Churches dedicated to the Czech nation’s patron saint: St. Wenceslas
September 28 is St. Wenceslas Day, a state holiday marking the death of the nation's patron saint. Many of the masses celebrated in his memory will take place in churches dedicated to St. Wenceslas.
Wenceslas was born near Prague in 907, a son of the Duke of Bohemia. His father died in 921 and Wenceslas ruled from 922, when he was just 15 years old. He was raised as a Christian, primarily thanks to his grandmother Ludmila, who was baptised by the Greek missionaries Cyril and Methodius who brought Christianity to the region.
The reign of Wenceslas was marked by his staunch support for the Catholic Church, his aim to unify Bohemia and make peace with Germany.
These policies created enemies within his court and even his family. His brother Boleslav was one of those who plotted against him. On the morning of September 28, 935, on his way to mass, Wenceslas was attacked and stabbed to death at the entrance to the church. It is not clear to this day whether Boleslav was the murderer or whether he let his supporters to do the deed.
Wenceslas’ murder lead to a cult of veneration with a number of miracles attributed to him. He was even posthumously made a king by the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto I.
After Wenceslas's death, Boleslav assumed power and reigned for almost fifty years. Later in life, he clearly felt remorse and in 972 he had the first church dedicated to Saint Wenceslas built in Prague.
On the Day of Czech Statehood, town halls throughout the country hold celebrations to commemorate the martyrdom of Prince Wenceslas, and thousands of people traditionally undertake a pilgrimage to the town of Stará Boleslav where the murder took place.
There are over 170 churches and close to 30 chapels dedicated to St. Wenceslas throughout Czechia. Here are a few of them.
Church of St. Wenceslas in Stará Boleslav
The Church of St. Wenceslas in Stará Boleslav has a special significance. This is where Wenceslas was slain, some say by his own brother Boleslav, in what was then the church of St. Cosmas and Damian.
Around 1039, Duke Bretislav I established a new Romanesque basilica dedicated to St. Wenceslas at the site of the murder. In the St. Wenceslas Basilica, you can actually see the authentic spot where the murder took place. It is decorated with a sculpture by Matyas Bernard Braun, depicting one of the versions of the killing of the prince: Wenceslas is seeking refuge in the church. He is holding onto the door handle and his brother Boleslav is looming over him with a knife."
The St. Wenceslas' Basilica, which incorporates the church of St. Cosmas and Damian where the prince was murdered, is a popular pilgrimage site.
Church of St. Wenceslas in Prague’s Prosek
The church was built by Prince Boleslav II, the nephew of St. Wenceslas, in 970. According to legend, the prince traveled here with his companions from Stará Boleslav. Fatigue overcame him and he fell asleep. His uncle Wencelas appeared to him in a dream and urged him to build a shrine in his memory. Boleslav built a church and dedicated it to his uncle.
Cathedral of St. Vitus, Wenceslas and Vojtěch at Prague Castle
This Gothic cathedral, a symbol of the Czech state, was founded in 1344 on the site of a Romanesque rotunda. The construction took nearly 600 years and was completed in 1929. Its impressive interior boasts the beautifully decorated St. Wenceslas Chapel with the tomb of St. Wenceslas, the crypt where Czech kings are buried, and the Crown Chamber, where the Crown Jewels are kept.
The current cathedral is the third in a series of religious buildings erected at the site, dedicated to St. Vitus. The first church was an early Romanesque rotunda built by Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia in 930. Wenceslas dedicated it to St. Vitus because he had acquired a holy relic of St. Vitus from Emperor Henry I. When Wenceslas was murdered, the rotunda became his tomb and the Chapel of St. Wenceslas was built above it.
Chapel of St. Wenceslas
St. Wenceslas Chapel is the heart of St. Vitus Cathedral. Its magnificent architecture and decor emphasize its singularity as the focal point of the cathedral with the tomb of the Czech patron saint. The wall paintings of the Passion Cycle are parts of the original 14th-century decor of the chapel. The scenes from the life of St. Wenceslas are attributed to the workshop of the Master of the Litomerice (the cycle dates back to 1509). The door in the south-western corner of the chapel leads to the Crown Chamber in which the Bohemian Crown Jewels are kept.
Church of St. Wenceslas in Prague’s Vršovice
The Church of St. Wenceslas in Prague’s Vršovice was designed by architect Josef Gočár. It was unique in its time in that it was the first church in Bohemia to be built using a skeleton reinforced concrete structure. The building is dominated by its 50-metre tower with five bells and a large seven-metre cross as the top. The tower is illuminated after dark and the cross shines like a beacon at night.
On the 80th anniversary of its construction, a statue of St. Wenceslas was installed on the façade.
Church of St. Wenceslas in Prague’s Smíchov
The three-aisle neo-Renaissance basilica with two towers is the work of Antonín Barviti. The construction of the church took four years and the total cost was 250,000 golden coins. The shrine was built for a capacity of 2,000 persons. The steeples of the church are 50m high. They have a square ground plan and are divided crosswise by several distinctive cornices.
The church was dedicated to St. Wenceslas and consecrated on October 27, 1885 in the presence of prominent church dignitaries and cultural figures.
In 1945, the Palladium of the Bohemian lands, a rare medieval icon of the Virgin and Child which has been one of the symbols of Czech statehood for centuries and which, according to legend, St. Wenceslas had with him at the time of his assassination, was exhibited here. In 2015, St. Wenceslas’ skull was displayed here for the first time during a celebratory mass.