Tuesday, March 25, 2014

St. Nicholas Church - Prague

St. Nicholas Church in Old Town Prague, Czech Republic was initially a parish church by the same name that went back to 1273. The Benedictines were given control of the church in 1620 and they arranged for the design and construction of the existing church, starting in 1732 and finishing in 1737. 
St. Nicholas Church from the tower of Old Town Hall. Note the two steeples and center dome.
St. Nicholas from the center of Old Town Square. Note the Jan Hus Memorial to the right of it. 
St. Nicholas Church from a different angle. 
Note the sculptures near the upper windows.
Closer view of upper steeples and dome.
Cross on the facade.
The inside was inspired by the chapel of St. Louis des invalides in Paris. In 1781 many of the decorations inside were removed and emperor Josef II ordered the closure of all monasteries without a social function. In 1870, St. Nicholas became Russian Orthodox and continued that way until 1914. During World War I Czech army units were stationed at St. Nicholas and working alongside artists, they started to restore the church. After the war, St. Nicholas was handed over to the new Czech Hussite movement (see below) and it remains today one of the leading churches of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church. It is used both as a church and as a concert hall. The church has two steeples and a large octagonal dome. We visited on a Sunday morning and got to hear part of a sermon and some beautiful singing. 
Inside the dome.
Organ pipes and ceiling frescoes.
Muted colors.
An elongated, flowing style.
Luke, with his symbol the ox.

Master, the Tempest is Raging.

Beautiful Baroque decoration, but very restrained in terms of the amount of decoration.
Czechoslovak Hussite Church
The Czechoslovak Church was formed in Czechoslovakia in Prague in January 1920, just after World War I, by a group of dissident Roman Catholic priests known as Focus, who wanted to celebrate the mass in Czech, not Latin, and have celibacy among the clergy voluntary, not mandatory, among other reforms. The form of organization was modeled after Presbyterianism. In 1972 they adopted the name Czechoslovak Hussite Church to emphasize the fact they incorporated Hussite reforms. The Hussites occupy the middle ground between the essence of the Catholic Church (liturgy and seven sacraments) and the principles of the Protestant churches (teaching and order). Like Catholics and Orthodox Christians, the church recognizes the seven sacraments. Like the Lutherans and Reformed churches, it emphasizes freedom of conscience, practices ordination of women and emphasizes equal participation of the laity in church leadership. At one time, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the church had over one million members. Now its membership is just under 100,000 in 303 congregations and five dioceses in the Czech Republic and one diocese in Slovakia.  Local congregations are led by a council of elders elected by the congregation. The dioceses are administered by diocesan councils under the leadership of a bishop, elected by the diocesan assembly. The church as a whole is administered by a central council under the leadership of a patriarch. Ministers are trained at the Hussite theological faculty of Charles University in Prague. A female, Jana Silerova, was elected a bishop in 2009, straining ecumenical relations with the local Catholic church.

Jan Hus 
Jan Hus, or John Huss in English, is considered one of the first church reformers as he lived before Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. He was a Czech priest, a rector at the University of Prague and master of Charles University in Prague who followed many of the reforms proposed by John Wycliffe, also an early reformer and teacher at Oxford University in England, who advocated translation of the Bible into common language, doing one in English from the Vulgate in 1382. In 1409, Pope Alexander V issued a bull to go against Wycliffism in Prague. Wycliffe books and manuscripts in Prague were burned and Hus and his adherants were excommunicated. King Wenceslaus and his government supported Hus and Hus continued to preach. Pope John XXIII, successor to Alexander V, proclaimed a crusade against Naples and sold indulgences to finance it. Hus spoke out against the indulgences, delivering an address taken from one of Wycliffe's books. After more disruption, King Wenceslaus arranged for an ecumenical council at Constance, and Wenceslaus's brother, Sigismund of Hungary, King of the Romans, promised Hus safe conduct if he would attend. Initially, Hus had his liberty, but he continued to preach in a manner in violation of restrictions decreed by the Church and on December 8, 1414, Hus was put into the dungeon of the Dominican monastery. On June 5, 1415 he was transferred to a Franciscan monastery and tried. Extracts from his work were read and witnesses were heard. Hus conceded his veneration of Wycliffe and said he would recant if his errors were proven to him by the Bible. He was condemned on July 6, 1415. For his execution that same day, Hus was undressed, had his hands tied behind his back with ropes, and his neck bound with a chain to a stake around which wood and straw were piled up to that it covered him to the neck. He was then burned at the stake and his ashes were thrown into the Rhine River.

Those who followed Hus's teachings after his death were known as Hussites and they rebelled against the Catholic Church. Pope Martin V issued a bull that all supporters of Hus and Wycliffe be slaughtered. Five consecutive papal crusades between 1420 and 1431 were defeated in what is known as the Hussite Wars. At that time as many as 90% of the Czech people were Hussites. The followers of Hus and a fellow martyr, Jerome of Prague, became known as the Czech Brethren and later as the Moravians. The Moravian Church continues to exist. It has about 825,000 members worldwide. It is organized into Unity Provinces (total independence), Mission Provinces (partial supervisions) and Mission Areas (full supervision). The Unity of the Brethren Church also follows the teachings of Hus and has a membership of 3,500 in 28 congregations in the state of Texas.  The Czechoslovak Hussite Church, as indicated above, was established later and also follows the teachings of Hus. Hus also had a big influence on the Lutherans.

Jan Hus Memorial
A monument to Jan Hus was unveiled in Old Town Square in Prague in 1915 on the 500th anniversary of Hus's martyrdom.
Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square - viewed from the tower of Old Town Hall. 
Prague was under Austrian rule and the Habsburgs refused to officially inaugurate the monument. So locals covered the monument with flowers in protest. It has become a symbol against foreign rule. 
A closer view of the Jan Hus Memorial from above. Jan Hus stands in the middle. Victorious Hussite troops to his left (our right) and oppressed Protestants to his right (our left). The young mother is just behind him. The back of her upper torso and the babies head are visible. 
It depicts Jan Hus standing. 
Jan Hus
To his left are victorious Hussite troops. 
Victorious Hussite troops.
To his right are oppressed Protestants who were banished two hundred years later. 
Oppressed Protestants
The figure of a young mother symbolizes the resurgence of Czech nationalism. Inscriptions on the monument include: "Love each other and wish the truth to everyone;" "Who are the warriors of God and his law;" "I believe, that the anger thunders will cease and that the government of our affairs will return to your hands, Czech folk;" "Live, nation sacred in God, don't die;" and "Truth Prevails," a quote from Hus which is now written on the banner of the President of the Czech Republic and recognized as the official national symbol. 

St. Nicholas Church is to right of the Jan Hus Memorial.


  1. Along with the clock, the church is one of the iconic structures of Old Town Prague. You mention the Hussite church ordains women, and do you remember that the part of their service we saw was led by a woman?

    1. Yes, it was a woman leading the service.