At Prague Castle, a rare look at a glittery cultural treasure
For just the second time this century, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are coming out for public viewing.
“The tradition is that the crown jewels are only displayed during times of great festivities,” says František Kadlec, director of the department of tourism at Prague Castle. “This year is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic, and the re-election of President Václav Klaus.”
The crown jewels came out of their chamber just nine times in the 20th century. They last saw the light of day in 2003, to mark the 85th anniversary of the nation along with Klaus’ first election.
The crown itself was commissioned by Charles IV for his coronation in 1347. It is decorated with 96 precious stones and 20 pearls, and a cross with an inscription engraved in Latin that reads, “Here is a thorn from the crown of the Lord” — a reference to a religious relic the crown once held.
It’s a bit heavy to wear — 2,358 grams (a little over five pounds). But then, it wasn’t designed for daily use.
“The crown was made only as a ceremonial crown for Czech kings; it wasn’t normally worn,” Kadlec explains. “Charles dedicated the crown to St. Wenceslas, and it was kept on the bust of Wenceslas carved on his reliquary.”
A total of 22 Bohemian kings have worn the crown since.
Also on display will be the coronation orb and scepter. These aren’t the originals from Charles’ time, but copies made by Ferdinand I in the beginning of the 19th century. They were made to match the crown, using identical stones.
The sword of St. Wenceslas will be part of the package, though it has mixed heritage. Kadlec says studies confirm the sword’s blade is from the 10th century, so it really could have been used by Wenceslas. The handle, however, was remade in the 14th century, while the handle’s brocade covering dates to the 18th century.
The crown jewels and sword are normally kept in the Crown Chamber of St. Vitus Cathedral, which is sealed with seven locks. The seven keys are held by different representatives of the Czech state: the president, prime minister, archbishop of Prague, chairperson of both parliament chambers, provost of the Metropolitan Chapter of St. Vitus, and the mayor of Prague.
“When the chamber is opened, all the key keepers are invited, and must sign the protocol and with their own hand open the lock,” explains Kadlec. The unlocking will be done two days before the exhibition opens; it’s not open to the public, and will be conducted under tight security.
This year, the crown jewels will be the centerpiece of a larger exhibition.
“It’s not only the jewels, but important art objects connected with the coronation act,” Kadlec says. “The coronation cloak, reliquaries, historical engravings of coronation banquets, historical transportation boxes and many objects from the treasury of St. Vitus will all be displayed together for the first time.”
The exhibit will be in the Old Royal Palace, and is free. Kadlec estimates that 5,000 people a day will come to see it, which could mean waiting times of up to four or five hours. In the past, Castle officials have stopped queuing between 11 a.m. and noon to make sure that everyone already in line can get in by the 5 p.m. closing time.
This will be Kadlec’s third time organizing a display of the crown jewels, which never lose their magical appeal.
“I’m always touched when I see the people who come to see them — old people, moms with their babies,” he says. “For Czech people, these jewels are a symbol of Czech history.”