The Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew in Pilsen (Plzeň)

By Tracy A. Burns

A highlight of Pilsen

Cathedral of St. Bartholomew in PilsenThe Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew dominates the Pilsen skyline, and is, indeed, one of this west Bohemian town’s most significant sights. Situated on the northern side of Republic Square, one of the largest squares in Europe, the Gothic cathedral is surrounded by buildings hailing from Gothic and Renaissance days. This cathedral boasts the tallest church tower in the country, at a height of 102.6 meters. The Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew also ranks as the third tallest building in the Czech Republic.

From its founding to 1995

The Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew is as old as the city itself, which was founded in 1295, although what was then a church was first mentioned in writing in 1307. It was not completed, though, until the beginning of the 16th century. The Diocese of Pilsen was established in 1993 by Pope John Paul II, and that is when the holy building became a cathedral. Two years later it was listed as a national cultural monument.

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The interior

Interiors of the St. Bartholomew in PilsenInside, the net vault ceiling is 25 meters high. The building is 58 meters long and 38 meters wide. The Neo-Gothic main altar is decorated with a 134-centimeter tall Gothic statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, created in 1390. The statue is often referred to as the “Madonna of Pilsen” and is considered to be a European masterpiece and the town’s most treasured artifact. Note the expressive and passionate look on the Virgin Mary’s face.

The Sternberk Chapel

Yet that is not the only altar to be admired in the cathedral. The Late Gothic Sternberk Chapel is home to the Czech Altar, a unique Art Nouveau work. Exquisite Renaissance wall painting also adorns the chapel. The Secession-style altar was so impressive that it captured first place in the category of religious art at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900. The 1919-1920 reconstruction of the chapel was carried out by Kamil Hilbert, whose work can also be admired at Saint Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague.

A legend about a monk in love

The Virgin Mary statue has inspired many legends. One of these tales concerns a monk who had fallen head-over-heels in love with a merchant’s daughter. Determined to make the monk come to his senses, the abbot had a sculptor make an argillite statue of the Virgin Mary, thinking that this would convince the monk to continue serving the Church. The artist worked painstakingly on the statue. He did not even allow himself to sleep or eat while creating the work of art.

The unveiling of the statue

Then came the day that the sculptor was to show his work to the public. People were more than surprised at the outcome of the artist’s efforts. The Madonna’s face was the spitting image of the merchant’s daughter. The abbot was very angry and had the statue stored in the cellars. Decades later, after all the people in this tale had died, the Madonna was taken out of the cellar and placed on the main altar of the cathedral.

A legend about a cherub

There’s more. Another legend focuses on the Baroque gate at the back of the cathedral. This gate is adorned with cherub heads. Each of the cherubs’ facial expressions is different. If you touch the cherub that has been rubbed the most, it will bring you good luck, according to the legend. This cherub is touched so often that it needs to be replaced every few years. The legend concerns an executioner who was not permitted to come into the church because his job involved killing people. So, he had a substitute man take his wedding vows there in 1739. While this substitute was at the altar with the bride, the executioner was praying at that gate. When he suddenly became faint, he grabbed a cherub with one hand so he would not fall.

Climb the tower

Climb the church tower in PilsenThe cathedral is not always open to the public, so be sure to check the opening hours. Don’t miss an opportunity to climb the tower’s 301 stairs. The view from the top is breathtaking. Look for the tower of Saint John of Nepomuk Church and the Great Synagogue in Moorish Romanesque Revival style. You will also be able to see the zoo, botanical garden, the Pilsner brewery, and the romantic ruin of Radyne Castle, perched on a hill near the town.

A good place to start your tour

The Cathedral of Saint Bartholomew is the best place to start your tour of Pilsen as it is located in the very core of the city, which has inspired so many legends and captured so many hearts for its architectural masterpieces, cultural venues, and beer.

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