The Church of Saint Giles (Kostel svatého Jiljí in Czech) in the Old Town of Prague, standing between Husova, Zlatá and Jilská streets is a unique cultural monument, searched for by both domestic and foreign tourists, as it is admired for its beautiful Gothic architecture with a nice interior treated in the Baroque style.
The Monastery of the Order of Preachers (known as the Dominican Order) is adjacent to St. Giles Church and the Dominicans are administrators of the Parish of St. Giles (including Church of Saint Bartholomew) and of other parishes situated in the Prague Old Town, they organise holy masses and provide other church services.
This unique Prague monument was built by bishop Jan IV of Dražice at the beginning of 14th century. Originally, a small Romanesque church used to stand on the site and has been dated as early as 1238. Bishop Jan IV of Dražice started a large reconstruction, which completely wiped out the original character of the church. Archbishop Arnošt of Pardubice carried on with the reconstruction and his successor Archbishop Jan Očko of Vlašim consecrated the finished church on 4 May 1371. The entire construction was designed as a high three-nave hall, for the use by the Chapter which replaced there the German Knights Order, having its seat already before, at the old Romanesque church. From the beginning this church was a parish church.
An important preacher in the Prague Church of St. Giles was Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, a Czech religious thinker and one of the leading representatives of the pre-Hussite Reformation, who was preaching there in the Czech language already from 1364. A member of the local Chapter was probably also St. John Nepomucenus, Vicar General of the Prague Archdiocese and martyr of the Catholic Church, one of the patrons of the Czech historical lands. He is supposed to have been active in the St. Giles Church during 1387-1388.
The Chapter ceased to exist in 1420 and the church was administered by the Utraquists. In 1626 it was donated to the Dominican order, as the Dominicans had their seat in the Saint Agnes monastery in the Prague quarter called “na Františku” at that time (before the Jesuits came to Prague, the Dominicans had been settled at the St. Clement’s church – the system of buildings is currently known as the Clementinum). The Dominicans decided to build up their monastery in the immediate surroundings of the St. Giles Church, in the place of adjacent buildings and the old parish school. A four-wing building was constructed this way between Husova, Jalovcová and Jilská streets. From 1625, with the exception of the communist era, St Giles was a monastery church of the Dominican convent.
By that time the Dominicans decided to make Baroque treatments in the Gothic Church of St. Giles. The work started in 1731, and an important role was played by Architect F. M. Kaňka, who built the shallow conch-style chancel. The main Baroque treatments in the church were carried out by the builder F. Špaček. The Baroque treatments covered also the beautiful Gothic portal on the southern side of the church which was revealed and uncovered during the renovation of the church carried out after 1968. The generous equipment of the church was acquired in a gradual manner, up to 1744.
In the west facia of the church there is a couple of unevenly tall steeples. The taller one on the south side has a tall pyramidal roof with a lantern and it is 58.5 metres high, the smaller steeple is 43.5 metres high. Both towers used to be of the same height (the same as the taller one). The north tower lost its height several centuries ago on 28 June 1432. On that date during a strong hail storm, lightning struck the church and set fire to the north steeple. The frame with its slated roof burned out and the blaze melted the suspended bells. The same lightning killed a woman in front of the main altar, who was praying for her drowned husband, an Old Town fisherman. The damage done to the property was repaired immediately but the north steeple was only given a temporary low roof. This provisional arrangement however has lasted until today and not only was the steeple not restored to its original height but it was also left with the temporary roof.
Saint Giles (Ægidius in Latin) was a man of illustrious Athenian parentage about the middle of the 7th century. Early in life he devoted himself exclusively to spiritual things, but, finding his noble birth and high repute for sanctity in his native land an obstacle to his perfection, he passed over to Gaul, where he established himself first in a wilderness near the mouth of the Rhone and later by the River Gard. But here again the fame of his sanctity drew multitudes to him, so he withdrew to a dense forest near Nîmes, where in the greatest solitude he spent many years, his sole companion being a hind. This last retreat was finally discovered by the king’s hunters, who had pursued the hind to its place of refuge. The king conceived a high esteem for the hermit, and would have heaped every honour upon him; but the humility of the saint was proof against all temptations and he rejected all honours. He consented, however, to receive thenceforth some disciples, and built a monastery in his valley, which he placed under the rule of St. Benedict. Here he died in the early part of the 8th century, with the highest repute for sanctity and miracles.
His cult spread rapidly far and wide throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, as is witnessed by the numberless churches and monasteries dedicated to him in France, the British Isles, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech lands; by the numerous manuscripts in prose and verse commemorating his virtues and miracles; and especially by the vast concourse of pilgrims who from all Europe flocked to his shrine. In 1562 the relics of the saint were secretly transferred to Toulouse to save them from the hideous excesses of the Huguenots who were then ravaging France, and the pilgrimage in consequence declined. With the restoration of a great part of the relics to the church of St. Giles in 1862, and the discovery of his former tomb there in 1865, the pilgrimages have recommenced. Besides the city of St-Gilles, which sprang up around the abbey, nineteen other cities bear his name, St-Gilles, Toulouse, and a multitude cities including Prague possess celebrated relics of St. Giles. In medieval art he is a frequent subject, being always depicted with his symbol, the hind. His feast is kept on 1 September.
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