1) The Tumultuous History of Prague’s Shrine of the Infant Jesus

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů
previous episode
next episode

Certain corners of Prague have stories that are unbeknownst even to Czechs. In the first episode of our series Landmark Prague Stories, we visited the Church of Our Lady Victorious in the Lesser Quarter. Famous for its statue of the Infant Jesus, the church has experienced first-hand the political and social upheavals of centuries past.

The Church of Our Lady Victorious is one of the foremost pilgrimage sites in the Czech Republic, with thousands of Christians visiting it each year to see the statue of the Infant Jesus on one of the altars inside. It stands next to a monastery run by the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, who take care of the statue and the church.

Church of Our Lady Victorious,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Nowadays, the church is a place for religious, social, and cultural gatherings. But in the past, an array of turbulent events took place in both the church and the adjacent monastery. To learn more about these lesser-known moments, Radio Prague International spoke to the prior of the monastery, Pavel Pola. He told us the story of how the Carmelites came to possess the famous statue of the Infant Jesus.

“The Church of Our Lady Victorious, or as it is also referred to, the Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague, belongs to the most significant and most visited churches in Prague and in the Czech Republic as a whole. It was originally built as a Lutheran church at the beginning of the 17th century. After the events of the Battle of White Mountain and the Thirty Years’ War, the Lutherans were forced to flee the country. So, they left the church to the Discalced Carmelites who then built their monastery next to it. Soon after that, they received the statue of the Infant Jesus from Polyxena of Lobkowicz.”

Even today we do not know the whole story of the Infant Jesus of Prague. We know that the statue was made in Spain in the 16th century. During that time, relations between the Czech lands and Spain deepened, as the Habsburgs ruled over both of these territories and much of Europe. The statue made the journey from Spain to Bohemia in 1555, as a wedding gift for the Spanish noblewoman Maria Manrique de Lara y Mendoza when she married Vratislav of Pernštejn, a Czech diplomat. Pavel Pola again:

Pavel Pola,  photo: Enrique Molina

“The statue is originally from Spain and was brought to Bohemia by Marie Manrique de Lara y Mendoza, who received it as a wedding gift. She later gave the statue to her daughter, Polyxena. Traditionally, the statue was passed down by the women in the family. So, when Polyxena became a widow with no female heir, she decided to donate it to the Order of the Discalced Carmelites in the Lesser Quarter.”

Thousands of people from all over the world make the journey to Prague every year to pray to the Infant Jesus. And many of them say their prayers are answered. According to Pola, the statue’s power lays in the fact that, by depicting Jesus as a child, it shows people the welcoming and human side of God.

“The statue portrays Jesus as a child, or more specifically, as a young king or prince. In one hand he holds a small globe – symbolizing his power. But his other hand is empty and raised in blessing, he holds no sceptre of power. For many people, that symbolizes a God whom there is no need to fear, a God that does not send down lighting, judgement, and punishment. Suddenly, they see God as a fragile little child and realize that God is in fact very fragile and that the relationship with God is almost like a relationship with a child. It is something very gentle and fragile. It welcomes one to a specific sort of faith – a faith not based on fear.”

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Czech history has seen several periods of religious strife. From violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, which cost numerous lives, to subsequent efforts at secularization and the seizure of Church property. As part of the power struggle between the state and the Church, Emperor Joseph II ordered all monasteries to close and forced religious orders to seize all activity in 1784. The Carmelites were then able to return to Prague only at the end of the 20th century. Pavel Pola explains:

“The history of this place is indeed very dramatic. 150 years after the Lutherans were violently forced to leave, Emperor Joseph II banned and chased out the Carmelites, and the Order ceased to exist in the Czech lands. The monasteries were seized and converted into administrative buildings. The church was given to the Knights Hospitaller, a Catholic military order. The Hospitallers were here until 1950 when the ruling Communist Party seized the property of all monasteries, religious orders, and other church institutions and banned them. So, from 1950 on the church did not belong to any order.”

In the same year that the Czech Republic came to exist as an independent state, the Discalced Carmelites were invited to return to the Lesser Quarter by the archbishop of Prague. Since then, their Order has taken care of both the monastery and the church. As Pola explains, monks of different nationalities have joined in recent years as well, expanding the ranks of the monastery.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“It was only after the revolution, in 1993, that Miroslav Vlk, the archbishop of Prague at the time, invited Carmelites from Italy to come back and take up the church and their activities here again. So, since 1993, the Discalced Carmelites are back – working and living here. As time went on, Czechs began to join the Italian monks. Right now, we have an international community here in the monastery. Two of us are Czech, two Indian and one Italian.”

These days, the Church of Our Lady Victorious is almost always crowded. On one hand, it has its traditional religious role. But it is also a cultural centre, as the Carmelites hold exhibitions, theatrical performances, and conferences. The doors are thus open to non-believers as well. The Order also manages the restoration and upkeep of the church and monastery buildings. Pavel Pola again:

“Our main goal is to make the church a place full of life – a place for gathering, where people can come to have a soulful experience. Many people visit to see the statue of the Infant Jesus, and that is something that means quite a lot to many. It helps to make them feel something unique and healing. We try to nourish the local cultural scene while also taking care of our heritage of the beautiful baroque surroundings that we work to repair and restore.”

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Most people do not know that the largest catacombs in Prague are hidden under the church. For centuries, members of the Order and people who supported the church financially were buried there. The crypt has been looted several times throughout the years. After their return in 1993, the Carmelites succeeded in cleaning it and preserving the remains left there. Unfortunately for visitors, the church underground is inaccessible to the public.

“The catacombs are under the whole area of the church, making them the largest in Prague. They grew gradually, expanding from one tomb under the main altar to numerous tombs under the side altars. There the financial donors of the church, who helped finance construction and repair works, were buried. Later, as burial requests mounted, the monks constructed a passage under the whole of the church and connected the individual tombs. Members of the Order were buried there until the year 1784 when the Carmelites were forced to leave. After that, people from the Lesser Quarter and financial donors began to be buried there. Unfortunately, the crypt has been looted several times over the years. And when we arrived, it was in a desolate state, as there was no ventilation in the underground rooms, and everything became damp. The crypt had to be cleaned, and we moved the remains into a separate chamber, which was walled in. There the remains are reverently preserved. The crypt is opened to the public on special occasions, but most of the time it remains closed.”

The statue of the Infant Jesus, which is also the patron of the church, has been through a lot as well. It has been damaged and repaired numerous times. Prior Pola even tells a story of how, during the communist regime, the statue went missing for several days.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“People frequently ask us whether the statue is an original or a later-made copy. And when looking at it from up close, one would have no doubt that it is an original. The statue is very old and has been repaired, but it is 100 % original. Nonetheless, during communist times, there was one incident in which the statue went missing. To this day, we do not know who took it. There exist different theories that whoever stole it planned on selling it abroad etc. But it was found a few days after it went missing somewhere on Petřín. So, that was quite a dramatic moment, it looked then that the statue was lost forever.”

Understandably, the coronavirus pandemic has also made its mark on the church. Churchgoers were unable to attend, the cultural program was interrupted, and there were no foreign tourists who make up most of the regular visitors. With the lockdown gradually coming to an end, the monks were able to open a café outside of the church. The goal is to make the church and its surroundings an attractive place for Prague residents and visitors alike.

“Our most recent project, which we started just a few weeks ago motivated by the pandemic, is our small travelling café in the open space in front of the church. It was our dream to be able to serve coffee to people right on our terrace. The city gave us tables and chairs for the enterprise. That is one way in which we can be more open to people. Another reason for opening the café is that we wanted to find a way to compensate for the decrease in foreign tourists and visitors here. We wanted to do something extra, so we started brewing God’s coffee - as we call it - in front of the church.”

With its café, cultural activities, religious service, and information available in several world languages, the Church of Our Lady Victorious is an essential place to see on your visit to Prague. Its walls contain unbelievable stories and many mysteries. The little statue of the Infant Jesus, placed on one of the side altars, has been a quiet witness to almost all of them.