With its graceful, soaring towers, this Gothic cathedral—among the most beautiful in Europe—is the spiritual heart of Prague Castle and of the Czech Republic itself. The cathedral has a long and complicated history, beginning in the 10th century and continuing to its completion in 1929. Note that it's no longer free to enter the cathedral (entry is included in the combined ticket to see the main castle sights). It's perfectly okay just to wander around inside and gawk at the splendor, but you'll get much more out of the visit with the audioguide, which is available at the castle information centers.
Once you enter the cathedral, pause to take in the vast but delicate beauty of the Gothic and neo-Gothic interior. Colorful light filters through the brilliant stained-glass windows. This western third of the structure, including the façade and the two towers you can see from outside, was not completed until 1929, following the initiative of the Union for the Completion of the
Cathedral. Don't let the neo-Gothic illusion keep you from examining this new section. The six stained-glass windows to your left and right and the large rose window behind are modern masterpieces. Take a good look at the third window up on the left. The familiar art nouveau flamboyance, depicting the blessing of Sts. Cyril and Methodius (9th-century missionaries to the Slavs), is the work of Alfons Mucha, the Czech founder of the style. He achieved the subtle coloring by painting rather than staining the glass.
Walking halfway up the right-hand aisle, you will find the Svatováclavská kaple (Chapel of St. Wenceslas). With a tomb holding the saint's remains, walls covered in semi-precious stones, and paintings depicting the life of Wenceslas, this square chapel is the ancient core of the cathedral. Stylistically, it represents a high point of the dense, richly decorated—though rather gloomy—Gothic favored by Charles IV and his successors. Wenceslas (the "good king" of the Christmas carol) was a determined Christian in an era of widespread paganism. Around 925, as prince of Bohemia, he founded a rotunda church dedicated to St. Vitus on this site. But the prince's brother, Boleslav, was impatient to take power, and he ambushed and killed Wenceslas in 935 near a church at Stará Boleslav, northeast of Prague. Wenceslas was originally buried in that church, but so many miracles happened at his grave that he rapidly became a symbol of piety for the common people, something that greatly irritated the new Prince Boleslav. Boleslav was finally forced to honor his brother by reburying the body in the St. Vitus Rotunda. Shortly afterward, Wenceslas was canonized.
The rotunda was replaced by a Romanesque basilica in the late 11th century. Work began on the existing building in 1344. For the first few years the chief architect was the Frenchman Mathias d'Arras, but after his death in 1352 the work continued under the direction of 22-year-old German architect Peter Parler, who went on to build the Charles Bridge and many other Prague treasures.
The small door in the back of the chapel leads to the Korunní komora (Crown Chamber), the Bohemian crown jewels' repository. It remains locked with seven keys held by seven important people (including the president) and rarely opens to the public.
A little beyond the Chapel of St. Wenceslas on the same side, stairs lead down to the underground royal crypt, interesting primarily for the information it provides about the cathedral's history. As you descend the stairs, you can see parts of the old Romanesque basilica and portions of the foundations of the rotunda. Moving into the second room, you find a rather eclectic group of royal remains ensconced in sarcophagi dating from the 1930s. In the center is Charles IV, who died in 1378. Rudolf II, patron of Renaissance Prague, is entombed at the rear in his original tin coffin. To his right is Maria Amalia, the only child of Empress Maria Theresa to reside in Prague. Ascending the wooden steps back into the cathedral brings you to the white-marble Kralovské mausoleum (Royal Mausoleum), atop which lie stone statues of the first two Hapsburg kings to rule in Bohemia, Ferdinand I and Maximilian II, and another of Ferdinand's consort, Anne Jagiello.
The cathedral's Kralovské oratorium (Royal Oratory) was used by the kings and their families when attending mass. Built in 1493, the work represents a perfect example of late Gothic. It's laced on the outside with a stone network of gnarled branches, similar in pattern to the ceiling vaulting in the Královský palác. The oratory connects to the palace by an elevated covered walkway, which you can see from outside.
A few more steps toward the east end, you can't fail to catch sight of the ornate silver sarcophagus of St. John of Nepomuk. According to legend, when Nepomuk's body was exhumed in 1721 to be reinterred, the tongue was found to be still intact and pumping with blood. This strange tale served a highly political purpose: The Catholic Church and the Hapsburgs were seeking a new folk hero to replace the Protestant forerunner Jan Hus, whom they despised. The 14th-century priest Nepomuk, killed during a power struggle with King Václav IV, was sainted and reburied a few years later with great ceremony in a 3,700-pound silver tomb, replete with angels and cherubim; the tongue was enshrined in its own reliquary.
The eight chapels around the back of the cathedral are the work of the original architect, Mathias d'Arras. A number of old tombstones, including some badly worn grave markers of medieval royalty, can be seen within, amid furnishings from later periods. Opposite the wooden relief, depicting the Protestants' looting of the cathedral in 1619, is the Valdštejnská kaple (Wallenstein Chapel). Since the 19th century the chapel has housed the Gothic tombstones of its two architects, d'Arras and Peter Parler, who died in 1352 and 1399, respectively. If you look up to the balcony, you can just make out the busts of these two men, designed by Parler's workshop. The other busts around the triforium depict royalty and other VIPs of the time.
The Hussite wars in the 15th century put an end to the first phase of the cathedral's construction. During the short era of illusory peace before the Thirty Years' War, the massive south tower was completed, but lack of money quashed any idea of finishing the building, and the cathedral was closed in by a wall built across from the Chapel of St. Wenceslas. Not until the 20th century was the western side of the cathedral, with its two towers, completed in the spirit of Parler's conception.
A key element of the cathedral's teeming, rich exterior decoration is the Last Judgment mosaic above the ceremonial entrance, called the Golden Portal, on the south side. The use of mosaic is quite rare in countries north of the Alps; this work, constructed from 1 million glass and stone tesserae, dates from the 1370s. The once-clouded glass now sparkles again, thanks to many years of restoration funded by the Getty Conservation Institute. The central field shows Christ in glory, adored by Charles IV and his consort, Elizabeth of Pomerania, as well as several saints; the risen dead and attendant angels are on the left; and on the right the flames of Hell lick around the figure of Satan.