Prague is a beautiful city, and rightfully known for its spires. One of its most striking buildings possesses some of the most soaring spires, and as an added bonus, spires upon those spires. How very Prague. This is the Church of Our Lady Before Týn.
A Gothic church that dominates the Old Town Square of Prague, Our Lady Before Týn is the third church to occupy the site, and the grandest. It was built in the 15th century, all in the Gothic style, replacing an early Gothic church, which itself replaced a Romanesque structure that may have been as old as the tenth century. Currently, it is fronted by relatively simple buildings on the square, which now house restaurants, shops, and galleries, and this provides an interesting contrast between the squat and low burghers’ houses and the soaring Gothic elegance of the church.
If you look at the façade, you’ll notice a gold sculpture of the Virgin Mary above the doorway between the spires (and spires). This has an interesting history, since it was not always a sculpture of Mary. Rather, it began as a gold sculpture of a chalice, put in place by George of Poděbrady. (The same Jiří z Poděbrad our Metro stop was named after.) Why a chalice, and why Poděbrady?
First, the chalice was the symbol of a sect of the Hussites, known colloquially as “utraquists,” after the Latin phrase sub utraque specie, meaning “in both kinds,” and referring to the Eucharist. The Catholics at the time distributed the bread to the congregants, but only the priests partook of the wine; one of the Hussites’ main bones of contention with the Catholic Church was that congregants
should must* partake of both kinds, as Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper. Seems a silly thing for someone to be burned alive over (Jan Hus was indeed barbecued at the Council of Constance, and that’s his statue on the square, in the shadow of the church), but they took their dogma very seriously back then.
In any case, Poděbrady put the chalice up on this church as a symbol both of Hussite control and of his own identity as the first Bohemian king of Bohemia since the Přemyslids died out 150 years before his accession. But, much like Hussitism, the chalice did not last. And, much like Jan Hus himself, it was melted down in a fire. Later it was remade into the halo surrounding the Virgin Mary you can see there today. See? Much more interesting than just any old religious icon.
The interior of the church does not disappoint either, though if you’re visiting, be sure to note that the main entrance is off the square, through a small passage between the restaurants in front. It is also only open during odd hours: 10:00 – 13:00 and 15:00 – 17:00.
However, going inside even for a minute or two is worth it, if only to see the tomb of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. While Brahe was not able to work with telescopes, and therefore only understood stars’ lack of parallax in the context of their taxonomic contrast to comets, he was one of the most comprehensive observational astronomers the world has ever seen, and his steps forward were incredibly useful in furthering cosmology from the ancient paradigms.
Our Lady Before Týn is a gem, but it is hidden in plain sight. While virtually every visitor to Prague will go to the Old Town Square, comparatively few will really notice Our Lady Before Týn. When you visit, make sure you do.
*See the comments.