Mediaeval Prague’s Vyšehrad was once supposed to house largest West Slavic church

Photo: archive of National Heritage Institute

During its time it was supposed to be the largest of the West Slavic churches, but the structure which archaeologists have found at Prague’s Vyšehrad was never finished, hinting at a surrounding story. The results of the most recent excavations are set to be made public in upcoming publications on the subject.

Photo: archive of National Heritage Institute

The steep rock south of Prague Castle known as Vyšehrad is one of the Czech capital’s most ancient historic and archaeological sites as well as the location wherein many of the nation’s myths play out.

While historical and archaeological data cannot confirm these legends, it has shown that Vyšehrad was indeed the site of some of the earliest Slavic settlement of Prague. For obvious strategic reasons, the rock was also one of the favoured sites of what was then Bohemia’s ruling dynasty, the Přemyslids.

Photo: archive of National Heritage Institute
It was here that the first ever king of Bohemia, Vratislaus II., ordered the construction of his capitular church 950 years ago, says archaeologist Ladislav Varadzin from the Institute of Archaeology at the Czech Academy of Sciences.

“Imagine a square shaped ground plan with semi-circular recesses, also known as apsida, protruding from its northern, eastern and southern sides. This shape with three apsida is called a tri-concha. Period wise, we are talking about around 1000 CE. It is a completely unique type of church for Czech architecture at that time.”

While unique to Bohemia, tri-concha architecture was used in surrounding countries, such as Hungary, as well as in France and the Mediterranean, says the archaeologist.

“This type of church suggests there was contact with surrounding areas. Its other marked feature is its size. At around 300 square meters, it would have been the largest central church in all of the West Slavic territories.”

However, the imposing structure, which would have been 40 percent larger than the earlier Rotunda of St. Vitus at Prague Castle commissioned by Vratislaus’ famous predecessor Duke Wenceslas, never got finished and no written documentation of its construction has survived. Archaeologists have only been able to find the building’s foundations covered in mortar. The latter, they believe was as part of a method of conserving the base for future continued construction.

Photo: archive of National Heritage Institute
Rather than seeing it as a story of unfulfilled ambition, Mr Varadzin says that the unfinished construction is actually very interesting.

“It hints at some sort of processes about which we do not yet know. The ruler, who commissioned its construction, changed his mind. Another possibility is that he died and his successor was unwilling to continue the project. It certainly points to some sort of event in early Czech history.”

The archaeologist says that this year no further digging at the location will to take place. However, a special research paper on the subject of Vyšehrad excavations is set to come out next year, with a popular history publication to follow in 2022.