On Site | Kladruby Abbey Church, Czech Republic

Posted in Member News, on site by Editor on August 19, 2012

Eighteenth-Century Encounters: Kladruby Abbey Church, Czech Republic
By Michael Yonan

Jan Blažej Santini-Aichl, Abbey Church of Kladruby,
near Stříbro, completed in 1726 (Photo by Michael Yonan)

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For most eighteenth-century specialists, the phenomenon of the period’s Gothic revival architecture is principally understood as an English one. Less well known is existence of another eighteenth-century Gothic, this one Central European. I’m speaking of the series of so-called Czech ‘Gothic Baroque’ churches by the Prague-born architect Jan Blažej Santini-Aichl (1677­–1723). This summer I traveled to western Bohemia and, generously stewarded by art historian Dr. Martin Mádl, was able to visit one of the more distinctive of Santini-Aichl’s buildings: the abbey church of Kladruby, part of a complex of ecclesiastical buildings that make up a Benedictine cloister, located not far from the town of Stříbro.1

From a distance, the church doesn’t immediately reveal its eighteenth-century origins. Its height, the pinnacled columns, exterior buttresses, and of course ogive arches all suggest a medieval vintage. That is until one notices the centralized cupola, an element whose arrangement and form is not typically Gothic. Dislocations of style and date increase as one enters the church. As with many Gothic buildings, Kladruby has a basilican plan and employs architectural forms like pointed arches and ribbed vaulting. But few, if any, Gothic churches look quite like this. The ribbed vaults zigzag into stylized lilies, the coat-of-arms of the local abbots. The interior’s pink and pistachio green tonalities, its original hues, are more reminiscent of the rococo than of medieval churches. And the illusionistically painted dome, replete with saints tumbling through the heavens and an oculus representing the Holy Spirit, recalls seventeenth-century Roman predecessors more than Chartres or Ulm. Kladruby reveals itself to be a surprising synthesis of late baroque and medieval architectural styles.

What could possibly explain this? As an American art historian trained to see eighteenth-century art through specific narratives, I’ll confess that this building floored me. To understand it, it helps to know the monastery’s history and the unique culture of Czech religious communities. A church was first consecrated here in 1233, not long after the abbey’s formation. In subsequent centuries the community’s fortunes waxed and waned; it fell into disarray in the sixteenth century and was conquered and plundered during the Thirty Years’ War. Repairs to its buildings began in 1653, but in 1712 the presiding abbot, Maurus Fintzguth, commissioned Santini-Aichl to build an entirely new church, the one we see today, which was completed in 1726.

‘New’ is not quite the right term, however. Most of what one encounters at Kladruby dates, in fact, from the eighteenth century, but scholars have speculated that somewhere within the walls are fragments of the original church. In constructing this new building out of and on top of its predecessor, Santini-Aichl described his architectural process as one of renovation. He did more than simply reconstruct an old church or build a new one on its site, but rather constructed something that simultaneously evokes its predecessor, incorporates it, and improves upon it. In this respect, Santini-Aichl’s building maintains and visualizes the monastery’s medieval history, which Fintzguth viewed as a Golden Age, even as it celebrates its modern resilience.

Some scholars have suggested that Kladruby is essentially an eighteenth-century building wrapped in Gothic skin, and indeed given what we know about the eighteenth-century love of surfaces, architectural and otherwise, this would seem to fit. But a recent article by the Czech art historian Pavel Kalina claims that the situation is actually more complicated.2 The interior ribbed vaulting is not used in a manner true to Gothic structural techniques, for sure, but neither is it entirely decorative. It’s somewhere in between, partially structural and partially ornamental, and in achieving this balance it combines medieval and eighteenth-century architectural knowledge. In this synthesis of old and new, Kalina argues, lie traces of dialogues between learned abbots and skilled artisans, as well as existential tensions between the abbey’s past and its present.

Kladruby isn’t an isolated example of such a synthesis. Santini-Aichl constructed a similar Gothic-baroque church at Sedlec, a village near the city of Kutná Hora, and he designed particularly daring synthesis of classical and Gothic architectural forms for the Pilgrimage Chapel of St. John Nepomuk at Žďár nad Sazavou. All are easily reachable as day trips from Prague.

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1. Three different 360-degree views of the church and its surroundings are available at 360globe.net. Martin Mádl’s wife, Claire Mádl, is editor and co-founder of the journal Cornova, the ‘Eighteenth-Century Studies’ of the Czech Republic.

2. Pavel Kalina, “In opere gotico unicus: The Hybrid Architecture of Jan Blažej Santini-Aichl and Patterns of Memory in Post-Reformation Bohemia,” Umění 58 (2010): 42–56.

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President of HECAA, Michael Yonan is Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His book, Empress Maria Theresa and the Politics of Habsburg Imperial Art, appeared in 2011 from Penn State University Press.

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