These articles were published in the Spectacular Slovakia travel guide, published annually by The Slovak Spectator since 1996. The latest editions can be obtained from our online shop.



Urban Architecture

Slovakia's old royal cities and towns, particularly the ones that gained "free" status in medieval times, have churches that tell a story of religious devotion backed by piles of feudal cash. And they were embellished by the work of some of Europe's greatest craftsmen over several centuries.

Slovakia's churches embody the entire religious history of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire: from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance, on to Reformation-era Protestant churches and then to the baroque jewels of the Counter-Reformation, on to rococo and later the "neo" styles of the 19th century. Sometimes, the entire story plays out in one church.

Constraints of space and time mean we cannot give the subject the depth and breadth it deserves, but here are some of the places you should definitely not miss if you love churches.

Trnava

    St. Nicholas Cathedral in Trnava.
 St. Nicholas Cathedral in Trnava.
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Trnava makes a logical first stop on a Slovak churches tour. Although densely pockmarked by ugly modern development, the town contains a wealth of architectural beauty within its old centre. Its history is a rich one. Lying on the Prague-Budapest trade route, the town had established itself as a bustling, prosperous trading centre by the 13th century. This inspired King Béla IV to grant it a royal charter as a free borough in 1238 - the first town on modern-day Slovak territory to gain that status.

Then, when Lower Hungary fell to the Turks in 1526, the archbishops of Esztergom - the religious centre of the Hungarian Kingdom - shifted their seat north to Trnava. To house the various religious orders and provide them with schools, the bishops built up the city's religious infrastructure. The finest example from this period is the stunning University Church of St. John the Baptist (Univerzitný kostol sv. Jána Krstiteľa), where building began in 1635. The building's early-baroque exterior is rather spare and unadorned; inside, however, a kind of lush dream world opens, a blizzard of baroque and rococo masterworks created over two centuries. The Hungarian nobility, backed by their new Habsburg overlords, pulled out all the stops for this one, hiring the services of the renowned Italian masters Giovanni Rossi and Giacomo Tornini to decorate the church.

The long, one-nave structure boasts a beautiful vaulted ceiling replete with paintings depicting the life of St. John the Baptist. But the altar is the centrepiece. Delicately carved and yet massive - 20 metres high and 15 metres wide - the altar glows with gilding and polychrome. At its centre is a vivid painting of Christ; surrounding it are statues of various saints.

For more restrained tastes, there's the Church of St. Helen (Kostol sv. Heleny), built in the mid 14th century. The church was originally connected to a hospital and a poorhouse; despite centuries of remodelling projects, the interior retains a gloomy Gothic air, with several fine remnants of Gothic paintings.

Nitra

    Nitra’s Pribinovo Námestie.
 Nitra’s Pribinovo Námestie.
 Photo: Ján Svrček

The so-called "mother of Slovak towns," Nitra not only served as the base of the first political entity on modern-day Slovak territory ruled by Slavs, but it also housed the area's first Christian church.

By the early 9th century, a Slav named Pribina ruled the principality from Nitra, which was part of the greater Frankish kingdom. A confirmed pagan, Pribina nevertheless allowed the building and consecration of the church around 828. The main reasons probably had to do with Slavic-Frank politics - the Franks had set about Christianisation as a way to increase their power over the Slavs. (Some accounts cite a more romantic motivation: that Pribina welcomed the church as a gift to his Christian wife who hailed from Germany.)

The original church doesn't exist anymore - at least not in anything close to its old form - and the town bears heavily the marks of post-war functionalist fever. But a trip up to Castle Hill, home of three beautiful old churches, more than repays the effort.

The three churches, collectively known as the St. Emeram Cathedral (Katedrálny Biskupský Chrám sv. Emerama), reflect many of the movements in Europe's religious history. Each is small but stunningly beautiful. The oldest part is the Romanesque rotunda, a horseshoe-shaped apse claimed by some sources to be based on remnants of Pribina's original church. Built sometime around the 12th century, the rotunda served as the "locus credibilis" - or place where legal documents and treaties were authenticated - after the building of the Gothic cathedral between 1333 and 1335.

Go toward the back and up a flight of steps and you will come to the Lower Church (Dolný Kostol), built in 1642. The altar contains a magnificent marble relief of Christ being lifted down from the cross, created in the 18th century by the sculptor L.Y. Pernegger. Another staircase connects to the Upper Church (Horný Kostol). Originally built in 1355, this structure was redone in the early 18th century, and counts as one of Slovakia's baroque jewels. Lavished with gilt and red marble, the room contains a treasure trove of paintings and frescos.

Levoča

    Levoča City Hall
 Levoča City Hall
 Photo: Ján Svrček

No architectural tour of Slovakia is complete without a visit to Levoča, home to Slovakia's greatest Gothic church, the majestic Church of St. James (Kostol sv. Jakuba) which dates from around 1400. The town, settled by Saxon immigrants in the 12th century, flourished as a trading, gold, and wood-carving centre until the late 1500s. After that, it became embroiled in regional struggles with its rival town Kežmarok, and later played a role in an anti-Habsburg uprising which led to its economic isolation. The latter was exacerbated when, in 1871, town fathers convinced national railway planners to leave it off the main rail line; they felt trains were somehow unnatural and evil. Hence the town's almost complete lack of modern architecture.

Discussion of the Church of St. James must begin with Master Pavol (Majster Pavol), the gifted woodworker responsible for many of its splendours. Because of a fire that ripped through Levoča in 1550, there are very few written records of Master Pavol's life - his very surname is lost to history, and his nationality remains a mystery. Some sources suggest he was of Polish origin, while others claim Levoča itself as his birthplace.

What we do know is that in 1506, he embarked upon the most ambitious project of his known career: the huge Gothic altar of the Church of St. James.

At 19 metres high and 6 metres wide, it's said to be the world's largest Gothic wooden altar. It is also surely among the world's most beautiful, packed with exquisitely etched statues of the Virgin Mary, St. James, and St. John, as well as a particularly evocative depiction of Christ's passion. The highlight might be the representation of the life-like Last Supper, with its anguished Judas and his sack of coins. But Master Pavol's masterpiece is only one of many famous works in the church. The building is like a museum of sacral art, with fine examples of the late Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque styles.

Close to the church, outside of the town hall, stands the Cage of Shame, a forbidding metal structure where accused criminals were once locked up and exposed to public wrath. Town dwellers were encouraged to jeer, stone, and spit upon those who had run afoul of medieval justice; according to some sources, it was reserved for women accused of adultery. Today, standing as it does close to that wonderful monument to Christianity, the cage serves as a reminder of the barbarism that underpinned so many of our cultural artefacts.

Košice

    Cathedral of St. Elizabeth in Košice.
 Cathedral of St. Elizabeth in Košice.
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Founded in 1241, Košice quickly established itself as a trading powerhouse - it lay right on the route between Austria and Constantinople - and it owned a regional monopoly in the supply of salt. Its fortunes changed fast when the Turks seized control of Constantinople in the 15th century, essentially ending the old trade route. And the involvement of many of its denizens in anti-Habsburg activity brought further economic stagnation. Yet architectural gems remain from the glory days.

Its main architectural asset, the odd, majestic Cathedral of St. Elizabeth (Dóm sv. Alžbety), was financed by salt riches. Interestingly, its namesake saint was the daughter of a magnate, Charles of Anjou, with whom Košice's leading lights fought bitterly over the city's domination of the salt market.

Construction on Europe's easternmost Gothic cathedral, St. Elizabeth's, began in the late 14th century. It has an almost maddeningly complex architecture, with five naves and polygonal apses. From the outside, it looks like a grand, aging pastiche: lovely Gothic spires sit discordantly close to a gilded cupola that tops the clock tower like a helmet. Its stone facade, aged a patchy charcoal grey, gives it a brooding look. Its striped tile roofs, similar to those in St. Stephen's in Vienna, complete the picture. Walking under this imposing hulk at night, one feels something like the grandeur of Prague emanating from those old walls.

    Cathedral of St. Elizabeth in Košice
 Cathedral of St. Elizabeth in Košice
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Inside, on a fine day, sunlight pours in from two storeys of towering arched windows to bathe a treasure trove of statues and decorations. Vaulted ceilings loom grandly over the scene. At the end of it all, the altar is a particularly fine specimen, containing a dizzying 48 panels depicting Christ's passion and the life of the Virgin Mary.

It's definitely worth the Sk40 fee for a trip down to the crypt and up the clock tower. In the crypt lies the ornate tomb of Ferenc Rákóczi, a Transylvanian Protestant who once owned the church. He led a violent uprising against the Habsburgs in the early 18th century. Upon his defeat in 1711, he was exiled to Turkey - where his remains stayed until his 1905 pardon. Go up the winding stairs of the clock tower and enjoy glimpses of some interesting old rooms before emerging at the top to a panoramic view of Košice's lavishly restored old town.

Also not to be missed is the chapel of St. Michael, situated at the south end of the cathedral. Built in the 14th century, this attractive Gothic structure served as a storehouse for weapons during the 16th century, when Turkish control of lower Hungary made Košice a key defensive position against Ottoman expansionism.

Bardejov

    The City Hall in Bardejov.
 The City Hall in Bardejov.
 Photo: Ján Svrček

Settled by German weavers in the 12th century, Bardejov had established itself as a leading town in the textile trade by the 15th century. Its increasingly wealthy merchants built up a tremendous town centre, complete with the requisite vast Gothic church. Unhappily, stagnation and decline came next, starting with the Thirty Years' War. The town's economy never recovered, and because of that, the old town escaped centuries of remodelling. Today, Bardejov's old town is perhaps Slovakia's best-preserved.

Its Church of St. Egidius, is not to be missed. Built in the early 15th century, it presides imposingly over the town houses of the square, its sheer size and Gothic austerity making it awesome. Owing to various afflictions in later years - an earthquake, several fires - much of the original interior decoration has been lost and replaced by neo-Gothic work from the 19th century. Yet there remain original artefacts, the most famous of which are the eleven complex, beautiful Gothic altars that run along the side walls. Tragically, the original main altar, the work of Master Pavol of Levoča, was destroyed in a fire; only two sculptures and one painting survive from that celebrated structure.

Another highlight is the triumphal arch, which contains a Gothic sculpture group depicting the Stations of the Cross, dating from the late 15th century. Even the pews here are treasures. These delicately carved benches possess an odd flourish: on their ends, they confront the incoming worshipper with grinning half-dog, half-monkey figures.


These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2003.

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