PlaceID=1428
Municipal Library of Prague, https://www.ghmp.cz/en/buildings/municipal-library-of-prague-2nd-floor/
Old Town Hall Madona, https://modely.cesnet.cz/en/staromestska_madona.html
Saint Nicholas Church in Old Town, https://www.prague.eu/en/object/places/163/st-nicholas-cathedral-old-town-chram-sv-mikulase-stare-mesto
Powder Tower, http://www.prague.cz/powder-tower/