The diamond-encrusted “Prague Sun” at Loreto

'Prague Sun', photo: Kristýna Maková

One of the city’s famous landmarks is Loreto, a Marian pilgrimage site not far from Prague Castle, with a Baroque Church of the Nativity and a replica of the Holy House surrounded by cloisters and chapels. It is best known for its Baroque carillon and the Loreto treasure with its diamond-encrusted monstrance aptly called the “Prague Sun”.

The Loreto treasure consists of a rare collection of liturgical objects and other votive gifts from the 16th to 18th centuries, the most famous of which is the "Prague Sun", a monstrance encrusted with 6,222 diamonds. The monstrance, with its diamond encrusted “sun” that appears to levitate above a statue of the Virgin Mary Imaculata like a shining gloriole, was designed by the famous Viennese architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach, and was made in the workshop of court jeweller Matthias Stegner in Vienna between 1696-99.

Ludmila Eva Františka,  Countess of Cracow from Kolowrat,  photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that the 6,222 diamonds, which decorate the monstrance, come from the wedding dress of Ludmila Eva Františka, Countess of Cracow from Kolowrat. A portrait of the countess in her wedding dress covered with diamonds can be seen in one of the corridors of the Loreta compound.

The curator of the Loreto collections, Markéta Baštová, says that while there is no direct proof that the diamonds in the Prague Sun come from the said wedding dress, they were definitely donated by   Countess Ludmila Eva Františka for the creation of a monstrance.

“It is likely that the diamonds came from her wedding dress. At the time, noblewomen often donated their wedding dresses for good purposes. However there is no direct proof that this is so. What we do know for certain is that in her will she bequeathed her diamonds, as well as her silver and gold to the Capuchin Order, specifically requesting that they be used to make a monstrance.”

According to her testament, the diamonds intended for the production of the monstrance counted  6,500. 6,222 were used for the monstrance, the rest paid for the work of the goldsmith and a jeweller.

The vast amount of silver, gold and diamonds she owned was not unusual for a woman of her standing. Thanks to her three marriages, Ludmila Eva Františka Kolowrat-Krakowská was a wealthy lady. Her third and last husband was Vilém Albrecht I. Krakowský of Kolowrat, who himself was married five times. At the time of their wedding she was 51 and he was 67. Both were members of old Czech families. Vilem Albrecht held the position of the highest provincial judge and also the highest court master of the Czech Kingdom. It is said that the diamonds were a gift to the countess from the groom ahead of their wedding day.

'Prague Sun',  photo: Kristýna Maková

The Loreto diamond monstrance is over 90 centimetres tall, 70 centimetres wide and weighs over 12 kilograms.

Markéta Baštová says there is no doubt as to whom we can attribute the exceptional composition.

“The contract for its creation was concluded with court jeweller Matthias Stegner but the man behind this unique piece of art was the famous Viennese architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach. That is documented by one of his sketches which was preserved –showing a clear outline of the monstrance – the Virgin Mary Imaculata with the diamond-studded gloriole above her head. She is shown standing on the Earth and a half moon and there is a dragon representing the devil.”

The Prague Sun is unique in the dynamic and emotional depiction of the figure of the Virgin Mary, which is a supremely Baroque work, together with the clean, straight lines of diamonds created to portray a radiant sun which adds a modern touch to the whole work. Markéta Baštová says its creation was a breaking point in the art of monstrance making.

“What we see here is a combination of bold artistic creativity on the part of the architect and exceptional artistic skills on the part of the goldsmiths and jewellers who brought the concept to life. If you look closely at the sculpture you have to admire the way in which the monstrance is attached to the statue of the Virgin Mary by just two “sun rays” and the feeling of lightness as it appears to levitate above her head. It must have been extraordinarily difficult to create that effect – technically. And the statue of the Virgin Mary is exceptionally dynamic. In its day this was something quite new and unique – I think it was a breaking point in the art of monstrance making.”

Prague’s Loreto Church,  photo: Miloš Turek

Already in its time, the monstrance was perceived as an extraordinary work. When it was transported from Vienna to Prague in 1699, it was guarded by an escort of soldiers. The question is whether, in the end, its uniqueness did not actually deter from the wishes and intentions of Countess Ludmila Eva Františka. Its value precluded the use of the monstrance for its original purpose. It was rarely brought out and whenever that occurred it necessitated exceptional security measures. The last time it was used was in 1999 during a religious ceremony marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Capuchins in Bohemia.

The captivating story of how it came into being has not been forgotten. Maybe because the woman who donated her gold, silver and diamonds for its creation is not far from it.

As one of Loreta's main patrons and benefactors, Countess Kolowrat-Krakovská asked to be buried in Santa Case in the very heart of the Loreta compound. Her remains were placed in the Holy Hut, an imitation of the house of the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, which according to legend, was miraculously transported by angels to Italy, to the village of Loreto – which gave Prague’s Loreto its name.