The Convent of Saint Agnes of Bohemia, Prague
The Convent of Saint Agnes of Bohemia (Klášter svaté Anežky České or Anežský klášter in Czech), located in the Old Town in an area called “Na Františku”, is an important cultural monument. There are not many places in the Czech lands, where the historical importance meet with such unique architecture as it does here in the former monastery of St. Agnes.
It was founded in 1231 by princess Agnes (later known as Saint Agnes of Bohemia), sister of King Wenceslas I. She herself became the first abbess of the monastery in the Order of Saint Clare. The first women came to the convent in autumn 1233 – five nuns from Italian Assisi and seven Bohemian noble-girls. They belonged to the Poor Clares (also called The Order of Poor Ladies) founded by Saints Clare of Assisi and Francis of Assisi in 1212 on Franciscan principles. This was the first convent of the Order of Poor Clares north of the Alps. The grounds originally had a larger Poor Clare convent and less significant monastery of Friars Minor, that was later closed.
In the time of its construction, it was a unique building: the first one where Gothic style was used in the kingdom of Bohemia. In 1261 on the day of coronation of Agnes’ nephew king Přemysl Otakar II, a new church of Saint Salvator was founded east of the older chapel of Our Lady. This church was intended to be a burial place of Přemyslid dynasty. And many members of this family are indeed buried there, including Saint Agnes herself and king Wenceslas I. The king Wenceslas I. and later the Pope took the convent under their protection and gave it many privileges. It was Agnes’s diplomatic skills and work in establishing the convent which raised Bohemia in the eyes of Rome, as much as any courtly efforts to do the same. At that time, the convent was of the most modern buildings in Prague.
During the Hussite wars in the 15 th century the nuns had to leave the convent and the buildings declined. In 1470s the monastery was partially rebuilt in the style of “Bohemian” Gothic. Then it fell into disrepair until after 1556, when the Poor Clares were evicted and it was handed over to the Dominican Order. In 1570 part of the monastery was restored in Renaisance style. The Order of Saint Clare returned to the monastery in 1629. After a fire in 1689 it was partially rebuilt in Baroque style and then again in 1750.
The monastery was disestablished by the Emperor Josef II on 12 January 1782 (one of the first to be closed by him) and gradually adapted to become workshops, storage facilities and homes for the indigent. The buildings were almost demolished during the urban renewal of 1888, but fortunately the proposal for its demolition was not followed in the end. In 19th century a society for renewal of the monastery was founded. Reconstruction of the monastery started in 1940 and lasted almost whole 20th century. In 1963 the Czech National Gallery became the new owner of this property and the whole complex was declared a national historic landmark. Individual buildings were gradually re-opened, of which the church of St. Francis opened in 1986 as the last. The monastery is today no more used for its original purpose but it is in care of the National Gallery. There is a permanent exhibition of Medieval Art of Bohemia and Europe.
The church of St. Francis, consecrated in 1234, was the oldest part of the complicated monastery lay-out. During the building renovation the fallen vaulting had been replaced by a tall asymmetrical roof. The roof’s frame is shaped with glued trusses, which narrows the space as dynamically as any gothic vaults in the past. This roof is also the best orientation point of the complex. There are concerts held there nowadays.
There is a church of an unknown dedication, built for the nuns of the convent, and also the St. Salvator Church. The latter one was built between 1270 and 1280 and it was the first example of the French Gothic style in the country. The entrance of the church has a triumphal arch, decorated with statues of kings´ and queens´ heads. A royal burial place was there originally. King Wenceslas I. was buried there in 1253 and also St. Agnes has her tomb there, but it was never found.
A newly conceived exhibition of mediaeval and early Renaissance art was opened in November 2000 in the authentic environment of the first convent of the Poor Clares in Bohemia, probably founded in 1231 by St Agnes of Bohemia, the daughter of Přemysl Otakar I.
The first part of the exhibition on the first floor traces the development of Czech art from the panel paintings and sculptures of the mid-14th century (Master of the Vyšší Brod altar, Master of the Michle Madonna) and the “soft” style of Master Theodoric, to the paintings of the Master of the Třeboň Altar and those executed in the International style (St Vitus Madonna, St Peter of Slivice, variant of the Krumlov Madonna). While Bohemia and Prague were important European art centres during the 14th century and around the year 1400, in the 15th century they were more inclined to receive external stimuli (Master of the St George Altar, Master of the Puchner ark, Master of the Litoměřice altar). Bohemian and Moravian works from the 15th and early 16th centuries are confronted with works from other Central European regions with which Bohemia enjoyed close cultural ties at that time. The painting of the Madonna and Child by Master IW thus finds a common dialogue with a work on the same theme by Saxon artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. The venerable Master of the Lamentation of Christ from Žebrák is represented at the exhibition with key works documenting the high standard of carving in Southern Bohemia, whilst the influence of the Danube school (for example, the painting by Albrecht Altdorfer) is reflected in the work of Master IP.
Legend of an Unhappy Nun
St. Agnes Convent is one of the many places in Prague, that have its own ghost-story. It says that one of the nuns was killed by her own father, when he found out that she is in love with a poor young man. Then he cursed her for putting the family in shame and said she shall never rest in peace till the convent is there. The ghost of the girl reputedly rambles around the convent in the night, moaning and wearing a habit stained with blood. It is said that she helps young people who are unhappily in love.
Visit the Strahov Monastery next.