The recent discovery of a 1,000 year-old church at Prague’s historical Vyšehrad fort has excited experts who believe it could shed light on the nation’s early Christian history. Larger than any other known church built in Bohemia at that time, it must have been a prominent structure – and its discovery could help fill some blank spots on the map of early mediaeval Prague.
Some 150 metres from the Basilica of Ss Peter and Paul at Vyšehrad, the foundations of another church have recently been discovered by a team of archaeologists from the Czech Academy of Sciences.
The unearthed walls show the church was a 25-metre long square structure with three apses. It’s the size of the church, as well as its architecture, that has puzzled experts on mediaeval Czech history. Ladislav Varadzin is the head of the archaeological team.
“The ground plan is extraordinarily large for the period. The church had an area of 240 square metres which was really huge. It was in fact bigger than the rotunda of St Vitus at Prague Castle which was until now considered the biggest church with a central ground plan in the regions inhabited by Western Slavs.”
The church must have played a key role in the religious life of the Přemyslid dynasty which ruled Bohemia at that time. Mr Varadzin says the church was probably erected by the Přemyslid prince Boleslav II or his grandson Břetislav I in the late 10th or early 11th century.
With the exception of a brief mention in one of the chronicles of the time, there are no written documents that would record the church’s existence. But its shape suggests the builders looked further afield for inspiration.
“There are no analogies from that time in the central European region. That means it must have originated in areas further away. One of the probably possibilities in our opinion is that it originated in the Byzantine region, or in regions influenced by the Byzantine Empire, for instance Hungary.”
Christianity only arrived in Bohemia some 150 years before the church at Vyšehrad was built. At that time, the Latin liturgy from the West was competing with Byzantine traditions delivered by the missionaries Cyril and Methodius from Constantinople.
Ladislav Varazdin says that the architecture of the church could also be inspired by France or northern Italy. But if further research confirms Byzantine influences, it could change the way we look at that period of Czech history.
“In Bohemia in the 10th century, Latin liturgy was intermingling with elements of eastern Christianity such as the Slavic language for example. This building can significantly enhance the debate about this period which has been going on for more than a century now. But we first have to confirm whether this type of architecture really came from the Byzantine region, from France, for example.”
Excavations at Vyšehrad are soon to conclude. But it will take the experts some two or three years to analyse the finds and come up with a plausible theory about the significance of the discovery.