The Czech Republic’s ‘Go To’ Destinations: Jacob’s Place
To English speakers it’s St. James, the French call it St. Jacques, and when Prague’s residents get tickets to the most beautiful organ concerts in town, they say, “Jdeme na konzert u Jakuba.” (“We’re going to a concert at Jacobs’ place.”)
Looking at the ornate baroque relief sculptures of St. Francis, St. James, and St. Anthony on the façade, it is difficult to believe that this pinnacle of baroque architecture is one of the oldest churches in Prague.
Consecrated in 1244 when the newly formed Franciscan order, Fratelli, or the Minorites came to Prague, it was held in high favor by the parents of the beloved King Charles IV, John of Luxembourg and Eliška Přemyslovna, who lived nearby. They held their coronation banquet on the church premises in 1311. Possibly, the help they got from the butchers in the nearby Masná ulice, when they were besieging the city, had something to do with their favor.
In 1219, they started building a large basilica on the site of the humble Minorite church, but money ran out, so it wasn’t completed until 1374, by King Charles. With its 30 meter high nave, it was the third largest church in Prague, after St. Vitus cathedral and Pani Marie Sněžná in the New Town.
In 1689 a fire that consumed half the town left only the bare walls of the church standing. This led to a massive baroque reconstruction by the architect Jan Šimon Pánek, into the present form.
Parables and Legends
Pánek retained the original layout of the church, but lowered the nave and added an elaborate choir above the entrance. Later, leading Czech baroque artists embellished the nave with ornate frescoes, paintings, and elaborate statues. On the high altar a scene of the glorification of St. James is rumored to cover another painting, done by an unknown artist during the plague of 1713. Throughout the epidemic, the painter prayed that he might be spared to finish the work, and his wish was granted. His wife and children all died, but still he clung to life. Only after he put the final touches on the painting, did he drop dead on the spot.
A shriveled human hand hanging near the entrance is another testament to Heaven’s somewhat black humor.
In a time of famine, people turned to a 15th century statue of the Virgin on the main altar for help, showering her with jewels and treasure. One evening a thief hid in the church. After the doors were locked, he crept to the statue, but when he reached up to take some of the jewels, the Virgin Mary grabbed him by the wrist. All night she
Photo Credits: Organ, Anton Fedorenko; all others, St James Basilica website