Bethlehem Chapel

Betlémská kaple (Bethlehem Chapel)

In the Old Town, away from the heavy traffic, lies Betlémské námestí (Bethlehem Square). It is named after the chapel, whose importance turbulently touched Czech history.

Bethlehem Chapel was founded as a church for preaching sermons in Czech, a gathering place, where representatives of the czech intelligentsia – the masters of Charles University – would speak from the pulpit. The building was sponsored by the rich Old Town citizen Krisand protected by the influence of Hanus von Mülheim, a courtier of King Václav IV. These two leading figures signed the foundation charter in 1391. During the construction compromises had to be made because of objections from the Priest of the neighbouring Saint Philip and Saint Jacob Church, who defended his parish’ rights. It could not become a cathedral but merely a chapel. Nevertheless, because of its size it does not look like a chapel.

Very few religious ceremonies were ministered in the chapel. It was reserved especially for preaching sermons in Czech. It could accommodate a congregation of three thousand listeners, and because there was a sermon three times on Sundays and religious feasts, almost all the Czech citizens of Prague gathered in this place, including Queen Sophia. People even stood outside to listen. The interior does not remind us in any way of a Gothic cathedral.

Around the extensive, unlevel groundplan walls were erected, which are covered with straight joists. The importance of the altar was suppressed. The word of the preacher alone dominated. Adversaries of the reformation movement mockingly called the chapel a barn.

The most popular and most important in the order of Bethlehem preachers, master Jan Hus, covered the chapel walls with texts. The latin version of Hus’ treaty De sex erroribus (About the six heresies) covered the whole northern and a part of the southern wall. Two other short Czech texts were painted – the creed “I believe in God…” and the Ten Commandments. Hus’ successor Jakoubek ze Stríbra enriched the chapel with two more texts, with which the Holy Communion of both the Body and the Blood of Christ was propagated. The remnants of the texts, which were preserved after the destruction of the chapel, belong to the most important finds during the renewal of the building. Writing on walls in itself was something unusual in that period. On the walls are also an enlarged reproduction of the John codex and the Reichenthal chronicles.

New vaults were built in the chapel in the year 1539. Whether the work was done thoroughly or not, it started to crack and threatened to collapse. This was one of the reasons why its demolition was proposed. There were also commercial and of course religious/political reasons for this. The sanctuary was liquidated in the year 1786. Part of the walls were used for the construction of sheds, later for a block of flats. It seemed, that the fate of this historically important sanctuary was sealed, that Bethlehem Chapel no longer existed. But its myth was not forgotten. Especially in the 19th century pilgrimages to Konstanz and Bethlehem Square were organized. Professional probes proved that the main part of the original walls, the portal, windows and a part of the texts had been preserved. In the year 1948 it was decided that it should be renewed according to original plans.

In the year 1954 the dream of many of its sympathizers became a reality. And in this way Hus’ request when he was imprisoned in Konstanz was also fulfilled. In his own words, he said: “I also implore you, especially the people of Prague, to be kindhearted to Bethlehem…”.