When I was taking walking tours around Olomouc last summer, there were two places I could rely on people to go “whoa” and audibly draw in their breath. The first was as we wander up the lane talking about shoes and street art and then turn the corner to find the spires of St Wenceslas' cathedral spearing up in front of us like a rocket ready to launch. The second was when we push through the heavy wooden door into St Michael’s.
In the main hall of St. Michael’s church we take in the altar painting of the Archangel himself, our eyes lead up to the Hebrew inscription for the name of God and the curious Dan Brown fans ask about the copy of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. The twelve apostles watch us from a little above head height, challenging us to solve the mystery of their identities. St Peter dangles the keys to the heavenly gates and St Andrew is stretched on his X, but most people are stumped by St. Bartholemew, wearing his own skin over his shoulder as a robe.
From there we might look at the altar of St. Jan Sarkander who, like St. Bartholemew, was flayed alive. In Sarkander’s case, just around the corner in Olomouc’s medieval prison. If the light or the bells have drawn eyes upward, we’ll talk about the three domes representing the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and the strange coat of arms with the red fox and the cannonballs.
When the new baroque church was being completed 300 years ago, the church had run out of money to complete the third and highest dome. The commander of the Olomouc fortress at the time donated a large part of his personal fortune to see the church completed. In gratitude, the church declared him patron of the third dome and built his Fuchs family coat of arms into the side of the cupola.
There were previous churches on the site of St Michael’s; the old gothic one was destroyed by the Swedish army in the Thirty Years War. Having climbed the tower from the park, we’d seen the last remaining gothic part from the outside, and now take peek from the inside. It houses the chapel of St Alexej, the Czech chapel. This is where services were held in Czech, while the main hall of the new church was reserved for the Germans. Not only a good example of the difference between Gothic and Baroque, but a reminder of the subtle pressure on ethnic minorities to conform to the mainstream of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
From there we go below ground and anyone who was paying attention back at the Caesar fountain realizes we’re at the fresh water spring upon which the city was founded, according to the old legend.
St Michael’s sits atop the highest of Olomouc’s three hills, but there’s a fresh water spring right at the peak. It’s said that Roman soldiers camped here for the defensive position and the water, and because of this, the hill was always called Julius’ hill. In Latin that’s something like Uilio Munsis, which later became Olomuntium and then Olomouc. So this legend apparently gives the city its name. There’s never been a modern archaeological exploration of the site, but the remains of Roman camps were found in the suburbs of Olomouc and it really seems the obvious place to camp, so who knows…?
Last stop, if there’s time, is a quick climb of the tower. If you’re visiting by yourself, the paper notices are not prohibiting your entry, they say ‘no smoking’ and ‘please turn the lights off when you leave’. If the doors are unlocked, you can go in. Until last year, the tower was a real adventure; you had to climb around the beams at the top and chase the pigeons away without slipping down one of the cracks in the floor. The views of the city are excellent. Total cost for all this – Zero.
Last year two new bells were installed, and now there are handrails and proper walkways. A gain for safety, but a loss of adventure and authenticity. Never mind though, the bells are magnificent. The originals were melted down during WWII, and it has taken until now to replace them. The third and largest will be displayed on the main square through the summer of 2008, and installed in the fall. Though ‘fall’ is a bad word to use when you’re craning a three-tonne piece of metal into an historic building. Let’s say it’ll be installed in the Autumn.
Unfortunately a lot of visitors to Olomouc seem to skip St Michael's; I don’t know whether because of the rather plain exterior or because they’re only going to the obvious places listed in their guidebooks. A pity, but we wouldn’t want it to become overcrowded either would we?