Welcome to St. Nicholas Church in Prague – Lesser Town
The Church of St Nicholas, the most famous Baroque church in Prague, stands along with the former Jesuit college in the centre of the Lesser Town Square. A Gothic parish church consecrated by Prague Bishop Tobiáš in 1283 stood at the site until 1743; nearby was the Romanesque Rotunda of St Wenceslas, which had been built in memory of the miracle that occurred during the transfer of Wenceslas’ body from Stará Boleslav to Prague Castle, as mentioned in medieval legends. The Jesuit college, designed by Francesco Caratti, Giovanni Domenico Orsi and Francesco Lurago and built in 1672-1687, created an ideal optical base for the two towers of the future church. Twelve houses, including the important Rotunda of St Wenceslas and an old school were demolished; the adjacent cemeteries were likewise closed. The former Jesuit college currently houses the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University in Prague.
Today’s Church of St Nicholas is one of the most valuable Baroque buildings north of the Alps. Construction lasted approximately one hundred years, and three generations of great Baroque architects – father, son and son-in-law – worked on the church: Kryštof Dientzenhofer, Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer and Anselmo Lurago. Although the church underwent certain developmental transformations, the resulting building is an architectural gem. A partial impression of the original planned appearance of the church at the time the Jesuits chose the initial plans by Giovanni Domenico Orsi in 1673 and laid the foundation stone is provided by the Chapel of St Barbara, which was built first so that mass could be celebrated. The chapel is a relatively enclosed space with an oval plan and featuring late Renaissance elements. Nevertheless, a key construction phase began after 1702, when the overall design was altered. The new plans involved an intricate geometrical system of interconnected cylinders with a central dome above the transept. The massive nave with side chapels and an undulating vault based on a system of intersecting ellipsoids was apparently built by Kryštof Dientzenhofer in 1704-1711. The pillars between the wide spans of the arcade supporting the triforium were meant to maximize the dynamic effect of the church. The chancel and its characteristic copper cupola were built in 1737-1752, this time using plans by Kryštof’s son, Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer. Although the church was then consecrated, work on ornamentation continued for another twenty years. Following the abolition of the Jesuit Order by Pope Clement XIV, St Nicholas became the main parish church of the Lesser Town in 1775.
The diameter of the dome is an impressive 20 m; the height inside the church to the top of the lantern is almost 57 m, making it the tallest interior in Prague. Highlighting the unique aesthetic impact of the building is the direct connection of the adjacent slender belfry and the church’s massive dome. Both are 79 m tall. The belfry, which, unlike the church, belongs to the city, was completed in diminutive Rococo forms in 1751-56 by Anselmo Lurago following Dientzenhofer’s death. A vast crypt with barrel vaults that ingeniously utilised the sloping terrain was built beneath the entire ground plan of the church.
Completed in 1710, the facade of the church is composed of waves of alternating concave and convex forms, the dynamic effect of which is intensified by a trio of large gables towering over the elevated central part with a larger than life-sized statue of St Nicholas from the workshop of sculptor Jan Bedřich Kohl, the inscription IHS and a crucifix. The actual facade, decorated with the crest of the church’s greatest patron, Franz von Kolowrat-Liebsteinsky and stone sculptures of the Western Fathers of the Church, is the purest example of the Roman Baroque in Prague. Semi-circular staircases lead to a trio of grand entrances. Despite the differences in the designs and styles of the father and son architects, the Dientzenhofers combined a strong sensitivity for the plasticity of forms. Despite their formal differences, all columns, capitals, consoles, portals and window chambranles are skilfully subordinated to a uniform harmony.
In the interior architect Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer demonstrated his mastery of perhaps all of the expressional resources offered by the Baroque style in order to emphasize the overall aesthetic effect. The elemental lack of restraint in the individual elements is typical for the architect. The interior is crowned by a play of light that imbues the nave with airiness; the contrast between the dark dome and the bright light from the lantern is striking. The church ranks second only to St Vitus Cathedral in terms of the finest sacred architecture in Prague.
The artificial marble on the columns, pilasters and cornices was made by stucco master Johann Hennevogel von Ebenberg; polished marble sculptures of saints by Ignáce František Platzer from 1752-55 stand in front of the pillars. Four larger-than-life-sized statues of the Eastern Church Fathers from 1769 by the same sculptor stand below the cupola; a copper and gold-plated statue of St Nicholas from 1765 is installed above the main altar with other sculptures. A fresco by František Xaver Palko adorns the dome; a fresco of St Cecilia by the same artist is on the ceiling above the organ loft. The surface of the dome is covered by the artist’s painting of the open heavens in which Christ and the Holy Father are glorified by a choir of saints (1753-54). Josef Hager’s painting Angels’ Homage to the Holy Trinity can be seen below the organ loft. The grand ceiling painting Apotheosis of St Nicholas is the work of Viennese painter Johann Lukas Kracker from 1761, as are the paintings in the Chapel of St John of Nepomuk and the altar painting of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary (1760) on the side altar in the end chapel beneath the dome. Paintings in the oldest Chapel of St Barbara were executed by Josef Kramolín (the ceiling painting Adoration of St Barbara from the second half of the 18th century), Ludvík Kohl (the altar canvas from 1769) and the famous Karel Škréta with his work Crucifixion and Souls in Purgatory (from before 1646). This masterful work had been painted for the earlier Gothic Church of St Nicholas. Jesuit Order painter Ignác Raab executed a painting of St John of Nepomuk and several others with the theme of Jesuit saints in the side chapels. The altar painting of St Michael the Archangel is by Francesco Solimena, a noted 18th century Neapolitan artist.
The pulpit crafted from artificial marble is decorated with the sculptures Allegory of Faith, Hope and Love and The Decapitation of St John the Baptist by Richard and Petr Prachner from around 1765. The pulpit’s elegant construction and fine ornamentation are unrivalled in Bohemia. Jan Bedřich Kohl produced the High Baroque polychrome sculpture Crucifixion around the year 1720.
The church’s matroneum features an outstanding series of ten paintings on the subject of The Passion of Christ by Karel Škréta; dated to 1673-74 the paintings are key works from the end of the artist’s career. This set of paintings was likely installed earlier in the Jesuit college.
A copy of the Gothic wooden sculpture Our Lady of Foy is displayed in a glass case in the left side altar beneath the dome. The graceful sculpture Mater gratiarum (Mother of Mercy) was brought to Prague by the Jesuits in 1629. Also transferred from the old church to the new building were a painting of St Anne by an unknown artist from the 1670s (today in the Chapel of St Anne) and a Late Gothic pewter baptismal font from the 1460s.
The Jesuit Thomas Schwarz built the small and main organs as well as many others in Bohemia. Built in 1745-47, the main organ has over 4,000 pipes up to six metres in length. W. A. Mozart played this organ during his stay in Prague as a guest of the Dušeks.
The Church of St Nicholas is a superb example of High Baroque architecture, a building that astonishes visitors with its size and monumental interior. As the most prominent and distinctive landmark in the Lesser Town, no panoramic view of the city would be complete without its silhouette below Prague Castle.