“You may burn the goose, but one day there will come a swan,and you will not burn him.” Martin Luther
The sublime Gothic exterior of this apparently unremarkable building belies the great importance it had in the history of the Czech Republic and indeed of Europe.
The Prague synod of 1389 denied reformers the right to preach in parish churches but granted permission to conduct Czech services in chapels, so, from 1391-94, they built the biggest chapel imaginable. The project’s champion was Johannes of Mülheim, and sponsors included Machuta the cloth-cutter and Kříž the merchant, who also supplied the site of an old malt house. The building was revolutionary, and the simple Gothic exterior hid an even simpler Gothic interior. Devoid of altar and ornamentation, the congregation of 3,000 focused on the pulpit. Although not all apparently understood the intent as Kříž proudly presented the relics of a baby murdered by King Herod, which was promptly hidden away and eventually lost.
From 1402-12, Jan Hus (1372-1415), rector of the Karolinum and follower of English reformer John Wycliffe, preached here. After Rector Jeník was burned for heresy by the Council of Constance in 1415, the chapel became the home of radicals who went beyond his ideas but took his name as the Hussites, and in 1521, the leader of the German peasant’s revolt Thomas Münzer took to the pulpit here. After the defeat of the reformists at the Battle of Bílá Hora in 1622, the building became the property of the Jesuits, and in 1768, the chapel was gutted, the roof and east wall were pulled down, and a house was later built into the remnants.
After the communists seized power in 1948, Rector Jeník and Preacher Tom were lauded as early proletarian revolutionaries, their religious inclinations being apparently incidental in a Marxist historical reading of class conflict, and from 1950-54, the building was meticulously reconstructed by Jaroslav Fragner, who had previously done a far less authentic job on the Karolinum. During the course of the reconstruction, inscriptions from Rector Jeník and his friend and successor, Jakoubeck of Stříbro of the nearby Kostel sv Martina ve zdi (St Martin in the Wall Church), were uncovered and have been restored and augmented by new frescos featuring scenes from the life of Rector Jeník and the Hussites.
The building is now the property of the Czech Technical University and is used for graduation ceremonies, but the rest of the time it is open to the public (daily 9am to 6pm, entrance fee 30Kč), with a good English text available detailing the history of the chapel and the things to look out for. There is also a small museum, of the information boards and few artefacts variety, in the old private rooms upstairs, that provides a very good introduction to this important part of Czech history for anyone who has ever stood in Staromĕské námĕstí looking up at the massive statue and wondered so who the hell is that bloke anyway?
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November 3, 2005
From journal Prague’s Betlémské Námĕstí: A Hidden Corner of the Old Town
London, United Kingdom
July 7, 2001
The movement needed a building in which to preach the Mass in vernacular, without the abuses that the movement claimed had crept into the Catholics’ theology and practice. In the late 14th century permission was received for the building of a place of worship, and the Bethlehem Chapel was constructed on this site.
The building here today is not wholly original – the first version was torn down in the 19th century, and the building you see today was put back together from drawings, paintings, and local records by the Communists. For some strange reason the Communists felt an affinity for the Hussite heresy – strange because the Hussites were definitely a Christian movement, believing however in local-language texts and worship, faith over works, and other doctrines later taken up and expanded by the Reformation. The bits left over from the demolition were scraped together, and the missing bits filled in, to recreate the building you see today. The process of the re-building, and some records of the builders, are now displayed in one of the small meeting rooms off the main chapel area inside.
The interior would have been shocking at the time, but to those of us who have now seen Lutheran or Baptist chapels, it is similar to many of those. The decoration is sparse (white-washed, mostly), and the pulpit for the preaching of the all-important sermons is bigger and more central than in a Catholic church. The communion table is very bare in comparison, and the seating is simple and functional.
This is a fascinating building, both in itself, and in what it stands for, and I urge a visit.
From journal Prague - a jewel among cities