St Mary’s Cathedral, Krakow, Poland. First built in the 1220s. Destroyed. Rebuilt in Gothic style, 1320s. Windows added 1350s. Vaulting added, early 1400s. Chapels added, mid 1400s. 1700s, interior gutted and redone in Baroque.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria. Construction began in 1137 in the Romanesque style, on top of a cemetery. 1258, fire destroys most of building. Building began again in Romanesque in 1260s. Early 1300s, construction shifts to Gothic style. Completion date: never. Renovation and addition: continuous.
St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic
Construction begins: Romanesque style, 900s. Enlargement, 1000s. Mid 1300s, contruction and renovation shifts to Gothic style. Post-Renaissance, construction shifts to Baroque style (for centuries, this cathedral had a wooden roof). Mid 1800s, “neo” Gothic contruction and renovation begin. Renovation: ongoing.
These are the three big, grand, gorgeous churches that I have seen thus far on my travels in central Europe. They have been torn down, burned down, razed by invading Turks and Swedes, elevated by bishops and demoted by cardinals.
None of them are uniform. Their construction periods are so long that they outlived themselves.
These cathedrals were old and outdated before they were even new.
And they are, all of them, gloriously beautiful. To walk into any one of these spectacular structures is to forget to breathe. I have literally wandered around with my head thrown back until I bumped into confused Chinese tourists.
The cathedral is one of the emblematic symbols of Europe. We have our monuments in America, Asia has its temples, Australia its wildlife, Africa its epics, and Europe has its castles and its cathedrals.
Each cathedral was irrevocably altered by the events surrounding it. These churches have seen empires rise and crumble, philosophies and religions die. The powerful have added their own touches, have made their own decisions about the content and image of the cathedrals across more than a millennia.
Conquered and “liberated,” freed but altered: sound familiar?
These cathedrals are Central Europe. A place of tradegdy and beauty, where everything changes but people cling to their dreams, their language, and their names with remarkable force.
All of Europe feels old, aged and sometimes decrepit, but it’s actually a young place, filled with youth and progress. Everything just feels old, feels ancient, feels as worn and tired as the cathedrals who waited centuries to be built a roof.
And who is not awed by the survival of Eastern and Central Europe, the ability of the people to weather any storm, to deal with the ceaseless rise and fall of empires and yet survive, mostly intact?
The grand cathedrals; old before they are young, standing through invasions by the Swedes and Turks and Nazis. The Czechs, the Austrians, the Slovaks and the Poles; alive, speaking their own languages, irrevocably sundered by the divisions of generations-old wars and yet alive and moving forward into the future.