The life and legacy of Saint Agnes of Bohemia

Saint Agnes of Bohemia

This Saturday a special mass will be celebrated in honour of Saint Agnes of Bohemia, on the 22nd anniversary of her canonization by the Roman Catholic Church in 1989. In a couple of weeks’ time a large exhibition will open in the convent of St Agnes in Prague founded by Agnes herself. Those are just two events in a long series to mark the 800tha birth anniversary of one of the country’s most revered patron saints. In today’s Czech History we look at the life and legacy of this extraordinary noblewoman.

Born in the year 1211, Princess Agnes (or Anežka in Czech) was predestined by birth to live a life of luxury at one of Europe’s royal courts. Yet, inspired by other religious figures of her time, she dedicated her life to service and sacrifice. Historian Vít Vlnas from the Czech National Gallery.

“Agnes was a princess born into the royal family. Her father was king Přemysl Otakar I., one of the most important monarchs in Czech history, a man who was behind the rise of the Czech state. And therefore Agnes was a sought after bride. But she decided not to follow this secular path and joined the religious order of Poor Clares. She herself later established the religious order of Knights of the Cross with the Red Star, the only religious order to originate in Bohemia which exists to this day. As a member of the order of Poor Clares she founded a convent in Prague and became its first mother superior.”

So this woman who could have influenced not only the fate of the Czech lands but the whole of Central Europe devoted her attention to charity and care for the sick and poor, working in two hospitals in Prague.

“For centuries she has been perceived as a moving character because she did not see the meaning of her life in earthly goods, political power and material wealth but rather in the spiritual sphere. She sacrificed herself for the sake of others and tried to improve the world in a different way than rich people and politicians usually do. We must not forget, though, that beyond the convent walls Agnes was still a noblewoman and we know that as a respected and venerated daughter, sister and aunt of Czech rulers, and as the spiritual mother of the Přemyslid dynasty, she was able to discipline the quarrelling Přemyslid family.”

Saint Agnes monastery
The convent Agnes founded was the first convent of the Order of Poor Clares north of the Alps and, at that time, also one of the most modern buildings in Prague. Vít Vlnas again.

“Agnes founded the convent and hospital in the 1230s. Apart from the Poor Ladies convent there was also a monastery of the Friars Minor on the premises, whose cloister still exists. Even though her order was a poor mendicant order, obeying a simple rule, the convent was built with ostentatious splendour. It was one of the first Gothic structures built in the Czech lands. Its church of St Salvator’s is one of the most significant medieval architectural monuments in Bohemia. Its splendour is related to the fact that the church was intended from the start as the burial site of Czech kings and queens.”

The convent saw its golden era when Agnes was its mother superior. It suffered a terrible blow in Hussite times. The Poor Clares and Friars Minor had to leave the premises and before they returned later in the 15th century, the place was run by the Dominicans. After flourishing again in the Baroque period in the 18th century, the convent was closed down in 1782 by emperor Josef II. During the slum clearance at the turn of the 19th century it narrowly escaped demolition. Efforts to save this unique place culminated in the 20th century when research and renovation were carried out in several stages. In 1963 the convent was acquired by the National Gallery and in 1978 it was declared a national monument. Even though Agnes’s convent today houses a gallery, few portraits of this generous sponsor of religious art have been preserved, as historian Vít Vlnas explains.

Saint Agnes on the Puchner’s Arc
“She has not been depicted too often compared to other Czech saints. That’s partly because she was only officially beatified in the 19th century and canonized at the end of the 20th century. But there are a number of outstanding monuments dating back to 14th century. The best-known being the so-called Puchner’s Arc from the 15th century which is a large panel altarpiece commissioned by the Prague Knights of the Cross. Agnes was most frequently portrayed in connection with the Knights of the Cross. More portraits come from the 19th century. Perhaps the most famous portrait of St Agnes is her statue by Josef Václav Myslbek which is part of the statue of St Wenceslas in Prague.”

After a life of service, poverty and illness Agnes died at the age of 71 in 1282. She was buried in the convent church but her remains were moved in the 14th century, allegedly to be saved from floods and later Hussite attacks. All attempts to find her remains over the centuries have failed. The most recent investigation in the nearby church of St Castulus in early 2010 brought no results.

“The archaeological investigation in the convent itself is now practically finished. The Poor Clares themselves began the search in the 17th century when they tried to find the remains of their founder. Twice they believed they had succeeded but neither of the finds confirmed their expectations. The convent and it surroundings was one large burial ground in the Middle Ages and early modern times. In the past a great number of skeletal remains were found there but none could be identified with certainty as the remains of St Agnes of Bohemia. So as for the convent itself, there is no hope left. I believe that in the case of St Agnes it is not important, at least for me, to have her physical remains. It is important that we can partake in her spiritual legacy. As for her physical remains, we do have some relics. Perhaps the most complete relic of Agnes is kept in the Escorial in Madrid but there is a small and as yet unidentified relic perhaps belonging to St Agnes in the Czech lands, too.”

Excavations in the church of St Castulus in 2010
Despite the longstanding efforts of her compatriots, Agnes of Bohemia was not beatified until almost 600 years after her death. She was finally canonized by Pope John Paul II on November 12th,1989, just five days before the events of November 17th triggered the Velvet Revolution leading to the fall of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. For some people that was a confirmation of an old legend.

“That is based on a 15th century prophecy ascribed to provost Papoušek of Litoměřice who said that Bohemia will not prosper until Agnes is canonized. And it is true that her canonization preceded the breaking events of November 1989. It is a question of faith whether we consider it a mere coincidence or a matter of cause and effect. But it is for sure that no one can ever take that away from Agnes.”

The act of founding a convent and a hospital was unique in that it introduced the ideals of the newly established Franciscan movement in this country along with its cardinal idea of respect and love to every human being, especially to the poor and suffering. Princess Agnes set up the first charity service in this country which eventually led to the establishment of the only originally Bohemian religious order of the Knights of the Cross with the Red Star. And so, more than seven centuries after her death, the legacy of St Agnes of Bohemia still lives on.