11 V Pevnosti, Prague 128 00, Czech Republic
Telephone: +420 2 4141 0348
Founded: 1869, in its present incarnation
Number of interments: Approximately 650
Open: May-September from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., until 5 p.m. from November to February, and until 6 p.m. in March, April, and October
Warning: I’ve found three different addresses for the cemetery, so I’m going with the address I found more than once. When I visited the cemetery, I simply got off at the Vysehrad metro station and climbed the hill past the Exhition Hall. You’ll find the graveyard, trust me.
Vysehrad means high castle. The rocky promontory that carries the name was the site of the original wooden castle in Prague, built around the 10th century. Though no trace of that castle remains, Let’s Go calls the area the Czech Republic’s most revered landmark. It is the site where a vision caused Princess Libuse to point to the forest across the river and direct a castle called Praha to be built. She prophesied Prague would become a rich and powerful center of trade. For centuries, the city set about making the dream come true.
Founded in 1869 on the site of a small parish cemetery that no longer exists, Vysehrad Cemetery was conceived at that time as a shrine to the heroes of the Czech Nationalist Revival. It contains graves of more than 600 important Czechs, including Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha, composers Antonin Dvorak and Bedrich Smetana, poet Jan Neruda, and playwright Karel Capek, who coined the term robot.
A neo-Renaissance arcade rings the cemetery. Under its covered passageway, curving gothic arches delineate one burial plot from the next. Baroque ironwork fences enclose some of the graves. Others display elaborate mosaics, depicting a rain of gold-leaf stars on a cobalt glass background, or a caparisoned knight like something out of Rackham’s King Arthur. In my favorite memorial, a ceramic blue-garbed angel in low relief leaned against a starburst mosaic of shades of gold and silver. My photograph doesn’t do justice to the breathtaking shimmer of those tiles.
Beneath the cloister hunched a marble sarcophagus carved with a gruesome skull. A pair of snakes wove in and out of unnatural openings in the bones, then twined together across the brow to form a diadem. The visceral reference to death startled me. On retrospect, it seemed a logical extension of the exquisite real bone artwork of the Kutná Hora ossuary.
After all these artistic pyrotechnics, Dvorak’s grave seemed less magnificent than I expected. A life-sized bronze bust scowled out from beneath the vaulted arcade. The composer looked as if he concentrated too hard on art to enjoy life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bust was made by the sculptor of the Jan Hus monument in Old Town Square.
The Cadogan City Guide to Prague calls Vysehrad Cemetery “an impressive gallery of modern Czech sculpture.” Monuments in Vysehrad span from Art Nouveau to Cubism. I’m not generally a fan of blocky modern art, but I was touched by the Taub monument with its two sturdy, faceless figures supporting each other in their grief. In contrast stood a monument whose family name I didn’t note, so captivated was I by the life-sized sculpture of the robed woman bowing forward as if to drop her tears onto the grave. A bearded man draped in a toga or a blanket clasped her hand. Their sadness was as evocative as the rough Cubist figures.
Toward the middle of the burial ground, a trio of graves encapsulated the breadth of artwork offered in Vysehrad Cemetery. First, a high relief bust of a woman gazed out of a marble archway as naturalistically as if the stone imprisoned her. Beside her, an art deco bronze of a woman with flowing hair rested her chin against her forearm across the top of the pink granite monument. Third in line, a high-gloss black granite stone had a gray granite mask inset. Grief distorted the face of the mask, its eyes squinted shut and mouth gaping around a moan. The same gilt that picked out the letters of the deceased’s name highlighted the mask’s eyebrows.
The centerpiece of the cemetery is the towering Slavin Pantheon (after which the cemetery is sometimes mistakenly called) designed by Antonin Wiehl and completed in 1894. Slavin translates loosely to Hall of Fame. The community mausoleum, topped with an angel laying a palm frond on a sarcophagus, is the final resting place of over 50 Czech artists and sculptors, including Alfons Mucha. Even though she stood a long way from any road, black soot stained the poor angel.
The grave of composer Smetana is still remembered and visited. The annual Prague Spring festival starts here on his birthday (May 12), then proceeds to the Municipal House in town. Here’s an article about this year’s festival.
Lovely photos of Vysehrad Cemetery
Lonely Planet listing with alternate address
Other historical sites near Vysehrad Cemetery
Other Prague cemeteries on Cemetery Travel: