The Order of Malta in Prague, The ‘Provincia Germanica’ and the Church of Our Lady beneath the Chain
Extract from the diary of Karl Oskar Eklund:
‘What happened after the battle for the Charles Bridge during the 30 years war? This was the question that brought me to Prague. The answers are usually other than the ones we expect. Instead of tales of barbarism, of the plunder of the Swedish army, I found the answers there, in the middle of the outer district. Here, in the quiet enclaves on the far side of the river I stumbled across a relic of history that captivates the imagination and opened my eyes, perhaps more than at any time since the days of the Egypt expedition in the days of my youth.’
This concerns the search for the discoveries of Karl Oskar Eklund and a little-known church located at the site of a previous old monastery. This is no ordinary church, since it is one that served the Knights Hospitallers in the Middle Ages: A place of shelter and refuge by pilgrims and crusaders on the long road through central Europe to Constantinople which today is the church of the Virgin Mary under the Chain and the Grand Priory Palace ((Velkopřevorský palác). Established more than eight centuries ago, the Grand Priory of Bohemia is the oldest among all the Grand Priories of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
A short walk from the towers of the Charles Bridge in Prague lies Maltese Square and Grand Priory Square. At the northern end of Maltese Square is a statue of St John the Baptist – part of a fountain erected in 1715 to mark the end of a plague epidemic. At the northern end of Grand Priory Square is the former seat of the Grand Prior. And here lies the Church of Our Lady Beneath the Chain, announced by the two great towers dating from the time when this was a fortified priory: The church of the Czech Grand Priory of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta – and next to it, the outer walls of the Grand Priory Palace with the oldest and most memorable sycamore in Prague – the Beethoven sycamore. According to legend, the composer sat under this tree during his visit to Prague in 1796.
During more than 800 years of its existence the building has came through many rebuildings according to all the main architectural styles. The priory was founded after the return of the Bohemian knights from the 2nd crusade in 1180, turning the land on the far banks of the river close to the centre of Prague into a fortress. Founded in the 12th century, the church is the oldest in the area called ‘The Little Quarter’ – presented to the Knights of St John by King Vladislav II:
‘Vladislav’s enthusiasm, like the Second Crusade as a whole, produced no result in Outremer. Instead, the project was formulated of introducing the Hospital as a religious order intohis principality. This was an innovation; the Hospital had not previously committed itself to extending its European possessions, and the new province of Bohemia under a resident Hospitaller prior was the first such creation since the earliest days of the order. The first foundation of the new province, that of the Order’s convent in Prague, proceeded along conventional lines.Vladislav’s chancellor and his nephew were entrusted with the task of collation. The dedication of the Hospitallers’ church in Prague has been placed in 1156.’ (Smith 94)
Eklund’s diaries mention the church in some detail, mentioning how the original church was built after 1158, in the centre of the Knights’ old heavily fortified monastery. It guarded the approach to the old Judith Bridge, precursor of the Charles Bridge:
‘The church’s name refers to the chain used during the Middle Ages to close the monastery gatehouse. A commandry of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem settled below the castle near Judith Bridge. The three-aisle Romanesque basilica was completed in 1182′.
From 1156 to 1159, the Knights Hospitaller received land south of the bishop’s court, near the bridgehead of the former Judith Bridge. The origin of the name of the church refers to the former Judith Bridge and the chain on the bridge tower gate. Apparently, the chain was stretched from this site in the Lesser Town all the way across the Vltava River to the Old Town so as to prevent boats from passing though Prague without paying the toll.
‘The first involvement of the Hungarian monarchy in the crusading movement came about with the Hospital acting as intermediary (the reference, occasionally cited, to a Hungarian Templar official from the 1140s is a misdating for the 1240s). These contacts might be compared with those already described in the case of the Czech ruler, Vladislav, the Hospital’s role being that of a combination of chaperone, cicerone and factotum. A letter to the Master of the Hospital from Bela III, dated between 1163 and 1169, recorded the transfer of 10 000 besants through a royal servant and a Hospitaller, Bernard. The money was to be used to purchase property in the Holy Land, though not in any region under threat from the Turks. The revenues of the property were to be enjoyed by the Hospital, unless the duke and his wife should make a pilgrimage, in which case they would enjoy the revenues for their lifetime or until their departure from the Holy Land, after which the property would revert to the Hospital’suse: no son or heir should have any enjoyment of the revenues, but, if any came to the Holy Land, they were to be equipped with horses and arms from the Hospital’s stores.’ (Smith 94)
‘A Gothic presbytery was added in the 13th century, but in the following century the original Romanesque church was demolished. A new portico was built with a pair of massive square towers but the work was abandoned and the old nave became a courtyard between the towers and the church. The church was given a baroque facelift in 1640 by Carlo Lurago. The high altar features a painting depicting the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist coming to the aid of the Knights of Malta in the famous naval battle at Lepanto in 1571’
(Extract from Eklund)
After 1314, the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem obtained funds by selling off the property of the defunct Knights Templar. The Romanesque church was knocked down and construction started on a grand Gothic three-aisle basilica that was likely carried out by Peter Parler’s workshop. Remnants from the older building have been preserved on the right-hand side of what is now the courtyard. Out of the original plans, only the choir and sacristy were built; the western prism tower was started but never completed. The church was rebuilt in Baroque style in the course of the 17th century.
The Grand Priory Palace
After 1420 the former Romanesque style was rebuilt in the gothic style, the renaissance makeover came after 1610 and finally, after 1725, the baroque rebuilding, which is excellently preserved till nowadays. The most notable features of the Palace include the piano nobile with the Grand Prior´s chamber and the main Knight´s Hall, where the knights met. In all rooms there are paintings of Czech, German and Italian baroque masters.
The history of the Order of Malta in Prague ‘Provincia Germanica’
The Order is commemorated in several place names in the Little Quarter at the west end of the famous Charles Bridge. In spite of adversities encountered during the French revolution and during the Napoleonic wars that followed, the Bohemian Grand Priory survived down to the 20th century, arguably the most testing century of its long existence.
The ‘provincia germanica’ of the Order of the Brothers Hospitallers was probably founded in 1616. In the early 1770s it covered almost the whole of Central Europe. Today’s Bohemian province consists of eight monasteries (Prague, Nové Město nad Metují, Kuks, Brno, Prostějov, Valtice, Letovice and Vizovice).
During World War I the Order operated a hospital train which circulated throughout Europe treating the casualties of war. Over 27000 operations were conducted in the field.
In 1938 the (independent) Grand Priory of Austria was formed as a consequence of the Anschluß of Austria by Hitler. During the Nazi occupation of Bohemia the activities of the Order were banned and its properties were confiscated. Although the Order’s activities were suppressed by the Nazis, the Regent Schwarzenberg used his political influence to ensure the survival of the order.
Following the war, the socialist state did not return the properties confiscated by the Nazis but instead nationalized them. A minimum level of activity was tolerated by the communists until 1950, when the Order, together with other Church orders, was dissolved and banned. The majority of the Order’s members went into exile. A small group of knights remained in Bohemia and continued the Order’s charitable and hospitaller activities with the support of their confreres abroad. They were headed by Prince Charles Schwarzenberg (1911-1986) as Regent of the Grand Priory of Bohemia, who untiringly defended the right of the Grand Priory to survive. In 1981 Fra Charles Paar was elected Grand Prior in exile.
Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989 the Order immediately resumed its activities. New members were inducted and the first steps were taken towards securing the return of the Order’s buildings in Prague, namely the Grand Prior’s Palace and the Church of Our Lady Under the Chain. Finally, Maltese Help was formed as the relief organization of the Order in the Czech Republic.
Update since 1987
In 1991 the Order established diplomatic relations with the Czech Republic. The Order’s embassy today stands next to the Church of Our Lady Under the Chain. Thus, once again the eight-pointed cross serves as a symbol of assistance and comfort for those suffering in body or spirit.
The Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta homepage on http://smom-za.org/smom.htm
(Smith 94) Paul Vincent Smith. Crusade and Society in Eastern Europe: The Hospital and the Temple in Poland and Pomerania 1145 – 1370
PhD thesis, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 1994.
prague.eu http://www.prague.eu/en/object/places/462/church-of-our-lady-beneath-the-chain-kostel-panny-marie-pod-retezem http://www.prague.eu/en/object/places/1814/the-grand-priory-palace-velkoprevorsky-palac