Chapters from the History of Břevnov monastery
Břevnov monastery, the first male monastery in Bohemia,
was founded by Prince Boleslav II (d. 999) and the second Archbishop of Prague St Adalbert (Vojtěch; 956–997).
St Adalbert of Prague (Vojtěch), of the house of Slavník, had met Benedictines and their way of life during his studies in Magdegurg, Germany. In 983 he became the bishop of Prague but because of many disagreements with Bohemian aristocracy he left for Rome at the end of 988 and a year later entered Santi Bonifacio ed Alessio monastery at Aventine, Rome. The urgent plea of the archibshop of Mainz to return to Prague and the order of the pope made Adalbert come back to Prague in 992. He brought twelve Aventine monks with him. Here, together with Boleslav II, he founded Břevnov Abbey for them, to the honour of Mary, the Holy Mother of God, St Benedict and St Boniface and St Alexius. Foundation of the monastery was approved by Pope John XV with the document of 31st May 993 which is one of the oldest documents proving the existence of the monastery. In 994 Adalbert left Prague again. He died on his missionary journey to Prussia as a martyr on 23rd April 997.
The first abbot of Břevnov monastery was Anastasius. In 996 he probably left with a few monks for Hungary where Grand Prince Géza allowed them to build a monastery in Pannonhalma.
The first monks in Břevnov probably lived in temporary wooden houses. Abbot Meginhardus (1035–1089), supported by Duke Břetislav I, replaced them by buildings made of stone.
Since the middle of the 11th century the monastery had consisted of a Romanesque three-nave church with a crypt in its eastern part and a chancel above. The church’s main nave adhered to it in the west, the enclosure was to the north of the church. South of the church there probably was the abbot’s residence and some bulidings necessary for running the monastery, around the monastery there were farm buildings.
Nowadays only parts of the church of the time and small fragments of the enclosure and farm buildings in the eastern part of the monastery are known to us; that is why many questions remain unanswered.
It is difficult to describe the building process precisely. The only thing we know for certain is that the eastern part of the church (i.e. the chancel and the crypt) were built in 1045 at the latest — in this year, the monks of Břevnov burried the body of their Benedictine brother Gunther (Vintíř) from Niederalteich, who lived as a hermit later, in their church.
Gunther, or Vintíř, of Käfenburg-Schwarzburg, Germany, was born in c. 955 in an important noble family of duchy of Thuringia. He chose the religious career in his rather old age. He forsook his important position in society and in 1005 entered a monastery (probably in Hersfeld, Germany) to become a monk in Niederalteich in Bavaria the following year. He professed his vows here in 1007 and with Abbot Gotthard’s permission he left for Thuringia for the monastery in Göllingen to lead the community there. After some problems which are not clear to us he returned to Niederaltaich.
Shortly after that (probably in 1008) he left for the Mount of Ranzinger Berg (on the Bavarian side of the Šumava Mountains) to live as a hermit there. In 1010, he founded a hermitage in Rinchnach which was later transformed into a monastery.
In around 1019 he visited Hungarian King Stephen. There is a legend connected with his journey to Hungary and his stay at the court—he is supposed to have brought to life a peacock. On this journey of his, he also played a crucial role in the foundation of St Maurice’s monastery in Bakonybél, Hungary, where Niederaltaich monks were brought to live. In around 1040 Gunther settled down in Bohemia, in Dobrá Voda near Hartmanice. However, this lone place was more of a refuge for him than of a permanent residence, as was the case of all the previous places where he would live as a hermit, too. At any rate, his life here did not lead to his indifference towards contemporary political events — he was a confidant and counsellor to the rulers of the then empire and Bohemia, which was a descreet role, but an important one (e.g. in 1040/1041 he negotiated for peace between Emperor Henry III and Duke Břetislav).
After Gunther had died on 9th of October 1045 he was burried by Abbot Meginhardus of Niederaltaich in the church in Břevnov (the place was chosen by Duke Břetislav because, as the legend says, it was Gunther’s wish).
In the second half of the 13th century, and later as well, there were efforts to canonize Gunther, nevertheless they were not successful. Veneration of the saint decreased due to damages of Břevnov monastery caused by the Hussites and due to doubts about the location of his grave. It has been proved that some relics from Břevnov were entrusted to an Augustinian monastery in Kladsko (Kłodzko, today in Poland) even before the attack of the Hussites wherefrom they were transferred to the district of Broumov in 1486. This could be related to Gunther’s relics as well. The cult of Gunther was revived only after the bull of Pope Urban VIII (1634), consenting to the cultic veneration of the saint on the grounds of proofs that it “goes back to the time immemorial and has never been interrupted”, had been released.
In 1684 in the church in Police nad Metují — while it was undergoing renovations — the altar of St Mary Magdalene was opened and a well-preserved skull and bones were found inside a little box. They were believed to be Gunther’s relics, that is why they were transferred to Břevnov where, after reposing in several places, they were finally put into the altar with an oil painting by Petr Brandl (1726) depicting Gunther’s death. Gunther’s tombstone (c. 1250) indicating the original place where his relics had been kept was found near Vojtěška pavilion in 1761; later it was embedded in the outer side of the southern front of the church. At the beginning of the 1940s it was replaced with its copy and the original tombstone was placed inside the chancel.
Břevnov monastery kept its Romanesque appearance till the mid-13th century. At that time it was one of the most important church institutions in medieval Bohemia. It became a maternal monastery with several monasteries belonging to it (Police nad Metují, Broumov, Rajhrad etc.). It flourished economically, therefore gradual reconstruction in Gothic style could start shortly after the half of the 13th century, under Abbot Martin and Abbot Křišťan (Christianus). These renovations were continued by Abbot Bavor of Nečtiny (1290–1332), the 19th abbot of Břevnov, to whom the monastery owes its greatest prosperity ever.
However, it is probable that the Gothic reconstruction had never been completed – during his visitation of the monastery in 1357, Archbishop Arnošt (Ernest) of Pardubice discovered that some monastery bulidings were in a state of emergency. It indicates the possibility that after Abbot Bavor had died, the Gothic reconstruction of neither the church nor other buildings went on and the monastery remained fragmentary up to the Hussite Wars.
During that time the monastery had been damaged (we do not know exactly to what extent) and a long period of weakening economic power and lowering number of the community members began — the major part of the community members left for Broumov provostship right at the beginning of the Hussite Wars, i.e. between 1419 and 1420.
Monasteries would often be attacked by Hussites and many of them had perished. Břevnov monastery was attacked on the 22nd May 1420. It might have been motivated both by its strategically important location at the access road to Prague and by the fact that Hussites knew about the hostile approach of the monks of Břevnov to the Hussite movement — e.g. Jan of Holešov, a monk of Břevnov, spoke against Jan Hus publicly.*
*Excursus: Jan Hus and the Hussite movement
Jan Hus (c. 1371–1415), a Catholic priest, Master at University of Prague strived for a church reform in accordance with biblical models (which at the time being meant a reform of the society as a whole as well). He followed the teaching of the English reformer John Wycliffe, and his Bohemian predecessors Konrád Waldhauser and Jan Milíč of Kroměříž. Since 1402 he had been a preacher in Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, here he achieved huge popularity. In 1412 he publicly, and very sternly, denounced selling indulgences. Due to this, Hus’s discrepancies with official church teachings which had been kept to academic diputes so far, became a matter perceived by the general public.
This conflict led Hus to Constance, Germany, to defend his teaching at a council. He was sentenced to death as a heretic and was burnt at the stake.
The Hussite movement, a religious and social movement with a national aspect, stems from the criticism of the miserable state of the Catholic church (Papal schism — there were two or even three men to claim to be a true pope, impudent life of clergy, trafficking in sacraments and most of all church’s possession of too many wordly estates). These reform efforts follow the model of the early church.
Very soon, other preachers, both from towns and villages, and arictocrats (mainly because of the criticism of the church possesing worldly estates) respond to Hus’s preaching. The communion under both kinds available to all the believers (by that time it had been reserved for clergy only) has become a symbol of the resistance against the church teaching and practices. (In this, the word “Utraquists”, i. e. moderate Hussites, origins — the Utraquists received the communion “under both kinds”, “sub utraque specie”, both the sacramental bread and wine.) The shaping of the movement started after Jan Hus had been burnt at the stake in Constance (6th July 1415). Gradually, several groups were formed, on a scale from moderate “Praguers” (led by the conservative representatives of the University) to the radical “Taborite” fraction (the town of Tábor became the very centre of the movement).
When the crussade against Bohemian heretics had been declared (1420), the reform movement receded into the background and contradictions were continued to be solved mainly by means of war. The disciplined Hussite army was led by two exceptionally able commanders – Jan Žižka of Trocnov and later by the priest Prokop the Bald (also Prokop the Great) – thanks to whom the crusaders were defeated in all great battles, beginning with the battle of Prague in 1420 up to the battle of Domažlice (1431).
The burdensome economic situation and fatigue of prolonged fights caused a gradual isolation of the radical wing of the Hussites which was finally defeated by the Prague army (Utraquist nobility and Catholics) in the battle of Lipany in 1434. Only this battle on the home turf had opened the way for reconciling the moderate Utraquists with the Catholic church. At the council in Basel, so-called Compatcs of Basel formulated the extent of the church reforms in Bohemia. Later the Compacts were solemnly proclaimed in the town of Jihlava in 1436.
This was the end of the revolutionary phase of the Hussite movement. Two attempts to turn over the situation were made – the intervention of Matthias I Corvinus on behalf of Catholics (1467–1471) and a Utraquist attempt for revenge during the Prague rebellion in 1483.
Finally, the representatives of both the sides have come to an agreement that it is no longer agreeable to solve the conflicts by force. In 1485 an assembly of the representatives Bohemia was held in Kutná Hora where the Basel Compacts were accepted as the basic law of the country and religious peace between Catholics and Utraquists was declared. The religious situation was changed entirely only by the events that resulted in the Battle of White Mountain (Bílá Hora) in 1620 and the following Catholic Reformation.*
After the Hussite Wars had ended,
the Břevnov monastic community remained very small and the monastery itself was repaired only to a small extent. The first larger, though always only partial, renovations were conducted between 1537 and 1553, under Abbot Matěj of Tachov, which resulted in the opening of the church in 1545. It is very probable that this Late Gothic church was only the repaired and to the west prolonged chancel of the former Gothic church (this chancel had been, unlike the church nav and aisles and other Gothic buildings, finished).
Finally, after the partial reconstructions of the hardly surviving monastery in the first half of the 17th century and after the difficult times of the Thirty Years’ War, a period of prosperity began with Abbot Thomas Sartorius (1663–1700). He had a new convent built in Břevnov between 1668 and 1672. It is the building south of the church, well preserved to these days, so-called Sartorius’ Convent, a work of the master builder Martin Reiner. Unfortunately, only four years later the convent buildings and the church were damaged by fire on 13th July, the feast of St. Margaret (this may be the reason why the abbot chose the words “Quod nocet, docet” — that which hurts, teaches — as his motto). The reconstruction after the fire was led by the master builder Martin Allio and later by P. I. Bayer. The architectural disposition was changed by K. I. Dientzenhofer in 1735 who had a part of the north wing which adhered to the church itself pulled down.
Othmar Zinke (1700–1738), the most important abbot of the Baroque period in Břevnov, initiated a complete reconstruction of the whole monastery in 1708. Pavel Ignác Bayer led construction works at the beginning. However, the abbot had not been satisfied with his work, that is why he replaced Bayer with Kryštof Dientzenhofer (1655–1722) in 1709. His son Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer (1689–1751) had worked with him since 1716.
Kryštof Dientzenhofer built a new church first, then he erected a convent (home for monks), and after it had been finished, he raised a prelate’s residence (i.e. the abbot’s residence) between 1716–1721.
Both the church and the monastery were richly decorated by the foremost artists of the time.
Painters: Petr Brandl (1668–1735), Jan Petr Molitor (1702–1756), Jan Jakub Stevens of Steinfels (1651—1730), Cosmas Damian Asam (1686–1739) and Jan Karel Kovář (1709–1749).
Sculptors: Matěj Václav Jäckl (1655–1738) and Karel Josef Hiernle (1693–1748).
Cabinet-makers: Josef Ignác Dobner (1678–1737) a Johann Sichtmüller (d. 1746).
(To this list many other names could be added).
As it was in previous centuries,
in the period following this huge monastery reconstruction the life of the monastic community and the monastery as a whole reflected political events and wars. Whenever there was a military campaign in Central Bohemia, Břevnov monastery would suffer repeatedly due to its location at the main access road to Prague from the west. This was the case of the situation after the Battle of White Mountain (1620) when the monastery was plundered by the emperor’s mercenaries, in the war years 1741–1742 when it suffered from the raid of the French and the Saxons, in 1744 when it served as a hospital for the Prussian army. In 1757 it served as a Prussian hospital again. At that time it had been damaged to such an extent that it was necessary to dedicate the monastery church again (9th October). During the Napoleon Wars there was a hospital again, this time both the soldiers of allied armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia but also the French soldiers were taken care of here. During the period between 1939 and 1945, Czechoslovak, German and Soviet soldiers were accomodated here respectively. The monastery had to provide finances for the accommodtaion of the army and medical care of the wounded soldiers and had to carry the heavy burden of war taxes, mostly in the conflicts of the 18th century. Every time the army had left, it was necessary to clean the monastery and repair its buildings.
Although the monastery had been elevated by the Baroque reconstruction again, it has never reached the same importance as in the pre-Hussite period. For all the 18th and 19th centuries the monastery of Broumov is the main spiritual and cultural centre of the Benedictines in Bohemia, and Břevnov monastery is overshadowed by it.
It is useful to sum up the complicated relation between Břevnov and Broumov monasteries. Broumov (German: Braunau) monastery was founded in the 13th century as a provostship of Břevnov, a home for the religious dependent on the maternal monastery. In the following century, Benedictines gained many estates in the district of Broumov and thus created an extensive coherent territory in their care. It had been growing in importance due to the fact that after Břevnov monastery had been devasted by the Hussites in 1420, its abbot and major part of the community settled down in Broumov. In the centuries to follow, the abbot — by title and de iure always the abbot of Břevnov — would dwell in Broumov most of the time. After the reconstruction of Břevnov monastery (under Abbot Sartorius and Abbot Zinke) this situation changed and the abbot’s title was “the abbot of Břevnov residing in Broumov”, later “the abbot of Břevnov and Broumov”.
This unusual co-existence, a kind of a “double-abbey”, i.e. two separate communities under just one abbot, lasted till the 3rd January 1939 when, in a reaction to the complicated political situation, Pope Pius XI proclaimed Břevnov and Broumov two autonomous abbeys. Dominik Prokop, the then abbot of Břevnov nad Broumov, became the abbot of Broumov in January 1939. Břevnov monastery came right under the jurisdiction of the Holy See, represented by the apostolic delegate C. Hofmeister, the abbot of Metten monastery in Bavaria, Germany. Anastáz Opasek became the head of Břevnov community as a so-called conventual prior (superior of a community with the competence of the abbot but without the right to use abbatial insignia).
In the 1930’s
Břevnov monastery grew in its importance in the field of spirtual life and culture again, although for only a short period of time. Since 1939 Břevnov Benedictines had published book series called Opus Dei and a periodical Praporec (i. e. Gonfalon, Vexillum) in which the work of Jaroslav Durych, Jan Zahradníček, Jan Čep or Karel Schulz, the foremost writers of the time, and the community members Anastáz Opasek and Augustin Jan Čeřovský as well were presented.
The promising development of the monastery was interrupted by the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany when Břevnov monastery was taken by the German army. After 1945 there had not been time enough for this development to be continued before the communists usurped the power. Right after the war, Břevnov and Broumov were united again for a short time: after the German monks had been made to leave Broumov monastery, Anastáz Opasek (Břevnov conventual prior; since 1947 the abbot) became its superior. He managed to recreate a functioning spiritual administration again, both in Broumov and the villages around the town. Břevnov Benedictines Fr. Salesius Sommernitz and Ivan Ringel were in charge of economic administration of Broumov monastery. Since 1946 the Czech Benedictnes of Broumov with the rest of its German community had been supported by the American Bendictines from Lisle (near Chicago), led by P. John Cherf.
However, an entire change of the political situation in Czechoslovakia was to be seen soon — the 25th February 1948 and the establishment of the communist regime. Church was confronted with very difficult times. First, selected church leaders were persecuted. Then, in April 1950, socalled Operation K was carried out by the communists which meant closing down all the monasteries in the country, including Břevnov monastery. Monks were interned and after they had been released, they could not continue their monastic life but had to work as non-religious people. Later, some of the priests could return to their priestly service, however not within any religious community.
At that time, a part of Břevnov monastery was taken by the communist secret police (Sartorius’ Convent and the agricultural buildings) and by the communist Home Office (the prelate’s residence and the convent woul be used as archives of the Home Office). Only the church and the parish house could serve their proper purpose.
Abbot Anastáz Opasek was arrested and imprisoned as soon as on 19th September 1949. He was accused of high treason and espionage. On 2nd December 1950 he and some other dignitaries were, in a show trial, sentenced to the life imprisonment. Opasek was released from the prison only in 1960 on probation. Afterwards he worked as a mason and a stock-keeper in the National Gallery in Prague. In 1968 he left the country to live in the exile in the Benedictine monastery ofin? Rohr, Germany (this was the place where the former community of Broumov continued its monastic life after its monks had been expelled from Bohemia). He could return to his home monastery in Břevnov only in 1990.
During the communist regime the monastery has deteriorated largely. When the Benedictine community had been restored, with the help of the state and foreign Benedictine monasteries it was able to repair the monastery and celebrate the millennium of the monastery in 1993 in a dignified manner — it was given given the honorary title “archabbey” by Pope John Paul II. This pope visited the monastery in person on 25th and 26th April 1997, in the year of millennium of St. Adalbert’s martrydom.
In 1999, after Abbot Anastáz Opasek had died, Prokop Siostrzonek became the head of the monastery as Prior Administrator, since 21st November 2017 as Archabbot.
After 1990 Břevnov and Broumov have been united again — Broumov monastery has been administered by the superior of Břevnov monastery so far.
Both Břevnov and Broumov monasteries, together with the Emmaus monastery in Prague, Rajhrad monastery in Moravia, Maribor monastery in Slovenia and Ćokovac in Croatia create the Slavonic Benedictine Congregation of St. Adalbert (Vojtěch), which is a part of the worldwide Benedictine Confederation of the Order of Saint Benedict (Confederatio benedictina; with an abbot primate residing in Rome).