The best way to get acquainted with Pilsen is to look out from the highest point – the tower of St Bartholomew’s Cathedral. With a height of 102.6 metres, it is the tallest church tower in the Czech Republic. Climb up the 301 steps and you’ll discover that Pilsen is a city that was laid out based on the most modern principles of mediaeval urban planning. The checkerboard street plan and spacious central square offer overwhelming proof of this. Amidst the vibrant mosaic of townhouses, towers and chimneys you’ll be able to easily pick out the city’s prominent landmarks – the slender tower of St John of Nepomuk Church in the south and the Great Synagogue to the southwest. Looking westward you’ll see all the way to the zoo and botanical garden; the Pilsner brewery is in the east.
The city is surrounded by hills. In the southeast you’ll easily recognise Radyně Hill and the castle ruins atop the hill.
Work started on St Bartholomew’s Cathedral shortly after the city was founded. The 58-metre long, 30-metre wide cathedral features breathtaking net vault ceiling that is 25 metres high. At the centre of the Neo-Gothic altar you’ll see the city’s most valuable treasure – a 134-centimetre tall statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, the Madonna of Pilsen. It was created in around 1390 and is now considered a masterpiece of European Gothic sculpture.
The soulful expression on the Virgin Mary’s face, unusual for its time, gave cause for numerous legends – including one about a young Franciscan monk’s hopeless love for the daughter of a local merchant. To cure his unhappy love, the abbot ordered a young artist to carve an argillite statue of the Virgin Mary. The monk worked without interruption.
He did not sleep or eat and allowed no one to see the statue until it was officially unveiled. When it finally was, everyone was shocked. They immediately recognised that the Madonna’s face was a faithful reproduction of the burgher’s daughter. The abbot severely punished the monk for such blasphemy and had the statue covered up in the deep cellars. Only after all of the people involved in the incident were long dead could the Madonna be brought back up to the altar of St Bartholomew’s Cathedral, where it remains to this day.
To the right of the altar, enter the Sternberg Chapel to see another precious object. The rare Art Nouveau altar won first prize in the category of ecclesiastical art at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900.