A visit to Bethlehem Chapel

Bethlehem Chapel

In this week's Spotlight, Dominik Jun visits Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, a monument to Jan Hus painstakingly rebuilt during the 1950s.

I’m standing in Prague 1 outside Bethlehem Chapel and next to me is Vlasta Urbánková, a guide who works here and who has very kindly agreed to tell me a little about this place.

“The chapel was built at the end of the 14th century. They started in 1391 and finished in 1394 and since the beginning it was a centre of the Reformation movement in Bohemia.”

So tell me a little bit about the Reformation and how this chapel played a role. It has to do with a figure called Jan Hus, right?

“Yes. Soon after it was built, Jan Hus came here in 1402, and he was here till 1412. He disliked the [Catholic] Church and criticized bad things in it like corruption and selling indulgences.”

So this was designed to be an alternative, cleaner, less corrupt religion.

“Yes and the building was four simple walls and a flat wooden ceiling. In the 16th century, they disliked the simplicity of this and they constructed fifteen huge pillars to carry a vault, but the vault was too heavy to carry the structure and in the 18th century it became necessary to remove everything – so there was no more chapel in the 18th century.”

Bethlehem Square in the 18th century | Source: A. Kubíček,  Betlémská kaple/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain
So if we were standing here in the 18th century what would we see?

“Two warehouses only.”

Perhaps we can go inside and continue our talk? So we are just walking through the entrance here. What is the architectural style – this is Gothic, right?

“It was Gothic, but special because of the flat ceiling. And now it looks as it looked in the past.”

So we’ve just entered the main hall. It’s sort of half a football field-sized.

“It looks like a huge barn.”

And I’m noticing that there are no religious symbols here. It’s a chapel but in a way more resembles a medieval castle. So this is a totally non-religious chapel?

“Yes, but the decoration is new now. When Jan Hus preached here, there were likely inscriptions.”

The wall with an inscription
So tell me about the reconstruction, which happened in the 1950s when the communist regime decided to rebuild this place. Why?

“There were ideas circulating to reconstruct this place since the beginning of the 20th century. And this started finally in 1950 and finished in 1954. And only two remnants are from the old times when Jan Hus preached here. A few parts of the northern wall have survived and this part with the inscription is one of those. And that was written by Jan Hus in Latin. The chapel was built for Czech people to be able to listen to Czech preaching here, but the inscription was in Latin as was common for such Church writings. ‘De sex erroribus’ which means about the six abuses – heresies of the Catholic Church, which he criticized. He put it on the wall and then he had to leave – he came here in 1402 and had to leave in 1412 because he was cursed by the Pope and condemned from Prague.”

Jaroslav Šebek
But why would the communist regime of the 1950s be rebuilding a church? For a more detailed explanation, I turned to Czech Academy of Sciences historian Jaroslav Šebek:

“The point wasn’t to rebuild a church, but rather to recreate a memorial to the Hussite movement and a specific place to remember Jan Hus. The communist regime, with entirely pragmatic reasoning, used the Hussite movement as a legitimizing embodiment of its own historical traditions. They sought to tie in to this movement’s emphasis on social equality, and, rather paradoxically, the regime saw Hussites as the kind of first communists. And it also had a very positive view of Jan Hus too, although it completely chose to not view him as a Catholic priest, but rather as the leader of a nationalistic and revolutionary movement. Obviously, the effort to support Hussitism was also an effort to reignite national anti-Catholic tendencies which existed within the Protestant ideology.”

Photo: Archive of PR Agency Honza Škraňka
And when the communists reconstructed the place in the 1950s, what did the regime want the place to be – a Protestant church? Vlasta Urbánková again:

“Of course not. It belonged to the state and from time to time it was opened for graduation ceremonies and similar things.”

So it was a civil hall.

“It was closed to the public. They opened it from time to time.”

So when was it fully opened to the public?

Photo: Archive of the Czech Television
“At the beginning of the 1990s.”

So after the revolution.


So we’re just taking a few steps into the centre of the hall. We have a big flat wooden roof above us. Two columns. Beige walls and classic Gothic windows all around. And we’re surrounded by lots and lots of chairs and a stage and two wooden balconies. So presumably it is all perfectly designed for public ceremonies and weddings happen here quite often, right?

Photo: Archive of the Jedlička’s Institute Foundation
“Yes, they do.”

And the place is perfect acoustically for musical concerts too.

“Yes, we also have concerts and graduation ceremonies.”

And politicians come here from time to time for certain ceremonies too, don’t they?

“Yes, that’s right.”

We are just walking up some stairs, which are annexed to the main hall and there are a few small rooms here and there is an exhibition in them for the public.

Jan Hus lived in this room,  photo: Archive of the Czech Television
“Jan Hus lived in this room and we have an exhibition here about his life covering Husinec and Prachatice, where he studied before he came to Prague.”

And here in the centre we have a glass case with some very old looking documents. What are these?

“These are the documents showing the foundation of Charles University.”

And Charles University and Bethlehem Chapel are connected historically…

“Yes, they were connected by their ideas and by Jan Hus the person, who first studied at and then taught there and ultimately ended up becoming its head in 1409.”

Vlasta Urbánková, thank you very much showing us around Bethlehem Chapel.

“It’s been a pleasure!”