The largest church treasury in the Czech lands and one of the most extensive in Europe traces its beginnings back to the early Middle Adges
The largest church treasury in the Czech lands and one of the most extensive in Europe, the Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral traces its beginnings back to the early Middle Ages. One of the oldest items in its inventory is a relic of the arm of Saint Vitus, acquired by Prince Wenceslas in 929 from Henry I, Duke of Saxony. To preserve this holy relic, Wenceslas erected a rotunda with an apse in which he himself was later buried, when he had become a venerated patron saint. The establishment of the Bishopric of Prague in 973 and the elevation of the Romanesque Rotunda of St. Vitus, founded by Wenceslas, to the status of a metropolitan church in 1344 marked further important milestones in the gradual constitution of the church treasury. During the second half of the 14th century, it was significantly enlarged through acquisitions of relics of saints and martyrs, donated to the church by King Charles IV. Accomplished goldsmiths and silversmiths fashioned precious vessels in which the holy remains were kept, allowing their manipulation during liturgical celebrations and important dynastic occasions. It was not unusual for the containers to be replaced, whether for reasons of damage, changes in period taste or liturgical needs.
The Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral suffered major losses during the Hussite wars and in subsequent periods of social tumult and economic shortages. Even so, Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral still boasts a collection of precious artifacts that is truly admirable in its extent. Among the finest masterpieces produced during the era of Charles IV (1346–1378) is a gold reliquary – or coronation – cross, as well as a cross with a fragment of Christ’s loincloth, the reliquary of St. Catherine and a reliquary featuring an emblem of the Peter Parler family. While some objects appear quite simple in form and material – such as a processional crystal cross and the crystal jug for storing the tablecloth from the Last Supper – they are, in fact, brilliant creations carved in crystal, most probably of Venetian provenance, that attest to the artisans’ exquisite workmanship. Under the reign of King Ladislaus II Jagiellon, the treasury’s inventory was further expanded to include the reliquary busts of SS. Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert, the cathedral’s principal patron saints. Besides the cult of these protectors of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the exhibition also explores the cult of St. Ludmila, disseminated by the Benedictine convent attached to St. George’s Basilica at Prague Castle.
The Baroque era is represented by a diamond-studded monstrance that belonged to Johann Ignatius Dominic Putz and a crosier used by Franz Ferdinand von Kuenburg, Archbishop of Prague. There are examples of the goldsmiths’ art dating from the 19th century (a monstrance of Charles X, King of France) and the 20th century (the reliquary of St. Wenceslas executed after a design by the architect Josef Fanta). Furthermore, the exhibition features panel paintings, with Veraicons being the most outstanding among them. Believed to be impressed images of Christ’s true appearance, they were venerated the same way sacred relics were. Among other invaluable exhibits are historical textiles that have formed part of the Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral from its earliest period. Other precious fabrics on display are the standard of Saint George and ecclesiastical vestments (paramenta) associated with SS. Wenceslas and Adalbert. An Art Nouveau chasuble modelled on Fanta’s design is a textile work of supreme craftsmanship.
The exhibition will guide visitors through the most prominent phases during which the Treasury’s extensive collection was amassed, introducing not only its rich array of genres and materials, but above all its spiritual wealth. Many generations of our ancestors venerated and placed their hopes on the relics stored in the precious, sumptuously embellished receptacles. Erected in the mid-18th century and remodelled a century later by Ferdinand I, Emperor of Austria, the Chapel of the Holy Rood in Prague Castle’s second courtyard has been selected as the location where the Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral will be on public display. During the exhibition’s preparatory work, the chapel’s lavishly decorated interior was completely renovated and equipped with the necessary security technology and air-conditioning system.