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During each of my walking tours in Prague I was told repeatedly by the guides that the Czech Republic is the least religious country in the world. Yet I was in a city full of gorgeous churches and cathedrals, possibly some of the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere. I wanted to understand this contrast of so many churches being located in a city that rarely uses them for worship.
I started with some research. I couldn’t find any evidence to support the claim that the Czech Republic is the least religious in the world, but according to the Pew Forum they are indeed the least religious country in Central and Eastern Europe. This is particularly interesting considering that its neighboring countries have significantly higher rates of religious affiliation. Its virtually a secular island in a Christian ocean.
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By the end of my time in Prague, I came to the conclusion that its lack of religious affiliation is complicated, but has certainly been impacted by a violent past. Frequently that violence was in the name of religion; burning at the stake of the reformer, Jan Hus in 1415, the torture and beheadings of 27 Protestant leaders in 1621, and the mass murders of the Jews during both the pogroms of 1096 and the Holocaust. I’ll spare you the details, but each of these historic events were extremely cruel and gruesome.
Any religious commitment left by the end of World War II was completely snuffed out during the forty years of communist rule when many churches were forced to close and religious practices were discouraged.
Earlier this year when Jason and I visited Guadalajara we often had difficulty seeing the inside of the city’s churches and cathedrals because services are offered frequently for its thousands of devout Catholics. So while I enjoyed the opportunity to explore--and photograph--so many churches in Prague, I found it sad that their primary use today is as tourist attractions and concert halls.
Guadalajaran churches are vital institutions in the lives of its citizens, while those in Prague no longer matter much. For the Czech Republic, all those centuries of lengthy wars and bloody persecution in the name of religion resulted in a population that has mostly rejected faith.
The churches of Prague offer us more than just great photo opportunities, they provide insight into the long, complicated and difficult history of this region of the world. It’s with this perspective that I’ll share the stories and photos of some of my favorite churches and their role in Prague’s history.
Our Lady Victorius & the Infant Jesus of Prague
Most people don’t know the name of this church, but instead know it as the home of the Infant Jesus of Prague (or Infant of Prague or Baby Jesus of Prague). Located in the Mala Strana section of Prague, Our Lady of Victorius Church is the home of this well known statue. Infant Jesus of Prague is a small statue crafted of wood and covered in wax that was a wedding gift from a Spanish princess to her cousin. The exact date of its creation is unknown, but is estimated to be in the late 1500’s.
During one of many wars in the region, it was thought the statue was destroyed, but was discovered, repaired and placed in the Carmelite church, Our Lady Victorius. In 1637, a Carmelite priest’s prayer to the Infant Jesus resulted in a miracle, and ever since this has become an important place for those seeking Divine intervention. The Infant Jesus of Prague Prayer is printed in several languages and placed on the rail around the statue.
The Infant Jesus has many vestments (outfits) that are changed according to the church calendar. In 2009 Pope Benedict gave a gold crown to place atop the Infant’s head. A gift shop at the church sells a variety of books about the statue as well as prayer cards and souvenirs.
It is pretty miraculous how many wars and occupations this small, fragile statue has survived. Even during the communist era people continued to make pilgrimages here.
St. Nicholas Church Prague
St. Nicholas Church in Old Town was constructed between 1732 and 1737. As is typical of many churches in Prague, St. Nicholas has served as a place of worship for several different traditions; Catholics, Russian Orthodox and today the Czech Hussite Church. Hussite is not a tradition common outside Europe, but it was a movement to reform the Catholic Church that developed after the death of Jan Hus. Today the Czech Hussites describe themselves as a Presbyterian church with Episcopal elements.
While its exterior is impressive, it’s really the Baroque interior that is the star of the show. Highly detailed and colorful frescoes adorn the ceilings and an enormous crystal chandelier dominates the sanctuary. Gold statues surround the altar.
While now considered a part of Old Town Square, St Nicholas Church was actually built at the front of Hen Market and a set of buildings--none of which remain. This is why the placement of the church seems odd for today’s visitors.
A great place to view this church is at night from the top of Old Town Hall Tower. An elevator is available and tickets can be purchased inside Town Hall. Read more about things to do in Prague at night.
Church of Our Lady of the Snows
The Church of Our Lady of the Snows was founded on the occasion of King Charles IV coronation in 1347, but was never completed as intended. The combination of war and a depleted treasury meant this church would take centuries to complete and it was never possible to do so by following the original plans.
The Hussite Wars caused serious delay to the construction of this church as well as destruction of what was already completed. In 1611 fourteen monks were murdered on this site later becoming known as the Fourteen Martyrs of Prague. Like many other churches in the city, frequent violence impacted both the physical structure and its inhabitants.
Since this church was never completed as planned, the exterior is not nearly as impressive as others in the city, and nor is it as well known. However, the Baroque interior is filled with beautiful statues, paintings and stained glass. For anyone visiting the New Town section of Prague, it’s worth a quick visit here.
St. Vitus Cathedral
All over Prague, the gothic structure of St. Vitus Cathedral can be viewed as part of the Prague Castle complex. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Prague at night, it likely includes the lovely view of St. Vitus illuminated.
The seat of the Archbishop of Prague and most important church in the country, St. Vitus took over 600 years to build. This was the place of coronation for many Czech kings and queens, and is also the final resting place for several Catholic saints including St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. John of Nepomuk.
A small interior section of the cathedral can be seen for free, but for a better view it will require a ticket. Inside there is an amazing array of chapels, statues, stained glass, paintings and mosaics.
While I saw a few mosaics in other churches in Prague, they are especially prominent inside and out at St. Vitus. Some are quite faded while others have been beautifully restored. The most famous of all the mosaics is The Last Judgement depicting the Second Coming of Christ.
I highly recommend taking a Prague Castle tour which will include the cathedral. It’s difficult to fully appreciate this massive cathedral without some historical background and guidance.
I saved the best for last.
I knew before I went to Prague that I had to visit Strahov Monastery and its famous Philosophical and Theological Libraries. What I didn't know is that one of the best views of this city can be had just outside the walls of the monastery. In addition, there are two great restaurants here. Put all of these reasons together and you have a great half-day in Prague.
The monastery was founded in the early twelfth century, but struggled for hundreds of years as a result of financial difficulties and war. In the 1600’s a significant amount of building took place--including the Theological Library--and the monastery became the center of academic life in Prague. The Philosophical Library was added a hundred years later.
There is a small charge for visitors to see both libraries and the picture gallery and I recommend all three. The frescoes on the ceiling of the Theological Library are alone worth the price of admission. The gallery is housed in the former convent and today displays hundreds of religiously themed paintings that were collected over hundreds of years. The gallery also includes a small exhibit of treasures of the monastery such as the ornate vestments of former Bishops and chalices adorned with jewels.
I highly recommend arriving at the Monastery early before all of the tour buses. This is especially important since the space to view the libraries is small. You may--or may not--be allowed to take pictures of the libraries. I was told by the ticket seller that I absolutely could not take photos, yet most people were taking photos with their cell phones when I visited.
There is a restaurant in the middle of the monastery called Strahov Brewery that I did not try, but has received good reviews for both its beer and food. I enjoyed Bellavista which offers a large outdoor terrace with great views and is a lovely way to end your time visiting the monastery.
Add Prague Churches and Cathedrals to your list
I was fortunate to have a full seven days to enjoy Prague and as a result visited dozens of churches. Here I’ve shared a few that I found especially interesting for their aesthetics or history. As you visit Prague and wander its cobblestone streets I hope you’ll pop into as many churches and cathedrals as possible. They help tell the stories of the Czech Republic, both ancient and modern.