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History

The most well-known, as well as renowned, place of pilgrimage consecrated to the Virgin Mary in Bohemia - Svatá Hora (Holy Mountain) - has been, in its present-day form, towering high above the old mining town of Příbram offering a majestic panorama for more than 330 years. Svatá Hora is a vast baroque complex of buildings with a multitude of towers with its severe external look and corner chapels reminiscent of defensive bastions giving the impression of a fortress, of a castle of the Virgin Mary to whom it has been consecrated. Because of its location in the centre of the nation, Svatá Hora has been considered as the spiritual heart of Bohemia. However, very little is known of its early history.


Fortunately, thanks to the oldest known picture of Svatá Hora on an panorama of Příbram which dates to the second half of the 17th century, we know the external shape of the original chapel. It was a simple, modest building devoid of style - a description that corresponds with Balbín´s description of the building, which is to be found in his book DIVA MONTIS SANCTI, published in 1665. From that source we learn that the building was of rough, uneven walls with a flat wooden ceiling and two door-less entrances in the side walls of the nave. The floor was of trodden ground and had the following dimensions: 13 meters long, 7 meters wide and more than 4 meters high (Balbín gives the dimensions in ells). Many legends have been woven round the historical birth of Svatá Hora. According to one of them, the chapel was built in 1260 by the knight, Malovec, as an expression of his gratitude to the Virgin Mary who answered Malovec's humble supplication for protection against enemies (in some accounts, highwaymen, in others, soldiers). By another legend, it was the first Prague archbishop, Arnošt from Pardubice, who had the original chapel built. Some authors place its construction to the time of King Vladislav II. at the turn of 15th century. Because it stood on common land and its decoration consisted of painted coats of arms of those noblemen from Příbram and vicinity, who lived there in the first half of 16th century, it is highly probable that the chapel was built by the collaborative effort of the owner of the demesne and that of municipality of Příbram. The complete lack of style and amateurish simplicity of its structure do not, however, rule out the possibility that the chapel was built by one of recluses who lived in the nearby hermitage ,,from time immemorial".


The statuette of the Virgin Mary of Svatá Hora has also been a source rich in myths and legends. Balbín noted, on basis of testimonies of surviving contemporaries, that according to oral tradition, it was Arnošt from Pardubic himself, who carved the statuette and placed it on an altar standing in his chapel's arcade on the premises of his castle which was situated right in the town-center (the castle and the chapel have both survived). In time of the Hussite wars, the statuette is said to have been hidden in the tunnels of the Příbram mines by mine workers. Later it stood in the church of St. Jacob on the main square. Finally, it ended up in a hospital by the church of St. John the Evangelist. Due to an increase in silver extraction, German miners from the Krušné Hory mountain range were summoned and the church of St. John the Evangelist was handed over to them. Czech miners took the statuette of the Virgin Mary and the statuette of St. Elizabeth of Durynk from there to Svatá Hora and placed them on the side altar by the southern wall.


The lovely statuette of the Virgin Mary of Svatá Hora is, obviously enough, an ancient gothic artefact, however, a more exact dating is made difficult by its rather rustic and folk-art appearance which can be presumed to reflect an earlier style. It is, beyond doubt, of domestic origin and it represents the very beginnings of carved work tradition of the miners in Příbram. The assumed artistry of Arnošt from Pardubic as well as exact dating of the statuette's creation must belong - unless based on historical facts - to the sphere of legends and oral tradition.

It was the hermits, appointed by the local parish, who took care of the chapel. They lived nearby in a timber hut on the northern side. The parish did not differentiate between a Catholic or an Utraquist faith of the recluses. The chapel served for pilgrims of both denominations (possibly an early ecumenical shrine), who searched for consolation, encouragement, and help in time of hardship. Until the Thirty

Years War, processions had been heading for Svatá Hora every year for as long as people could remember. Difficult times fell upon the land in those days. Armies looted the land, plundered, burnt, pillaged and made beggars of common people. The long war impoverished the land. Alarming reports spread horror and fear. People lived in omnipresent dread and the seemingly endless conflict only further nourished desperation and aggravation in the citizenry. In 1631, when Saxons stormed Bohemia, an immensely cruel blow hit Svatá Hora. A part of the emperor's army pitched their camp here and the chapel became a stable for their horses. Soldiers burnt everything they could, only the statuettes on the altar remained intact. Plundered and covered in grime, the chapel became a symbol of the time, when nation and its people together were at an all-time low.


At that time an event was beginning, quite unnoticed, to take shape in Prague whose relevance to the fate of Svatá Hora could have hardly been anticipated. A blind beggar Jan Procházka dreamt several nights in a row that he was asked to go on a pilgrimage to Svatá Hora and plead with the Holy Virgin for restoration of his sight. The recurrence and urgency of the dream prompted him to make a decision. Together with his ten-year-old grandson he set off on the journey. They entered the town of Příbram on the 10th June 1632. They found the hermitage unoccupied. After several days of incessant prayers and supplications to the Holy Virgin a miracle occurred and the beggar Procházka regained his sight - just as had been promised in the dream. The Roman Catholic Church, on basis of testimonies of eye-witnesses and of doctors' expert opinions, officially recognized his recovery to be a miracle according to the standards required by Church regulations.

The above mentioned miracle raised hopes which were most needed in those days. The account of the miracle spread quickly and soon it reached the emperor's court. It was in 1634 that Emperor Ferdinand II accompanied by his son arrived to the chapel to pay homage/tribute to the Virgin Mary of Svatá Hora. This sole miracle became the main, groundbreaking event in the history of Svatá Hora. Interest in Svatá Hora started to be expressed after the emperor's visit - first by local noblemen who did not hesitate to show their devotion and generosity. The chapel was repaired, new doors and windows as well as ceiling, benches and organs were installed - the number of Svatá Hora's benefactors and votaries did not cease to grow. In 1646 emperor Ferdinand III himself even paid two visits to Svatá Hora: the first time with his brother, the second time with his son who was accompanying him on his coronation journey to Prague.

In the endless war, Svatá Hora was endangered several times by the looting armies, however, the statuette of Holy Virgin of Svatá Hora was always carefully hidden.


Suffering from a great shortage of priests, the dean of Příbram was not able to meet requirements for religious service and he himself seldom visited Svatá Hora. A number of local noblemen signed and submitted a petition to the emperor in which they asked him to entrust the Jesuits from neighbouring Březnice with the care of the Svatá Hora chapel. The Emperor consented and the Jesuits took over in its management on the 24th of August, 1 647.


The beginnings of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus on Svatá Hora were very modest, nevertheless, they fervently, and with dedication, fulfilled their religious duties in the locality and in abandoned neighbouring parishes.


In 1648, the longest war in history of Czech realm finally came to its end. The ravages of war had wreaked havoc, and everywhere there was something that needed to be repaired. Nonetheless, the devoted service of the Jesuits at Svatá Hora began to bear fruit. The number of pilgrims, supplicants, and penitents was growing rapidly - and the chapel was far too small to seat them. Eventually, after more than an eleven-year long management of the chapel, the Jesuits decided to lay out vast pilgrimage grounds which would meet the requirements of the growing number of visitors. On 13th February, 1659 Jesuit Father Benjamin Scheleyer had a meeting with architect Carlo Lurago on behalf of a project for the future place of pilgrimage to be built in the Baroque Style. Schleyer seems to have presented his vision, and Lurago drew up the plans to realize it.

Already before that, Lurago had developed projects for the church of St. Francis Xavier, for the cemetery church of St. Rocha, and for a chapel in the nearby spa, Dobrá Voda.

Later he actively collaborated with the Jesuit Order on many important projects for different locations in Bohemia.


Lurago together with P. Schleyer proposed preserving the original chapel and, on an elevated platform around it, building eight chapels with two antechambers each. Another fourteen chapels were to be built in a longitudinal plan with octagonal corner bastions in the lower ambulatory. The actual realization of the project would require a large amount of money. Enthusiastically promoting this plan, the Jesuits soon succeeded in requiring a host of patrons from the ranks of noblemen and burghers alike, as well as from among countless anonymous pilgrims. People from all walks of life participated in contributing to the project and so, a truly national monument was being built, albeit in the name of the Society of Jesus, to the glory of God Almighty and to the everlasting glory of the Virgin Mary of Svatá Hora. The wealthier donors- the nobility and burghers - started contributing financially to the building of their own chapels (in total there were to be twenty-two of them) even before the foundations were excavated. However, the digging of the foundations (beginning with the western ambulatory) was postponed by a year and a half - and began only on 29th July, 1660. In 1661, foundations for the corner chapels were laid and at the back of the sanctuary, the rough brickwork of the great loggia was put up. This, rather uncertain, commencement of the construction works was interrupted by another war, this time caused by Turks, who were about to storm through the land of Hungary into Moravia. On 18th April, 1663 the Ottomans officially declared war against the emperor. Prior of the Order of the Cross J. J. Pospíchal wrote on September 9th that year that ,,great horror spreads in the city of Prague, as if the Turk was already at the city gates, and the horror and dread is so terrifying that it is hardly possible to capture in writing. The nobility as well as peasants have tried desperately to enter the city walls, and so great is their number that the city could not possibly shelter them all. The masses of people in the city of Prague are so dazed and paralysed by fear that I do not dare to mouth it here."

The concerns for security of the statuette as well as for the treasure of Svatá Hora made the Jesuit fathers move all the valuable items to Prague. Even though the emperor conquered his enemy the next year, out of wariness, the Jesuits postponed the return of the statuette of the Madonna until the final appeasement of the conflict in May 1665. Nevertheless, the construction work in all its intensity started systematically again immediately after the war, that is to say in 1664.

First, the octagonal corner chapels were built, then the western and southern ambulatories, loggias (each with three open chapels) and the central shrine on the western side of the complex were put up. Finally, the northern ambulatory and the adjoining residence were built. By 1673, the rudimentary part of the construction works was completed and the decorations of the complex nearly finished. Thus construction of the shrine took place primarily in the period between 1664 and 1673. Almost immediately upon completion, on 27th August, 1673, the archbishop of Prague, Matouš Sobek of Bílenberk, officially opened and consecrated the shrine and its three altars. Three days later when emperor Leopold I paid visit to Svatá Hora, the celebrations gained in intensity and the emperor presented the cathedral with some generous gifts of priceless value. Out of all the places of pilgrimage in Bohemia Leopold I most liked Stará Boleslav and Svatá Hora. He came again on pilgrimage to Svatá Hora again in 1680, at the time of the great plague, after he had fled from Vienna to Prague. Such visits of eminent personalities contributed greatly to the prestige of the place.

The final completion of the pilgrimage church was again stalled by wars and plagues. (There was plague in 1680. The Turks threatened the gates of Vienna in 1683). The construction works continued again only at the end of seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth century. The naturally formed terrain, rising above the arched courtyard (where the central sanctuary was located) and surrounded by the ambulatories, was adapted into a terrace with a stone retaining wall, a staircase, and a balustrade decorated with a number of statues of saints and angels. Both entry gates were finished with statues, busts, reliefs, and splendid, high baroque portals that were feats of engineering.

Svatá Hora, richly decorated with works of art by various painters, sculptors, plasterers and skilled craftsmen, was perceived as a genuine wonder by pilgrims who arrived at the site from all directions. Some came in huge processions, others came individually from nearby places as well as from remote spots of Bohemia and Moravia. Their numbers grew rapidly, and the fame of the place spread across the regions of Europe. There were numerous pilgrimages arriving from Bavaria, Austria, Hungary and other countries. Bohuslav Balbín noted down as early as in the first half of 17th century that: „...there is a constant flow of processions to Svatá Hora along the roads that run through this land which is literally blessed with devotion and piety...". He further continues in his observations: „...Svatá Hora is priceless and stands above all riches, for there is nothing more valuable than health restored by the praised Virgin of Svatá Hora through the goodness of heaven and miracles. It is an extraordinary gift and the most valuable landmark and distinctive feature of this land."


Miraculous restorations of good health to pilgrims, assistance and guidance through miscellaneous perils and lifethreatening situations were chronicled by the Jesuit fathers in detail. Much of these records were published and many others remained only in manuscript form. By and large, over a thousand miracles were recorded that raised hope in the possible help of the Virgin Mary. Such assistance was sought by generations of pilgrims to Svatá Hora who would plead by her lovely statuette which received their greatest respect, attention and care. On various occasions, the statuette would be dressed precious mantles, the number of which steadily increased. They were made of splendid, richly decorated fabrics, however not even that seemed to be sufficient to honour her in the eyes of the arriving pilgrims. From their donations, a golden-wrought covering, richly decorated with glaze and precious stones, was procured for the statuette in 1723. In 1734 it was redecorated, this time even more profusely. The statuette stood on the main altar which was made, in several levels, of pure silver. However, what the devotees of the Madonna yearned for even more for the statue were royal coronets of gold. The ,,coronation" of pilgrimage paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary was introduced in the Roman Catholicism in 1640. An Italian Jesuit, Alexander Sforza Pallavicini, introduced the idea initially. He came to the conclusion that if ruling monarchs were entitled to wear golden crowns, then such privilege belonged even more legitimately and rightfully to the Queen of Heaven and her Son. With a consent of a special Vatican-based commission, paintings and statues of the Virgin Mary became entitled to the act of coronation, first in the most famous places of pilgrimage in Italy, and later in other countries. Eventually, the statuette of the Virgin Mary of Svatá Hora, was granted this privilege. This brought honour and extraordinary privilege to all of Svatá Hora. Svatá Hora became one of world's most renowned places of pilgrimage. The first coronation took place on 22 June, 1732. Some of the altars were procured for the occasion of this ceremony, the Prague Gate was covered in illustrative wall paintings, and all of Svatá Hora was decorated with unparalleled pomp and splendour. The festivity proceeded in the presence of countless pilgrims, noblemen, and clergy for eight days. As many as seventy Holy Masses were held every day. Organization of the festivity was flawless - and there were indeed enough lessons to be learned from history. Not long before, the celebration of beatification (1721) and canonization (1729) of St. John of Nepomuk had taken place in both Prague and in the nearby town of Nepomuk, drawing crowds from all over Bohemia. It was a time of numerous celebrations and church services. The famous Svatá Hora coronation surpassed these previous festivities. It was a period of the great outburst of religious feelings among the common people, a time when pilgrims were commemorating the centenary of the miraculous restoration of the good health of Procházka, the pilgrim, who had taken care of the run-down and abandoned chapel which later became the central shrine of the best known pilgrimage destination in the Czech Kingdom.

Seen from an artistic and historical perspective, we must appreciate its ideal architectural state and decorations which date back to the days of the coronation. Though the central shrine area was rather small, seen in terms of the original chapel, with a flat carved ceiling coated with gold, with its many silver lamps and its proportionally balanced and low silver altar, it gave the impression of a rare jewel box for the most precious treasure. The work was finished, the plan of iconographic decoration carried out, and the original architectural concept was accomplished-quite remarkably, it is still undisturbed. All the chapels were decorated with high quality stuccowork by the foremost Italian artists active in Bohemia and with original works of painting, including painted coats of arms of many an important patrons.

Even though in the following years some wanted to ,,improve" and replace everything, it was not always successful. Adverse weather conditions (rain, snow storms, rime and frost) caused the porticos of the three open chapels on the western side to be bricked up in 1746. An opening was broken through into the wall of the church and all was interconnected into one complex, lacking, however, the organic unity of the original design. As a result, the main shrine- the church of Assumption of the Virgin Mary - could seat considerably more pilgrims, but only at the cost of the unique atmosphere of the place which was lost in the new design. The holy, almost mysterious, dusk of the old chapel was scattered by light from the highest central chapel of the former western loggia- and two rather different worlds of light and dark met and became one.

After 1751 the high-quality stuccowork of the ambulatory chapels in the neighbouring arches, became mixed with paintings of uneven artistic quality. As was the custom of the time, one of the lay brethren, painted the ambulatory arches with a total of one hundred miraculous events from the period between 1639 and 1751, events which were brought about through the intercession of the Holy Virgin of Svatá Hora. There is a date noted in each of the paintings. The first painting, which dates back to year 1751, makes it possible for us to determine the approximate period of the paintings' creation.The enlarged church was still too small for the great number of pilgrims and so the Jesuits decided to rebuild the complex again and in that way to acquire some more space. In the 1770's they ordered plans for a radical reconstruction to be made, however their project was never carried out. In 1773 the Jesuit Order was abolished for more than forty years and secular administrators took over the management of Svatá Hora. After 1796 the administrators held the titles of provost.

It was as if Svatá Hora was deserted after the departure of Jesuits. The state took control the religious life, processions were banished, ambulatories were closed down, and Svatá Hora was deprived of a great part of its property. The provosts, very often old men, together with assistant priests could hardly manage to perform the religious services. There was neither enough money nor willpower for the necessary maintenance and repairs. During the period of their management, only a flat ceiling above the oldest part of the church was replaced with vault of the same height as the most westernmost section of the complex.


In 1861 when the Redemptorists were given care of Svatá Hora they faced a difficult task. First, they had to summon all their resourcesy to carry out the necessary repairs. The paintings in the open chapels were mostly either noticeably damaged or completely destroyed and the condition of ceilings and lunette paintings in the ambulatories was very much the same.


The iconographical plan carried out by the Jesuits was partly adapted by the Redemptionsts according to the needs of their own congregation. They changed the arrangement of some of the chapels and altars, and added new ones. They had all the paintings either repainted or restored. In 1903 they reconstructed the church and had its previously undecorated dome decorated in a combination of faux-baroque and Art Noveau stuccoed embellishments.


After this extensive reconstruction and restoration they asked the Pope Saint Pius X to grant the title of basilica to the pilgrimage church. The pope rarely grants this title except to promote or honour the most renowned shrines. Pope Pius X acknowledged their request and released a special brief, ,,Sacri aedibus", by which he elevated Svatá Hora and gave it the title of a ,,minor basilica". The celebration of this elevation was spectacular appropriate to the importance of the new title. Svatá Hora is not a basilica from the architectural point of view but because of its religious symbolism as a royal palace, i.e. a palace of the Queen of Heaven, the Holy Virgin.

The basilica and the eastern Coronation Chapel received a number of new altars and eventually, in the period from 1928 to 1934, also the outdoor area in front of the eastern façade was suitably renovated.

The productive period of Redemptorists' management of Svatá Hora lasted until 1950, when the order was forced to leave for forty long years. When the Redemptorists returned in 1990 there were clearly some very difficult tasks ahead of them. Apart from the spiritual management there was the need of extensive restoration. One of the most extensive and financially demanding tasks is the restoration of one of the staircases of Svatá Hora as well as the stone terrace, the courtyard, the Prague Gate staircase, and the other gates. May the favour of the Virgin Mary and the generosity of the pilgrims, as well as that of other visitors, be with them and help them in their responsible, fruitful and pious work! The names of numerous donors are listed in the corridor leading to the staircase.

 

 

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