The Charles Bridge is one of the most recognizable and visited sites in the city. Hundreds of tourists cross it every day to experience the history, beauty and views. Lined with craftspeople selling their wares and a few musicians; the atmosphere is lively, if not a bit overwhelming on a crowded summer day. Jacy Meyer shares some facts about this historical bridge.
Built in 1357, Charles Bridge, dominated by a tower at each end, as well as 30 Baroque-style statues, sits on 16 pillars and stretches 515 meters across the Vltava River. Its cornerstone was laid by Charles IV as part of a ceremony held on 9 July 1357 at 5:31am and construction lasted for almost the rest of the 14th century. The builder, Petr Parler was only 27. The date and unusual time were not chosen at random; Charles IV was a firm believer in astrology and astrologers, using the Sun-Saturn connection, reported that the timing was particularly suitable for such an action. It wasn’t named after its founder though until 1870 – before that the Charles Bridge was simply called the Prague Bridge or Stone Bridge.
Connecting two of the city’s oldest directs (Malá Strana and Staré Město) the views from the bridge are numerous. Of course the skyline is dominated by Prague Castle. Looking straight towards Mala Strana, you’ll see the dome of St. Nicholas, while to the left you can spot the leafy green of Petřín Park. Turning around back towards Old Town you’ll get an idea of why one of Prague’s nicknames is City of 100 Spires. And this isn’t just a handy moniker – Bernard Bolzano a mathematician and philosopher counted Prague’s spires at the beginning of the 19th century and came up with 103. Today, Prague has more than 500.
The Old Town Bridge Tower, built by the designer of St. Vitus Cathedral, features one of the most beautiful gates from Gothic Europe. It is adorned with sculptures – the coats of arms of the countries belonging to the Czech Crown under the reign of Charles IV, statues of St. Vitus, Charles IV, Wenceslas IV, St. Vojtech (Adalbert) and Sigmund. At the other end, the Malá Strana towers lack the ornamentation boasted by its brother tower. The shorter one is a leftover Romanesque tower from the mid 12th century, while the central gate was built in 1400 and the tower to the right in 1464. The gate is decorated with the emblems of King Wenceslas IV. On the bridge side, you’ll see the Luxemburg, Czech and Moravian emblems while entering the bridge from the town; the emblems are from Wratislaw, Czech and Lower Lusatia.
The statues were erected mostly between 1683 and 1714 and the most prominent sculptors of the day took part – including Mathias Bernard Braun and Ferdinand Maxmilian. Unfortunately, the statues you see today aren’t the originals. Back in the 1960’s they were taken down and replaced – the originals now live out their retirement at the National Museum. Following is a list of the statues in order if you are travelling from the Old Town side to Malá Strana.
Statues on the south side (left side with your back to the Old Town Tower):
St. Ivo: Here the saint is featured as a spiritual judge, who defended socially weak people against the injustice of the powerful. St. Ivo was also the patron of lawyers and of the Faculty of Law at Prague’s Charles University, which financed the construction of the statue.
Sts. Barbara, Margaret and Elizabeth
Statue of the lamenting of Christ (Pieta)
St. Joseph: The original was destroyed by cannon fire during the 1848 revolution. The statue stands on a Gothic Revival architectonic pedestal.
St. Francis Xavier: This is one of the most important statues on the Bridge; from a compositional and sculptural point of view. The statue represents the saint baptizing a group of East Indian and Japanese princes.
St. Francis Borgia
St. Ludmila: The patron saint of the Czech Republic, St. Wenceslas’, grandmother
St. Francis of Assisi
Sts. Vincent Ferrer and Procopius
St. Nicholas of Tolentino
St. Luthgard: Sculpted by Mathias Bernard Braun, this is the most famous and artistically most important statue on the Bridge; an excellent example of Baroque sculpture.
Sts. John of Matha, Felix of Valois and Ivan
Statues on the north side (right side with your back to the Old Town Tower):
Madonna and St. Bernard
Madonna and Sts Dominic and Thomas Aquinas
The Crucifix and Calvary
Sts. Cyril and Methodius
St. John the Baptist
In between the previous statue and the next, look for a plate signifying the place where St. John of Nepomuk was reputedly thrown into the Vltava River. Ordered into the river by King Wenceslas IV in March 1393; the saint’s (who was the General Vicar of the Prague Archbishopric at the time) crime was that he would not reveal the King’s wife’s confessional secrets to him.
Sts. Norbert of Xanten, Wenceslas and Sigismund
St. John of Nepomuk: Thrown from the bridge to his death; it is now considered good luck to touch his statue. Five stars allegedly appeared above the river after he was tossed in.
St. Anthony of Padua
St. Jude Thaddeus
St. Philip Benitius
St. Salvator with Cosmas and Damian
Like Prague, the Bridge has seen many an event over the years. After the Battle of the White Mountain, the heads of 12 Czech noblemen decapitated in Old Town Square in 1621 were hung from the battlements of the Old Town Tower for 10 years as a warning. During the siege of Prague by the Swedish army in 1648, the Bridge was the place of some of the fiercest clashes. Floods also endangered and sometimes damaged the bridge throughout the centuries; not the least being the most recent devastating one back in 2002.
For true bridge lovers, visit the Charles Bridge Museum located on the square at the Old Town side of the Charles Bridge. There are exhibitions on the Bridge’s history as well as updates on its ongoing reconstruction. Our best advice though is to stay up late and cross it at night or rise with the birds for an early morning stroll – it’s a special experience you won’t soon forget.