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Prague (Part 4): Baroque Brilliance and a Stained Glass Symphony

Having spent my first day in Prague thoroughly put out at the bad customer service, the horrendous gangs of British stag parties cluttering up the best squares and cafes, and the poor state into which the city has so often been left to decline, I started my second day afresh, determined to focus on the beauty for which the city is otherwise famed. For you don’t need to look far beyond the tourist hoards and the badly serviced cafés to find what everyone is making all the fuss about: a city filled with beautiful bubbling baroque sculptures, elegant architectural amplifications, pastel coloured building facades and a skyline littered with turrets and cupolas of every shape and size.

While last week’s photo post concentrated on the art nouveau which replaced vast swathes of the “new” town and Jewish Quarter at the turn of the 20th century, today’s turns more to the predominant feature of the city – the endlessly extravagant, unapologetically dramatic artistic showpiece that is the Baroque.

And it is everywhere. Perhaps the most famous sight of the city’s baroque virtuosity is the Charles Bridge. This pedestrianised bridge harks from the 14th century, and is a mecca for tourists and street musicians, artists and souvenir sellers; and there is little surprise why that may be. For on each of its 30 pillars stands a statue so superbly executed in the baroque fashion that it is more than rival for the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome, whose Bernini sculptures this collection was intended to emulate. With depictions ranging from the patron saint of the city, St Wenceslas, to a 17th century crucifixion adorned by hebrew words forcibly paid for by a Jew as punishment for blasphemy, the bridge is an art gallery to some of history’s best sculpture. It’s just a shame they are all too filthy to be properly appreciated. Yet two of the sculptures in particular are in need of less cleaning, so polished are they by the hands of tourists who touch them repeatedly in the hope of the luck they may bring.

The Charles Bridge

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We resisted touching the sculptures – the queues to do so would have taken up half the day after all, and instead crossed over the bridge to the area of Prague they call “the Little Quarter”. The Little Quarter (Mala Strana) is indeed quite little in terms of scale compared with the grander “new town” across the Charles Bridge with its multi-storey classical faces and gilded theatres and boulevards. Here, the streets are all together more charming, with shorter pastel coloured buildings, cobbles and even little canals which separate the mainland from the little Kampa Island. There in turn are little relaxed gardens from which views of the city can be caught from shady benches, and beyond those, small cobbled squares are gently decaying as their paint flakes away and the whole place feels laid back and somniferous.

But amongst those small streets is one building which certainly does not match the title “Little”. For with its imposing great dome and matching campanile, the Church of St Nicholas is no shrinking violet. Rather, it is the next stop on the tour of baroque jems, for as the baroque goes, it doesn’t get much more extravagant that this church. Built by father and son architects Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, Prague’s greatest exponents of the High Baroque, the church is filled with an outlandishly extravagant array of excessive decoration, with gold capitals, marble pillars, great towering statues of popes and bishops, and cherubs everywhere you look filling the space. Although amusingly enough, scratch beneath the surface of all this opulence and you notice that much of it is mere theatre: the marble pillars are actually painted plaster; the gilded details simply painted gold. But then wasn’t the baroque all about the first stunning moment of theatre, when your breath is audibly taken away by the magnificence of the scene created?

The baroque spectacle of St Nicholas’ Church

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And talking of theatre, we couldn’t help noticing the latest Chinese craze of wedding couples getting married in China and then travelling to Europe to photograph themselves in full wedding regalia in front of some of Europe’s most famous monuments. We saw this couple all over prague – wherever we went, so did they, and their camera, their photographer and their make-up team…

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As the day went on, we felt ourselves becoming steadily baroque-saturated, and as the sun made its daily passage across the skies, it was to Prague Castle where we ascended, the great complex of royal palaces and the city’s main cathedral, St Vitus, and it was there where we laid witness to what must be one of the city’s greatest artistic treasures of all – its stained glass windows. When you walk into St Vitus (having queued like us for almost an hour to get tickets from the ridiculously inefficient ticket desk), you are almost overcome by the coloured light that fills the place. For in each of the cathedral’s large windows is stained glass in a panoply of colours, and depicting scenes of stunning detail which is just brought alive by the light shining through it, projecting the image like in a cinema across the imposing stone interior.

Stained glass symphony

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My favourite of all the windows has to be that designed by famous Czech art nouveau artist Mucha towards the end of his life, and many of the photos here feature that brilliant design. But here too are a selection of the other windows, both old and new, all exhibiting a kaleidoscope of colour which was incredible to behold. But just in case we had forgotten it, the trusty Baroque made sure that it had its day inside the cathedral as well, as these photos of the sensational royal mausoleum of Ferdinand I, and the opulent tomb of St John Nepomok aptly demonstrate.

Mucha’s window

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St Vitus’ baroque

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All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2014 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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