Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Day in Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Saint Barbara Cathedral and the Jesuit College in Kutná Hora
Sometimes when you sign up for an optional excursion you don't know what you're getting into. The excursion might let you down, or it might be a pleasant surprise. During our stay in Prague, we visited a pleasant surprise called Kutná Hora, a medieval silver mining town (since 1260) which has stayed vital over the centuries by reinventing its economic strategy. The silver mines here were Europe's largest until the silver ran out in 1700. Kutná Hora then promoted itself as a tourist destination, and now in addition to tourism its citizens can choose to earn their living by assembling servers for major computer companies or processing tobacco for Philip Morris. Philip Morris's Central European headquarters are nearby.

My story isn't about economic strategies, servers, tobacco, or silver, though. I'm going to show you the enchanting medieval buildings and one spooky, creepy church which earned Kutná Hora its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1994.

St. Barbara Cathedral

The Gothic St. Barbara's Cathedral dates back to 1388 when the town's silver miners wanted a church to honor their patron saint of miners. Master builders  and artists from Prague participated in the design and construction of this cathedral and its notable frescoes.
Trompe l'oeil frescoes at Saint Barbara Cathedral

Miner statue (that's what miners actually wore) in Saint Barbara Cathedral

Three side altars at Saint Barbara Cathedral

This stone fountain from 1497 (below) is actually a twelve-sided structure built to cover a water tank. Clean water was difficult to provide to citizens in a mining town, so a system of pipes bring water to the town where it is stored in tanks. A clever architect named Rejsek who had been working on the cathedral built this fancy cover. It's unique in this part of Europe. Notice the date: where the '4' should be there is a fish standing on its tail. This is actually half of an '8' which is how medieval folks sometimes notated the number '4'.

Medieval water tank in Kutná Hora
The main residence of the Czech kings when they were in town is also the building where silver coins were minted. The Czechs brought into Kutná Hora Italians from Florence skilled in making coins to teach them how to make a Czech currency from the Kutna Horan silver. The building came to be known as the Italian Court because of those visiting craftsmen. This building is mostly a reconstruction because it suffered heavy damage in the 15th century at the hands of Jan Hus's Hussites.

Part of The Italian Court, where coins were minted
Kutná Hora lost thousands of citizens in wars and plagues, and this colossal Plague Column was erected in the town square in 1716 as an entreaty to God to end that year's plague.

The Plague column, 1716
I'm saving for last the Sedlec Bone Church. It's about a mile from the center of Kutna Hora. This church, really a chapel, was attached to a Cistercian monastery founded by St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Remember I mentioned the human beings lost to wars and plagues? Those people all wanted to be buried in the All Saints Cemetery here because, as the story goes, an abbott attached to the monastery brought back a handful of dirt from Jesus's grave in Jerusalem and sprinkled it over the cemetery. (You could say people were just dying to get in.) The common practice in popular cemeteries in some parts of Europe was to remove skeletons from the graves once the descendants are no longer around. The bones are stored in some kind of warehouse. Kutná Hora had accumulated 40,000 skeletons from the wars and plagues, and they found a very clever way to use them...to decorate the Sedlec Church!

This chandelier uses every bone in the human body.
Real bones. (Sanitized.)

A crest

...And the artists signed their names in bones! (Don't  miss the bones stacked up on the left.)
As you might expect, this was the creepiest place I've ever been: dark and chilly with human bones everywhere!

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