27 September, 2009

Thursday 3rd July 2008, Karlstejn Castle, Czech Republic

Karlstejn castle (or Charles's stone castle) is located 28 kilometres south west of Prague.  Perched high atop a steep-sided limestone outcrop, the castle is endowed with natural defences and commands an impressive view of the surrounding area.

Built under the instruction of Charles IV (then King of Bohemia) over a nineteen-year period, Karlstejn's original Gothic structure was completed in 1348.  When Charles IV became Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, the castle was restructured to hold the imperial treasures (comprising holy relics and coronation jewels).  These treasures were housed in the newly built Chapel of the Holy Cross located at the top of the great tower.

The importance of securing the imperial treasures is clear when one considers the robust defences of the castle.  Indeed, the castle was supposedly attacked only twice, the more significant attack occurring during the fifteenth-century Hussite wars when the Hussites unsuccessfully besieged the castle for seven months.

A reliable water supply is fundamental to the successful resistance of a siege, and it is interesting to note that in order to supply Karlstejn with water, it was necessary for miners to divert a brook to the castle's water tower.  The water tower forms part of the castle's defences, but is situated at what was originally the rear of the building; its apparent vulnerability such that the miners employed in its creation are said to have been fatally relieved of any chance of exposing their secret.  Attention need not have been focused on the great tower.

Regardless of the castle's inhabitant's levels of dehydration, the imperial treasures were extremely well secured.  Firstly, the great tower has its own secondary defences, which include access via wooden walkways that could be burned if necessary.  Second, the stone spiral stairs were cleverly designed to give maximum advantage to the defenders.  Not only was the steepness of the stairs intended to tire would-be attackers, but the right-to-left descending spiral would have allowed defenders to wield swords right-handed, forcing opponents to fight left-handed.  Amazingly, Karlstejn's defences still pose a compelling impediment to a twenty-first-century student in cotton shorts, let alone an amour-clad knight.

Similarly, time has done little to diminish the majesty of the building and the magnificence of its contents.  The Chapel of the Holy Cross is perhaps no less spectacular than it was when consecrated in 1365, its gilded walls adorned with over one hundred original paintings (executed between 1360 and 1364 by Master Theodoric) and vaulted ceiling encrusted with Venetian glass.

Theodoric's paintings depict large-headed (to give a sense of proportion to the view below) Christian Saints and prophets, including several Saint-sovereigns.  Notable among the latter is Charlemagne's portrait, clearly visible on the lower part of the northern wall illuminated by the sunlight.  Such prominent positioning may have served to remind visitors - lucky enough to gain admittance to the chapel - of the ruler's heavenly links.

Admittance to the chapel even today provides one with a sense of awe, so one can only wonder at the effect - considering the formidable castle complex, elaborate access and the then presence of the imperial treasures  - that the Chapel of the Holy Cross must have had upon the fourteenth-century viewer.


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