Elizabeth takes a trip to Chrám svaté Barbory (S. Barbara’s Cathedral) in Kutná Hora

The cathedral comes into view. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the building is the three-peaked tent roof, a creation of Benedikt Rejt, the chief architect who worked there from 1512 to 1532. From this angle, the whole effect is of an oriental bazaar frozen in stone and tile. I don’t know what Rejt had in mind with this roof, but the building has a jaunty air, a bit comical, in contrast to the complete, rather static unity of upward thrusting that I think as Gothic. It’s funny to think that “gothic” was an insult; the Goths were German barbarians, from a Roman point-of-view. Classical architecture was so restrained and symmetrical that Gothic spikes and unmatched towers must have seemed ugly and excessive to Roman observers.

I enter at a side door, where the inevitable table with tracts and souvenirs is watched over by a middle-aged woman complete with head scarf. She asks me for a few crowns; I’m not sure if this is an entry fee or a donation to pay for the tracts, but I give it to her gladly—it’s about 50 cents in American money. I pass into the nave, with it very high ceiling (the vault), and stop to gaze upward in pleasure.

This vault is like a sideways layer cake, with several distinct patterns: a six-petal design by Rejt, which is unusual if not unique to this building, covers part of the vault, with stars, flowers and coats-of-arms covering the rest. My 1991 guidebook to Czechoslovakia (out-of-date as to the name of the country but still full of things that haven’t changed, like this building) gives me details about the construction of this cathedral. Petr Parléř’s son Jan was the first architect and it’s believed Petr was involved in the building’s early stages. I can imagine Petr Parléř, one of many from the Parléř family of builders who were scattered across Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, hot-footing it from Prague to Kolín to Kutná Hora, then over to Nuremberg in Bavaria where he built the Frauenkirche ("Church of Our Lady").

The Frauenkirche, I see in a footnote in my guidebook, has an macabre history, more typical of Eastern Europe than Central Europe. Built by the order of Bohemian King and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1352-1362, it stands on the man market square in the town of Nuremberg, not far from the western border of Bohemia. It’s built on the site of the former synagogue, which was destroyed in a pogrom following an outbreak of the Black Death in 1349.

The Frauenkirche, as well as being a place of worship for Christians, is a political statement about the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) and is full of coats of arms and other references to the seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperor and to Rome itself, the main symbol of Holy Roman legitimacy. Never mind that the HRE didn’t exist until 800, long after the collapse of the actual Roman Empire; its authority was meant to be tied to Rome, which united Europe (or simply dominated it militarily, depending on your perspective). The funny thing is that Rome never ruled Central or Eastern Europe; they were border lands, or marches, where the Romans staffed military outposts to hold back the Barbarian hordes (mostly peoples whose descendants are now prosperous, middle-class Germans).  

Anyway, back to Kutná Hora. I wander around the nave looking up, imagining myself a stonemason on a wobbly scaffold, trying to keep the proper perspectives as I carve over my head. Then I walk around the side chapels, many of them  dramatic in their own right, with dignified stone altars and tall, faded frescos. To the left, tucked into a space near the front portal, stands a line of ten or so confessional booths painted black and gold. They have the look of something being stored, not used; I wonder if they are spares. 


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