Saturday, April 12, 2014

Church of St. James the Greater - Prague

The Church of St. James in Prague, Czech Republic, is also variously called the Church of St. James the Greater and the Basilica of St. James. It was originally built in the 1200s by the Franciscans, but partially destroyed by fire in 1689. It was then rebuilt in the 18th century in a Baroque architectural style with 23 altars. It is considered the most beautiful church in Prague. It is still attached to a Franciscan or Minorite (so called because some of the Franciscans are called the Order of Friars Minor) Monastery. The church is so high and so closely surrounded by buildings that it is impossible to get a good overall photo of the outside.
A picture from the internet gives a better perspective than I was able to find. St. James is the building in the background with the red roof.
My picture of St. James.
A picture from the other side, this one obtained from Wikipedia.
My picture shows a little more of the length down the side street.
A picture of the front facade, or as much of it as I could get.
The facade has three bas-reliefs with scenes surrounded by clouds and cherubs: one shows the apotheosis of St. Francis, another St. James the Greater surrounded by pilgrims and the third, the apotheosis of St. Anthony of Padua.  
The bas-relief of St. James surrounded by pilgrims, above the front entrance. I assume that the gold staffs are the equivalent of hiking sticks.
The apotheosis of St. Anthony of Padua.
The nave is the third longest in Prague and reaches a height of 98 feet. 
The first view of the inside is breath-taking. Color, shadow, height and depth assault your senses all at once. 

The nave was cordoned off, so we could not get much closer than the front entrance.
All of these niches along the walls contain altars.

A blurry image of the pieta above the altar. Note how small Jesus is compared to his mother.
An example of the ceiling painting.

One of the many altars.
Perhaps the most famous visitor to the church was a thief who attempted to steal jewels from a statue of Mary on the high altar. Mary grabbed his arm during his act of thievery and refused to let go. After the thief spent the night in the clutch of the Madonna, the Franciscan monks discovered him the next morning and had to cut off his arm to release him (or Lonely Planet speculates that the guild of butchers who frequented the church may have assisted in the removal). I assume that Mary, now satisfied, let the arm go so that it could be hung from the entrance to the tomb. If the arm of the man is over 400 years old, as reported, it dates back to the first church. That may not be too far-fetched as the old mummified arm looks like it has been through a fire. The arm stands as a stark reminder that thievery does not pay. 
The arm of the jewel thief, now attached to a chain and not Mary's hand. 
However, the arm is not the only reminder that visits to this church may last longer than intended. The church contains the remains of Count Vratislav of Mitrovice who was buried in an elaborate and beautiful tomb. For several days after the burial horrible sounds emanated from the tomb. The priests were concerned that the poor count's spirit could not find peace, so they sprinkled the tomb with holy water. Well, it turns out that the poor count was buried alive and when he awoke from unconsciousness, he tried his hardest to alert people on the outside to let him out - but to no avail. Several years later his tomb was opened and the inside coffin was damaged and the remains of the count were found outside it. Thankfully, the count's corpse remains inside the tomb and not found hanging next to the arm of the jewel thief. I guess this lesson is that riches may make your entrance to heaven faster than it might be otherwise. If the count's tomb was more modest, he might have lived to see another day.  
Count Mitrovice's Tomb, the picture obtained from here
James the Greater or James the Great was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and a son of Zebedee and brother of John the apostle. He and his brother John were with their father by the seashore when Jesus called them to follow him (Matt. 3:21-22). He was one of three apostles to witness the transfiguration and the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament. He was executed by sword at the request of King Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod the Great. James is the patron saint of Spain and his remains are said to be held in the pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela. 


  1. This church is a study in contrasts--the blackened arm and creepy Count Vratislav story vs. the glorious soaring ceilings and delicate colors. A good reminder that there can be darkness behind the light (or light behind the darkness, depending on how you want to look at it).

  2. I wouldn't have believed those stories if I hadn't seen them myself.:)

    That was truly a memorable church with its incredible ceiling.