St. Vitus Cathedral is a gothic cathedral that stands on the grounds of Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic.

The cathedral's initial foundation was a church in the shape of a rotunda, founded by Prince Vaclav - popularly known as Wenceslas - in the year 926 CE. Wenceslas was murdered by his own brother and became a national saint; the original church rapidly became too small for the torrent of pilgrims who came to pay homage to the fallen lord. Thus, the original rotunda was replaced with a three-naved Romanesque basilica in 1060.

When Prague became an archbishopric in 1344, the emperor Charles IV began the construction of the cathedral that stands today. The French architect Matthias van Atrecht designed and built the first part of the structure, but died in 1352. The sculptor and architect Peter Parler then took over the project, and managed it for the next 47 years. The Hussite wars forced a stop in construction in 1421 - the facade of the cathedral was closed up, and the project was indefinitely halted. It was not until 1872 that work resumed; the cathedral was finally completed in 1929.

The exterior of the cathedral is awe-inspiring, layer after layer of flying buttresses and gothic embellishments looming into the sky. The massive bronze doors are decorated with reliefs, and expressive gargoyles glower down on those below. The entire edifice has been darkened by coal dust from the generators that power the city; against this background, the magnificent porta aurea (golden gate) shines with added brightness.

The cathedral interior's finest points are its tremendously high net vault, a number of truly stunning stained glass windows, and the chapel that serves as St. Wenceslas' tomb. The chapel is built in a classically Czech architectural style; the walls are decorated with thousands of gemstones and fantastic paintings. The Bohemian coronation jewels are kept in a chamber in the tower above the chapel; the door which protects them is sealed with seven locks. A crypt beneath the altar houses the tombs of members of the royal family, and other sovereigns and patron saints are interred in the ring of Gothic chapels that surround the choir.

There is a minimal fee to enter the cathedral, but it's well worth it. Weekdays are best, as the crowds get thick during the weekend. I was in the cathedral for midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and it's an experience I'll never forget. I'm not a religious person, either; still, the sheer size of the building and the incredible space contained within, the fantastic, brooding beauty and harsh majesty of the whole structure and everything in it inspired in me a kind of awe I've rarely felt before. See it if you can.

The LAVA Architectural Guide and Gallery has an excellent photo tour of St. Vitus Cathedral, at http://lava.ds.arch.tue.nl/gallery/praha/thrad_sv.html.

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