In the next of her blog posts looking at the life and patronage of Charles IV, Laura explores the opulent Chapel of the Holy Cross at Karlštejn Castle…
A day’s horse ride away from Prague, Karlštejn Castle became one of Charles’ most important courtly residences. He stored his imperial treasure and the imperial regalia there. It was also a place where this deeply pious ruler could honour his absent family, and the saints he believed were looking out for him in heaven, watching over him and helping him with his daily life.
When Charles returned to Prague in 1333, aged seventeen, his mother had died and his father was far away, ruling other countries. In an autobiography begun in 1346, Charles writes that ‘when we arrived in Bohemia we found neither father nor mother nor brothers nor sisters nor anyone else we knew. In addition, we had completely forgotten the Czech language…’
Perhaps feeling lonely and isolated, Charles turned to saintly protectors with enthusiasm, particularly saints who were also family, such as his holy ancestor, St Wenceslas. He became a great collector of relics- the earthly remains of saints, which could be anything from a fragmentary body part, such as limbs or even locks of hair, to an object owned or perhaps even just touched by the saint while they were alive. These objects were thought to have become charged with the holy essence of the saint and could now work miracles, particularly healing and protective ones.
‘when we arrived in Bohemia we found neither father nor mother nor brothers nor sisters nor anyone else we knew. In addition, we had completely forgotten the Czech language…’
At Karlštejn, Charles had an oratory dedicated to St Wenceslas in his private apartments. And he had pictures of his ancestors painted all over the castle. Perhaps they reminded him of who he was, and where he came from before he started on his travels between different European courts. Karlštejn Castle hall was painted with a huge family genealogy, starting with Noah and the Trojans and finally reaching Charles’s more recent Luxembourg and Brabantine ancestors. Portraits of Charles and his own family were also placed in other castle chapels.
There were at least five chapels at Karlštejn, but the largest and most splendid was the chapel dedicated to Holy Cross. The Holy Cross Chapel is accessed by a staircase, and Charles decorated it with scenes from the lives of two of his holy ancestors, St Wenceslas and St Ludmila.
Decorated between 1360 and 1364, the walls of the chapel are covered with slabs of precious and semi-precious stones, including gold, jasper and amethyst, set in the form of large gold crosses.
The brilliance of the decoration evokes the heavenly Jerusalem described in Revelation 21, 18-19: ‘the city itself [was of] pure gold like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper: the second,sapphire…’ Charles clearly liked to imagine Prague as a new Jerusalem. He made sure that a smaller chapel in Karlštejn, known today as St Catherine’s Chapel, also echoed the gem-studded walls of the heavenly city. In the Holy Cross Chapel however, there is a very unusual feature. Amongst the glitter of gold and precious stones, three tiers of portraits are lined up on the chapel walls. The Holy Cross Chapel looks like a huge picture gallery, hundreds of years before they became popular.
A medieval visitor is more likely to have seen a resemblance to the iconostasis, the wall of paintings and icons found in Orthodox Christian churches between the nave and the sanctuary. Painted by Charles’ court painter, Master Theodoric and his workshop, there are 130 portraits of different Christian saints, placed like witnesses to the Crucifixion of Christ that was painted on a panel behind the altar. On the north wall are portraits of the authors of the gospels, the apostles and angels. On the west wall are holy bishops, abbots and rulers. Most of the panels have a textured or engraved gold ground, matching the textured and gem-encrusted golden walls of the chapel and its vaulted roof. In each frame is a small compartment, designed to hold a relic of the saint depicted in the panel painting.
Even here, Charles made sure to honour his ancestors. One of the most famous panels from the Holy Cross Chapel is this painting of his ancestor Charlemagne, believed by the fourteenth century to be a holy saint as well as a great ruler.
Charlemagne is shown holding the golden orb and sceptre found in the imperial treasury. The shield emblazoned with the imperial eagle, like the now-missing crown on Charlemagne’s head, were both carved separately and added to the panel at an angle. By overlapping with the frame of the panel, and standing out from the circular metallic appliqués decorating the gold background, the crown and shield stop Charlemagne from blending in with the rest of the paintings on the walls. Your eye is unable to drift from picture to picture.
Charlemagne is a solemn, bearded figure- and he does seem to look a lot like Charles IV…
Discover more about Master Theodoric, the court painter of Prague, in our next post…