Church of St James the Greater

Gothic dizziness under a Baroque robe...

The Church of St. James the Greater differs from other Baroque buildings in Prague in its sheer simplicity. Its austere facade with the simple windows and its steep self-assured tower seem, even from a distance, to symbolize a detachment from the brevity of this world and its troubles. But as soon as you enter, you encounter a very different and rather unexpected world: a high-ceilinged space, flooded in colours and subdued light, evoking the mystical atmosphere of churches in the south of Italy.

The Minorite Church of St. James the Greater was founded at the end of the 13th century. The presbytery was built first, and at a height of 30 meters, was among the most daring of Prague’s Gothic buildings. During the 14th century, the three naves were added to the presbytery. During the Hussite wars, the church was spared from destruction and it retained its original Gothic appearance until the end of the 17th century. But the year 1689 changed everything, when the so-called “French fire” broke out. It was started by agents hired by Louis XIV, and of all the buildings affected in Prague, the church of St. James the Greater was hit the worst. During the fire, the main gable collapsed and the vaults, together with all the valuable equipment were destroyed. Renovations began quickly, and a new church was consecrated by 1702. The church in its current shape is from this era, even though the height and the unusual length strongly evoke the original Gothic shrine that stood there.

The new church owes its importance to the artistic quality of its decoration. Above the portals, there are extraordinary bas-reliefs: in a whirlwind of clouds and angels’ wings, saints arise, with eyes that beckon you and naturally lead you into the inner sanctum. The interior has several magnificent altars, but the most notable element is undoubtedly the tomb of Vratislav of Mitrovice, adorned with magnificent sculptural decoration by Ferdinand Maxmilián Brokoff. A somewhat morbid reminder of the Baroque world is the withered human hand hanging on the entrance wall to the church. Legend has it that it belonged to a thief who had tried to steal the statue of the Virgin Mary, but the statue grabbed and tightly held on to the thief, until he could be handed over to the hangman.


If you happen to hear organ music coming from the church when passing by, do not hesitate to go in: it is most likely just a rehearsal, but thanks to the excellent acoustics of the place and the exceptional Baroque setting, you just may take away an unforgettable memory.

Karolína, Avantgarde Prague
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