4) Retracing the steps of Clementinum’s Jesuit astronomers
Directly across from Charles Bridge in Prague’s Old Town stands the Clementinum. The sprawling complex of baroque buildings houses the National Library of the Czech Republic and the oldest functioning meteorological station in Czechia. It has been a centre of learning, science, and a rich spiritual life since the Middle Ages. The Clementinum stands out thanks to one of the most beautiful baroque libraries in the world, the former main Jesuit church in Czechia, the beautiful Mirror Chapel, and the Astronomical Tower, which offers a rare view of the centre of Prague.
The Clementinum takes its name from the Church of St. Clement. It originally served as a Jesuit college and was constructed at the site of a former Dominican monastery in 1556. With an area of two hectares, it is the second-largest building complex in the capital, second only to Prague Castle. We met with Prague guide and art historian Šárka Gandalovičová on a peaceful courtyard in the area.
„We know the Clementinum as this awe-inspiring complex built by the Jesuits. Nonetheless, for each individual, the place carries a different meaning. For foreigners, it is one of the must-see landmarks along with Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, or Vyšehrad. For Czechs, and specifically for Prague citizens, the meaning is a bit different. I was a resident of the city centre myself for many years, and that part of the city is infamous for being crowded with tourists every summer under normal conditions. For us, the Clementinum is a natural shortcut connecting Charles Bridge to Orloj on Old Town Square – a great way to avoid the crowds. Knowledgeable Czechs see it mainly as the location of the National Library, a significant institution which was founded in 1777 and traces its roots to the Jesuits.”
At first glance, it is not apparent how rich the history of the Clementinum is. The area in which the building stands has been settled since the 9th century and is rich in archaeological findings. Šárka Gandalovičová gave us a summary of the site’s history:
“When the Jesuits chose this site for their new buildings in 1556, they were not the first to decide to start construction here. A Dominican monastery was built here in the 13th century, and alongside it stood the Church of St. Clement and about 25 houses. The Jesuits got this sprawling property because of politics.”
The Jesuits also constructed the St. Salvator Church which served as their main shrine in the country before they were forced to abandon it in 1773. The crypt of the church is now used as a room for spiritual meditation. Inside it are the oldest preserved remnants of the Clementinum of medieval times, as Martin Staněk of the St. Salvator parish explains:
“We call this place the crypt. It is an underground room and partly a remnant of the Dominican monastery from the beginning of the 13th century. It is located under the sacristy and is supported by baroque vaults. We do not know exactly what it was used for, perhaps for storing communal wine. The actual crypt is a few metres farther, hidden behind a massive wall. But it is now empty and there haven’t been any burials there for the last several centuries. This interior is interesting for the remnants of a medieval house near which the Dominicans settled around the year 1230. What is now four metres underground used to be street level back then. The streets gradually rose as people piled on material for different construction projects. We can see here several blocks made of marl forming a sort of entryway. We at the parish believe that this is the door through which Meister Eckhart (a famous German medieval mystic) entered when he arrived at the monastery. “
In 1420, the Dominican monastery, a significant centre of spiritual and political life, was razed to the ground and looted by the Hussites. In the first half of the 16th century, the first Jesuits, members of the then newly formed Society of Jesus, arrived at the destroyed monastery. Their Order, which is still active today in many scientific, cultural, educational, and artistic endeavours, became the main force of re-Catholicization in the Czech Lands. Šárka Gandalovičová explains:
“The Czech Lands of the 15th century are associated with the Reformation of the Catholic Church and the Hussite Uprising. In 1526, the Habsburgs ascended the Czech throne and took up the task of suppressing those revolutionary forces in the kingdom. They understood that re-Catholicization had to be done in a nonviolent way to be successful. That meant focusing on educational activity and sermons. The newly established Jesuit Order was a perfect tool for this. It is widely assumed that the first community of Jesuits which arrived here in 1556, was handpicked by Ignatius of Loyola, who died later that year.
“After getting here, the Jesuits had a free hand in shaping the area. They started building the complex from the Charles Bridge, where the oldest buildings now stand – the former college and the Church of St. Salvator. Gradually, more buildings were added, and the complex expanded towards Mariánské Náměstí, where the youngest buildings (from the first half of the 18th century) stand. “
The baroque and classicist style buildings of the Clementinum were built over a period of 170 years, and several famous architects took part in the construction, such as Carlo Luago, Domenico Orsi Maxmilián Kaňka, and Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer. The buildings resemble a sort of small fort next to each other, forming five courtyards. There were two churches here, several chapels, a library, an observatory, a printing room, an apothecary, and a school and dormitories for 700 Czech and foreign students. There was even a theatre, part of which has been preserved to this day in the spacious baroque sacristy of the St. Salvator. Martin Staněk showed us inside:
“In addition to the original furniture from the beginning of the 18th century – beautiful cabinets made of inlaid wood - there are also cabinets here from the former Jesuit theatre. They are 5 metres high and were used to store scenery. Today, we use them for liturgical purposes. The Jesuit theatre was quite a phenomenon, and expensive, showy operas and plays were staged at the Clementinum. The theatre was part of the celebrations of the crowning of Empress Maria Theresa as Czech queen. The theatre hall is in the eastern wing, near Mariánské Náměstí. The Technical Library used to be housed there. It is a huge hall with a painted wood ceiling, and I hope it will soon be made available to the public. After the ceiling was lowered by one floor, the cabinets would no longer fit and were moved here to the church. “
Baroque library – Clementinum’s biggest tourist attraction
While the sacristy of St. Salvator is only accessible to the public upon request, a guided tour of the Clementinum will take visitors to the most-beautiful and most-preserved baroque library in the world. The darkened room, which visitors are only allowed to look into, contains old globes, frescoes, but most importantly, rare books. There are about 22,000 volumes here, the oldest ones are from the early 17th century. Tour guide Pavel Hrabánek explains:
“All the works here are originals. The books are spread over two floors. The bottom floor is dedicated to theology, while the top floor contains academic works of mathematics, linguistics, rhetoric, Latin, Greek, philosophy. Most are written in Latin, but there are also works in German, Czech, and other European languages.
“The library was finished in 1727. The Jesuits were able to enjoy it for almost fifty years until the year 1773 when the Order was banned and forced to leave the country.”
The Clementinum then began to be permanently administered by the government. When the Jesuits left, Maria Theresa declared the buildings a public and university library. The library collection rapidly grew as books were moved here from Jesuit colleges and monasteries that were disbanded by Joseph II’s decrees. A similar situation occurred in the 1950s when collections from the monasteries outlawed by the communist government were moved to the Clementinum. Pavel Hrabánek tells the story of the baroque hall of the library:
“The baroque hall served as a public library until 1918. The newly-formed Czech state needed some symbols, and the library became one of them. A year later, the whole Clementinum complex became the National Library, and a large-scale reconstruction project began to turn the complex into a single institution and library. New buildings were constructed for the libraries of Charles University, namely for the faculties of law, theology, and philosophy, whose libraries were originally housed in the Clementinum. Since 1930, the baroque library hall was closed to the public, not to reopen again for a long 70 years. “
Astronomical observatory and meteorological station
The Catholic university at Clementinum was well-known for its quality and was a worthy competitor to the Protestant Charles University. After the Battle of White Mountain, the two universities (and their libraries) were merged. The new institution was managed by the Jesuits and was based in the Clementinum. It became a true centre of spiritual and scientific life, as is told by tour guide Šárka Gandalovičová:
“The Jesuits were great educators. Very significant individuals worked here, such as the historian Bohuslav Balbín and his very controversial colleague Koniáš, who was very active in the anti-reformation movement. But I believe that historical judgement has not been fair to him. In the 18th century, the head of the library was Karel Rafael Ungar. He was secretly a Free Mason and a friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who visited the library during his stay in Prague. We also shouldn’t forget the scientists. Here in the courtyard is a memorial to astronomer Joseph Stepling who founded the first observatory in the Czech Lands here at the Clementinum.”
The Jesuits at the Clementinum focused mostly on research in the fields of astronomy, mathematics, and physics as Šárka Gandalovičová explains:
“This was all a part of not only research but also education. Czechs can be rather unfair in their judgement of the Jesuits. Throughout the history of our country, everything that went against the Hussites and the Reformation was viewed negatively. It is for instance forgotten that the Jesuits offered scholarships to boys from very poor families who were then able to study in various fields, not only theology. The Clementinum thus offered students a chance to work in the Church but also in science.”
After a tour of the library, an ascent of the Astronomical Tower awaits visitors. The 68-metre-high tower dominates the surrounding skyline and is decorated at the top by a statue of Atlas holding the heavens on his shoulders. On the way, we pass the unique Meridian Hall, where original astronomical tools are exhibited. In the past, it was used to tell the time. Thanks to an opening high on the wall, the whole room would turn into a camera obscura, and, at high noon, a ray of sunlight would shine onto a string stretched on the floor, thus determining the time as exactly 12 o’clock. Since 1842, noon was signaled to the citizens of Prague by a flag waved from the tower every day. Later, a cannon shot from Letná was added as a signal. This method of signaling the time was used until 1928 when it was replaced by a loudspeaker announcement. Pavel Hrabánek showed us replicas of the Astronomical Tower’s flags.
“A black-and-yellow Austrian flag and a red-and-white Czech flag were both used here. According to one story, after Czechoslovakia declared its independence in 1918, the signaler did not know which flag to use. And so, he used a white bedsheet as a symbol of neutrality. Whether it really happened is not clear.”
The gallery from which the flag was waved is 52 meters high, and almost 172 steps lead up to it. It is worth the effort though, as it offers a splendid view of many Prague landmarks, which appear to be only a stone’s throw away.
Besides the landmarks, a small terrace with meteorological equipment can be seen from the tower. The weather has been continuously tracked and measured at the Clementinum for about 245 years. Joseph Stepling began the measurements at the end of the 18th century. The long history and regularity of local meteorological study make the station unique not just for Czechia but also for Central Europe.
The weather station has functioned without experiencing any major problems throughout its history. The same cannot be said for the National Library with its collection of over 6 million documents. It has long since outgrown the baroque complex, which is going through a long-term revitalization. The Clementinum is now mainly a historical monument that attracts tourists with its beautiful interiors and cultural events, such as concerts in the Mirror Hall.
The bustling student life of past days has not disappeared from the area completely. The study halls of the library are still full, as is the Church of St. Salvator which is designated for students of all of Prague’s universities. The local parish, led by the well-known priest Tomáš Halík, belongs among Europe’s liveliest. It continues to work together with the Jesuits, although they have never permanently returned to the Clementinum. Today, their main shrine in the country is the St. Ignatius Church on Charles Square in the New Town district.