Karlštejn Castle (Hrad Karlštejn)

Karlštejn Castle is a fortress in central Bohemia, Czech Republic, on a cliff above the River Berounka, about 30 km southwest of Prague.

Karlštejn Castle History

Karlštejn Castle

It was built by Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, to protect the crown jewels and state treasure of the Empire, and its unique design was greatly influenced by the presence of the holy relics.

It retains much of its important program of painted decoration. The foundation stone was laid on 10 June 1348 by Arnošt of Pardubice, Archbishop of Prague, and by 1355 the Emperor was already living there. In 1357 he founded the castle chapel, and in the same year two chapels—to the Stigmata and the Virgin—were consecrated.

Karlštejn Castle Architecture

Karlstejn Chapel Crisis (1878)

The core of the castle lies behind a massive inner wall with the outer castle in front of it; there are two gates and an independently fortified residential quarter with a moat and well tower. The buildings of the inner castle (the palace, Church Tower, and Great Tower) are built on three stepped terraces, the design reflecting Karlštejn’s special function.

On the lowest terrace stands the rectangular imperial palace, the internal design of which is related to a type created in Bohemia in the second half of the 13th century, with three floors, each with a series of rooms. West of the central hall there is always a wood-paneled chamber and to the east a parlor.

Karlstein Castle Architecture

The second floor was the Emperor’s apartment, comprising a large central hall with a flat, wooden ceiling, linked to the adjacent study on the east, and the tower chapel of St Nicholas. The top floor contained the Empress’s apartments. From the second floor, a bridge leads to the first floor of the Church Tower on the second terrace. This is a two-story rectangular building, the second floor of which originally contained a hall with a wooden ceiling. An oriel chapel with two rib-vaulted bays is let into the south wall. This was at first the Emperor’s private oratory, where important relics were kept; but when the chapter was founded in 1357, the southern half of the hall was converted to the church of the Virgin (sometimes called the Lady Chapel), while the oratory was temporarily dedicated to the Stigmata, as recorded in the consecration of both chapels in the same year. Subsequently, however, the oratory was rededicated to St Catherine.

Karlstein Castle Green Area

The crowning feature of the castle is the huge, rectangular, three-storey Great Tower on the highest terrace. Accessible from the second floor of the Church Tower, it has exceptionally massive masonry and is protected by its own fortification wall. A staircase on the south side leads to the second floor and the most sacred room in Karlštejn, the chapel of the Holy Cross, consecrated in 1365. It is a spacious rectangular chapel with two bays of rib vaulting. This chapel was ultimately dedicated to Stigmata and became the repository of the imperial crown jewels.

The Emperor himself may well have had a hand in the design of Karlštejn, drawing inspiration partly from the royal residences in Paris. The master mason was evidently local, trained in Bohemia in the second quarter of the 14th century: the influence of Peter Parler is not seen until the final phases of building. Painting continued after construction was finished. In the 16th century, the castle was renovated in a Renaissance style, to be restored to Gothic under the direction of Josef Mocker from 1887 to 1896.

Karlstejn Castle Location

Karlštejn Castle Town View

Karlstejn Castle (Hrad Karlštejn) is located about 30 km southwest of Prague. You can reach Karlštejn by taking the E50 road from Prague. You can also take a train from Prague’s main station. The train trip will take about 40 minutes.

Entrance inside the castle’s walls is free, but to enter inside the castle itself, you have to buy a ticket, currently priced at 270 Czech Koronas (around 11 EUR) for adults. Children, students, and seniors over 65 pay only 180 CZK.

Karlstejn Castle is usually closed on Mondays but there are exceptions.
To make sure the castle is open, please consult their website at: http://www.hradkarlstejn.cz/opening-hours/

Karlštejn Castle Painting&Decoration

All three of the main buildings at Karlštejn were richly decorated with wall paintings, panel paintings, and, to a lesser extent, stained glass. Painting began with the building program and reflected the changing function of the rooms. The most important areas were decorated in gold relief stucco with encrusted hardstones.

The decoration of the imperial palace has not survived, but there were at least two interesting cycles of wall paintings. The first, mentioned in the Chronicle of Bohemia (1358) by Giovanni Marignolli, Bishop of Bisignano (d 1359), depicted the Miracle of the Finger of St Nicholas, which occurred in 1353 in the Franciscan convent in Prague.

Karstejn Castle Tower

It was painted in the Emperor’s chamber (probably near the palace chapel) and was evidently the earliest painted decoration. Of utmost importance was the so-called Luxemburg Genealogy painted in the main hall of the palace after 1355, depicting about 65 fictitious and actual members of the family, starting with Noah and ending with Charles IV.

The Genealogy is documented in the Chronica nobilissimorum durum Lotharingiae et Brabantiae ac regum Francorum (1413; Brussels, Bib. Royale Albert 1er) by Edmond de Dynter (d 1448), old descriptions of the castle and two copies of c. 1575 (the Codex Heidelbergensis, Prague, N.G., Convent of St George; Vienna, Österreich. Nbib., MS. 8330).

Two altarpieces, signed by Tomaso da Modena and probably painted in 1355 or soon after, were originally housed either in the palace or in the Church Tower: the triptych depicting the Virgin with SS Wenceslas and Palmatius (moved to the chapel of the Holy Cross in 1365) and the diptych with the Virgin and Child, Man of Sorrows and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel (found during the 19th century in the church of St Palmác in the lower castle, now in the church of the Virgin).

The oldest wall paintings of the Church Tower have survived, some painted before the consecration of 1357: in the altar niche of St Catherine’s Chapel is a votive picture of the Virgin and Child, with SS Peter and Paul on the sides of the niche. The altar frontal bears a Crucifixion with St Catherine at the side. Above the entrance to the chapel, the Emperor and Empress are depicted holding the reliquary cross, and on the side wall below the vault are the remains of the figures of SS Vojtěch, Wenceslas,

Charles IV King of Bohemia & Anne of Świdnica his 3rd wife

Vitus and four unidentified saints holding the relics of the Holy Cross. The painted decoration was partly destroyed when the walls were covered in an encrustation of hardstones and nails to secure the relics. The window contains the only surviving glass painting at Karlštejn, a Crucifixion (c. 1360), and in the so-called connecting corridor is a wall painting of an angel with a censer.

In the adjoining chapel of the Virgin (formerly the hall), there were originally four cycles of wall paintings, all dating from after 1357, of which only one has survived: the Relic Scenes showing Charles IV accepting, from two different rulers, the relics of Christ’s Passion and placing them into a reliquary cross. The second, partly destroyed cycle, which occupies much of the remaining walls, depicts scenes from the Apocalypse.

The third cycle, originally above some of the apocalypse scenes, is lost, but it depicted the Holy Trinity, Prophets, and Apostles, set between figures of Charles IV and his first three wives, Blanche of Valois (1317–48), Anne of the Palatinate (1329–53) and Anne of Svidnica (1339–62).

The fourth cycle consisted of small Christological and Marian scenes in the window embrasures, the remains of which survive. Also belonging to this group is a badly decayed, illusionistic picture of four people looking out of a window and a jeweled box with relics of the Passion and the Virgin.

Convent of Saint Agnes of Bohemia, Art collection: Painting of Carolus Magnus (1360-1364) originally from Karlštejn Castle

Charles IV paid the most attention to the decoration of the chapel of the Holy Cross in the Great Tower. The niche containing the crown jewels above the altar is concealed behind Tomaso da Modena’s triptych. The vaults are covered with gold leaf and gilded glass, and the lower walls are encrusted with hardstones, as in St Catherine’s Chapel.

The upper walls contain nearly 130 half-length figures of saints painted on framed panels, originally with relics fixed to their frames: a crocodile’s head, probably thought to be a relic of St George, was found in the wall. Five panels showing only the preliminary sketches are preserved. Under the vault on the altar, the wall is depicted the Crucifixion

The windows were originally glazed with hardstones; the embrasures contain the remains of the cycles of the Life of the Virgin and Life of Christ, and scenes of the Revelation, including the Adoration of the Lamb and the apocalyptic God with angels and Evangelist symbols. The Emperor’s painter, Master Theodoric, was paid for the decoration of the chapel in 1367.

The staircase of the Great Tower had three cycles of paintings, finished after 1370 and now crudely painted over and copied onto new plaster: the first depicted the Life of St Ludmilla, the second the Life of St Wenceslas, and the third showed Czech rulers and other important historical figures. Over the entrance to the chapel of the Holy Cross, Charles IV was shown standing before the reliquary cross and reading a book, in the presence of the Empress and the heir to the throne, the future Wenceslas IV, his wife, and high ecclesiastical office-holders. The vault was decorated with angels holding musical instruments. Even here relics were found bricked up in the wall.

The decorative program at Karlštejn expressed Charles’s personal and dynastic ambitions while publicizing his interpretation of imperial power and the cult of religious relics. Except for the altars by Tomaso da Modena, the decoration is by artists who came to the Prague imperial court from the west, and whose main work was apparently the lost decoration of Prague Castle.

These painters laid the basis of the flourishing school of Bohemian painting in the second half of the 14th century. The wall and panel paintings of Karlštejn are of superb quality, with sophisticated coloring, the use of light and shade in drapery forms, and naturalistic physiognomies.

Old Karlstejn castle painting

The lost Luxemburg Genealogy and paintings in the Church Tower were by several different painters. The so-called Masters of the Genealogy apparently worked in a style influenced by French court paintings and specialized in ‘portraiture’. The Relic Scenes in the church of the Virgin are usually attributed to the same painters. The painter of the Apocalypse is presumed to be independent of this group. The part played by other artists cannot safely be determined.

The Masters of the Genealogy worked on other paintings in Karlštejn, notably the sketches for panel paintings and some of the wall paintings in the chapel of the Holy Cross. The panels and the remaining wall paintings in this chapel were by younger painters. The decoration of the chapel of the Holy Cross was the culmination of the so-called Soft style, the later panels and wall paintings showing a move towards new concepts of space and more slender figures. This new style took over in the staircase paintings, which were the immediate predecessors of the paintings from the second half of the 1370s in Prague Cathedral.

The Emperor’s painter, Nicholas Wurmser of Strasbourg, was clearly involved in the first campaign of decoration. He is often identified as the main Master of the Genealogy or as the Master of the Apocalypse. Wurmser had an estate in the village of Mořina, near Karlštejn, as did the Emperor’s second painter, Master Theodoric. The latter is accredited mainly with panel paintings in the chapel of the Holy Cross, but if the panel painters were merely assistants to the masters of the preliminary sketches, Theodoric could also have helped with the Genealogy. The staircase cycles are usually attributed to Master Osvald, on the assumption that he worked on Karlštejn before going to Prague Cathedral. Despite the literature on the paintings of Karlštejn, a number of questions remain unresolved.

Karlštejn Castle Map

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