If you are on the way between the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, you can hardly miss a large Baroque church standing at a sloped Malostranské náměstí (the Lesser Town Square). The church with its large dome and a tall tower is a natural eye-catcher from all directions – including the one from above, i.e. from Prague Castle.
A church – or three?
The church is St. Nicholas Church. Interestingly, there are no less than three St. Nicolas Churches in Prague – one is at the Old Town Square and one in Vinohrady. What is more, all of them were built at the same time (1st half of 18th century) – and those in the Lesser Town and at the Old Town Square even by the same architects. You see that it can be a bit tricky to ask for direction to the St Nicholas Church. However, you would most probably be sent to the Lesser Town.
Jesuits want a new church
St Nicholas Church in the Lesser Town was ordered by the Jesuits who already had a compound there. They wanted a new church built to replace older ones which were not in accord with the rather pompous and exuberant Baroque style. The fact that the foundation stone of the new church was laid by the Emperor Leopold I himself demonstrates how strong position the Jesuits had and how important role their new temple was to have.
The Dientzenhofers – masters of Baroque architecture
The construction began in 1703. The chief architect was Christoph Dientzenhofer. After Christoph’s death in 1722, his son Kilian Ignaz took over. However, even he didn’t see the church complete. He died in 1751 and more than a decade passed before the completion. The last master-builder was Anselmo Lurago – who was Kilian Ignaz’s son-in-law. Thus, three generations of the Dientzenhofer clan were involved!
History without disasters
The Church was complete by 1760s. The Jesuits, however, had little time to enjoy their new church. In 1773, their order was disbanded. Unlike many other estates in Jesuit possession (many monasteries were turned to barracks or stores), St Nicholas Church further served as a church. The following two centuries were kind to it as well with no major disaster touching it – even during the Communist regime when only a lookout of the secret police was established in the tower to monitor the Yugoslavian and American embassies. This lack of events means that St Nicholas Church is well preserved along with its statues, paintings and frescoes.
Baroque pearl – outside…
St Nicholas Church is a textbook example how the Baroque epoch replaced the straight line of the Rennaissance period by a curve – and the rectangle by oval. Bold architects created dynamic impression that the massive stone blocks are in motion. It was intended to create a feeling of piety, wonder and one’s insignificance.
…and inside as well
Typical for the Baroque was also to decorate richly the interior – and Catholic churches were typical examples of that. At the first sight, it is obvious that St Nicholas Church is no exception to this rule.
Perhaps the first thing you will notice inside the church are the vast dimensions of the interior. The second is the use shadow and light which is also a typical feature for Baroque buildings (and in paintings, too). In this regard – and not only this – the St Nicholas is a masterpiece.
After your eyes get accustomed, you can explore also the vast frescoes by John Lukas Kracker and Francis Xaver Palko and also a number of paintings. Some of the paintings were made by Karel Škréta, top Czech Baroque painter. There are also statues and not just a few but many. Most were made by Ignaz Platzer.
The large organ fits in well with the huge church. The number of pipes is incredible (4 000). Just imagine what work it must have been to have the organ assembled and tuned up! Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played this very instrument in 1787 and one of his pieces – Mass in C major was first played on it.
The church is open to tourists (CZK 70 per adult). You can also attend a Mass there. Sometimes, a concert is being held at St Nicholas. The tower has an exhibit on the Communist secret police.
How to get there:
Unless you stop here en route between the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, you can take a tram No 12, 20 or 22 to station Malostranské náměstí which is situated right below the church. The nearest metro station, Malostranská (green line A) is quite far (600 metres).