Crumbling stone staircases lead nowhere. Anger, lechery, cunning and the angel of grievous death guard the terrace. Desire, despair and defamation loom over the hospital hedges while headless saints and deformed hermits collect skulls in the thickly forested hills.
Kuks is an otherwise typical riverside village made remarkable by the gloomy architectural remnants of its baroque heyday. Around the turn of the 18th century, healing mineral springs were discovered at Kuks, which was part of an estate belonging to east Bohemia's richest aristocrat, Franz Antonin Sporck. On the left bank of the River Labe, the ambitious Sporck set about building a magnificent chateau and spa complex that became one of the most elegant in Europe.
Kuks' shortlived glory days ended in 1740, when a massive flood washed away the spa pavilions, glasshouses, bridges, racetrack and wooden theatre and destroyed the mineral water springs that were the reason for the settlement in the first place.
Sporck had passed away in 1738 and after the flood his descendants abandoned Kuks and relocated to Lysa nad Labem. The remains of the Kuks spa and chateau fell into disrepair and were eventually demolished in 1901, remembered only by a wide staircase flanked by reclining water-gods and the burbling cascades from their urns.
On the opposite and higher right bank of the river, Sporck's baroque hospital complex and Church of the Holy Trinity survived the floods, and are open to the public today. The church and west wing of the hospital make up one guided tour and the pharmaceutical museum in the east wing is a second.
I only had time and energy enough for one and chose the pharmacy museum. The ticket seller made a point of looking surprised, double checked and when I persisted, told me I was ‘an exception’. Once again the only person on the tour. I waited fifteen minutes before the guide appeared from somewhere deep within the complex and leaned over the balcony to find out who it was who wanted to see the pharmacies. “Me”. “Well come on then”.
The Charles University of Hradec Králové has a faculty in the building and my guide was one of the students. Her hair and painted eyebrows were darker than the middle ages and she wore velvet as if she'd just stepped away from Count Sporck's dinner table. An intriguing change from the archivally mousy guides who usually work in these places, but after a languid ten minutes of incessantly beaming smiles and drawling commentary that would make a sleeping cat sound energetic, I was wondering how many pharmacy students found their way into the discipline through a previous recreational interest.
In any case, I had no regrets about my choice of tours; the rooms displaying techniques, instruments and products from the history of pharmacy were fascinating and the preserved baroque pharmacy itself is a colourful wonder chamber of vials and vessels and elaborately carved cabinets. Photography is supposedly prohibited inside the museum, but if you ask nicely and your guide is as laid back as mine, you might be able to sneak a discreet snap or two.
There’s also plenty of opportunity for photography around the outside of the hospital and church. At the rear is an extensive formal garden of hedges, fountains and statues including some that came from the old racecourse. But at the front of the complex are the statues for which Kuks is most famous.
On the terrace in front of the church are religious statues including the eight blessings and the angels of glorious and painful death. Either side of the terrace and parallel with the front of the hospital are two dozen life-size figures - the twelve virtues and the twelve vices. The statues of the twelve vices are extraordinarily evocative and it’s a challenge to work out the identity of each statue before resorting to the information board near the ticket office.
My favourite vices were Gluttony, a heavyset lady holding a wild boar by the scruff of its neck while daintily balancing a bowl of exotic fruits in the other hand; and Laziness, who’d stopped to take a rest by leaning on a convenient cow. I felt quite sorry for Despair, an attractive girl compelled to drive a dagger into her baroquely curvaceous breast, but couldn't blame her having seen the company she’d been keeping.
On the other side of the churchfront terrace the garden wall is topped by the twelve virtues of Faith, Hope, Love, Wisdom, Bravery, Chastity, Diligence, Generosity, Sincerity, Justice and Temperance. Much more respectable than the vices but not nearly as much fun at a party.
Except for one, the virtues and vices are all the work of famous sculptor Mathias Bernard Braun. After learning his craft in Salzburg, travelling in the Italy of Michelangelo and Bernini, Braun opened a workshop in Prague and set about expanding the boundaries of Bohemian sculpture.
Amongst other things Braun and his team completed the 1710 statue of St Luitgard for the Charles Bridge in Prague. Thanks in particular to that sculpture, Braun became a sought after craftsman and Count Sporck became one of his most enthusiastic patrons. Between 1718 and 1732 Braun and his assistants completed not only the work at Kuks, but also a group of statues in the nearby forest which has come to be known as Braun’s Bethlehem.
Braun’s Bethlehem would be spookier than any of the gloomy statues at Kuks if you were to stumble across it by chance. On a high ridge in a patch of thick forest, the collection of statues were carved from the natural rocky outcrops and realistically depicted startled hermits, biblical stories and a generous scattering of human skulls.
Much of the surreal air about the Bethlehem statues comes from the damage they've suffered. The headless figures have no doubt been touched by thieves, but the natural world has also played its part in deforming and decaying the otherwise lifelike figures. Centuries of wind, rain, ice and sun have worked hard to turn the statues back into rocks and relentless mosses and lichens have afflicted the hermits and holy men with the most severe cases of gangrene imaginable. In the 1920’s the forest was devastated by a plague of Nun moths and the statues were hammered by falling branches.
Restoration work was carried out several times during the twentieth century, but it’s a massive undertaking in a difficult environment and in the year 2000 Braun’s Bethlehem was added to the International Monuments Fund directory of the World’s 100 Most Endangered Monuments.
The church and hospital at Kuks are open from April through October each year, but if you're curious to see Braun’s Bethlehem it might be good to do it soon as possible.
Monday, 26 April 2010