The ancient city of Prague hugs the hills rising from the river Vltava. Rows of steeples stacked on onion domes pierce the sky, a spectacle that has earned Prague the moniker “The City of a Thousand Spires.”
Prague has seen many wars and conflicts over its long history, but today it is only hordes of tourists that pound its cobblestone streets. There is much to see of religious interest in Prague, including a Gothic cathedral, countless interesting churches, sites associated with the pre-Luther reformer Jan Hus, and a historic Jewish Quarter that is home to the oldest synagogue in Europe.
St. Vitus Cathedral
Its soaring spires visible from all over Prague, the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral (Katedrála sv Vita) is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. Construction on the present building began in 1344 and was not completed until the 20th century.
Above the south entrance to the cathedral (through the Golden Portal) is the Last Judgment mosaic. A remarkable work of art in itself, it is also notable in that mosaics are quite rare in northern Europe. The work dates from the 1370s and is made of 1 million pieces of glass and stone. In the center it depicts Christ in glory, adored by Charles IV, his wife and several saints; on the left, the risen dead and angels; and on the right, Satan surrounded by hellfire.
Inside, the square Chapel of St. Wenceslas (Svatováclavská kaple) holds a 14th century tomb with the saint’s holy relics. St. Wenceslas was prince of Bohemia and the “good king” of Christmas carol fame. He founded the original church of St. Vitus on this site in 925 and was killed by his brother four years later. The chapel was built by Peter Parler between 1344 and 1364.
A small door with seven locks in the south-western corner of the St. Wenceslas Chapel leads to the Crown Chamber (Korunní komora) containing the Bohemian Coronation Jewels. It is not open to the public and its seven keys are kept by seven different people. The Royal Crypt contains remains of various royals, but is primarily interesting for the visual history of the cathedral it provides. On the way down the stairs you can see parts of the old Romanesque basilica and the original rotunda church.
A more notable burial is the Sarcophagus of St. John of Nepomuk. According to legend, when Nepomuk was exhumed in 1721, his tongue was found to be not only preserved but pumping with blood. This tale likely served a political purpose: the Church and the Habsburgs needed a new folk hero to replace the reforming heretic Jan Hus. A few years later, Nepomuk was canonized and buried with great ceremony in the present 3,700-pound ornate silver tomb. His tongue was enshrined in its own reliquary.
The Wallenstein Chapel (Valdstejnská kaple) contains the tombstones of its two architects, Mathias d’Arras and Peter Parler, who died in the 14th century.
The Old-New Synagogue (Czech: Staronová synagóga; German: Alt-neu Schul) in the Jewish Quarter (Josefov) of Prague is Europe’s oldest active synagogue and one of the earliest Gothic buildings. It is still active today.
The Old-New Synagogue is still an active center of worship for Prague’s Jewish community. It is not part of the Jewish Museum and there are no museum displays inside. It is well worth a visit, however, for its Gothic architecture and historic importance.
The single-story synagogue consists of a central prayer hall for men, with the women’s gallary surrounding it. The Old-New Synagogue is the oldest surviving example of the medieval twin-nave type of synagogue. Above the bimah (prayer/reading area) hangs a remnant of a red flag with the Star of David, the Jewish symbol. In 1357, Charles IV, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, allowed the Jews of Prague to have their own city flag.
The tattered red banner hanging next to the Jewish flag was a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III to the Jews for their help in stopping an invasion by the Swedes in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years War. On the east wall is the Ark which contains the Torah scrolls.