Tag Archives: Prague cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #59: Vysehrad Cemetery

In Vysehrad Cemetery, Prague

Vyšehradsky Hrbitov
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.

Dvorak’s bust

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 Slavin Pantheon

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.

Smetana’s monument,
with the Church of Saints Peter & Paul in the background.

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.

Useful links:
Lovely photos of Vysehrad Cemetery

Lonely Planet listing with alternate address

Other historical sites near Vysehrad Cemetery

Other Prague cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #4: The Old Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #39: the New Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #39: the New Jewish Cemetery of Prague

View of the New Jewish Cemetery

Novy Zidovsky Hrbitov
Vinohradská at Jana Zelivského
Vinohrady, Prague, Bohemia, 120 00, Czech Republic
Telephone: I’ve found 3 on the internet, all of them different.
Established: 1890
Size: 25 acres
Number of burials: 15,000 under more than 5000 stones.
Open: October to March: Sunday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m. to 2. April to September: Sunday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Friday 9 a.m. to 2.

Entrance to the New Jewish Cemetery

Complete with ornate wrought iron doors and a gilded legend in Hebrew, the gate of the Novy Zidovsky Hrbitov — the New Jewish Cemetery — towers above the street directly across from the Zelivského metro station. Even though it was founded in 1890, the graveyard is called the New Jewish Cemetery to distinguish it from the jumbled old burial ground of Prague’s historic Jewish Quarter.

The earliest known Jewish community in this area of town was settled around 1888. There are other non-Jewish cemeteries in the area, so it’s possible this land is too stony to farm. The Jewish cemetery was established in 1890 and continues to serve the community. It survived WWII intact, but now contains many markers that remember people who went into the concentration camps and never returned.

As my husband Mason and I entered the gateway and tried to get our bearings, an old man bustled out of the cemetery office. He spoke rapidly in Czech. We didn’t understand a word until he held out a blue crocheted yarmulke for Mason. Men must cover their heads, we understood, to show respect. My research indicates that these yarmulkes are for sale, but we didn’t understand that. Mason returned it to the office when we left.

We wandered the path along the outer wall. Most of the monuments had been carved from polished black granite, their incised letters picked out in gold. Between the stones, shiny dark green ivy crawled up the tree trunks and flowed over the ground. Late October painted the oak leaves bright yellow. They drifted across the pathways, ankle-deep. Mason claimed this was the most beautiful graveyard we’d ever visited.

Kafka’s grave

The most famous of the graveyard’s denizens is easy to find, thanks to good signage. Franz Kafka’s monument was a top-heavy six-sided obelisk made of pink-and-gray granite. He died in 1924 of tuberculosis, in agony from his hemorrhaging lungs. All of his novels remained incomplete and unpublished at the time of his death, so only a few friends mourned him. When Mason and I visited his grave 75 years later, floral tributes surrounded the geometric obelisk.

It seemed odd to stand at Kafka’s grave in the sunshine, with the gilded leaves around us. Somehow I’d pictured Kafka’s world as shadowy, gray as a black-and-white movie. I hoped he could feel the sunshine, wherever he was.

The Cadogan City Guide to Prague forewarned us that Kafka shared his grave with his mother and hated father. In fact, he predeceased them both. He’s commemorated as Dr. Franz Kafka, in deference to his law degree. An inscription on a marble plaque at the base of the monument remembered his three sisters, who vanished into the Nazi death camps.

I haven’t been able to track down a lot of information about the cemetery and its residents, but we spent a lovely afternoon there.

Useful links:

Map to the New Jewish Cemetery

Useful information about the Jewish cemeteries of Prague

Other cemeteries in the Czech Republic on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #4: The Old Jewish Cemetery

Cemetery of the Week #38: the Bone Chapel of Kutná Hora

Cemetery of the Week #59: Vysehrad Cemetery

Cemeteries in the Summer

I think there’s nothing more beautiful than a lush, green cemetery in the summertime.  Flowers blooming, birds singing, soft breezes at play, and beautiful statuary:  what could be more relaxing?

I’ve listed my favorites below, but I’m hoping you’ll also tell me what graveyards or memorial parks you like to visit when it’s time to unwind.

The ultimate cemetery travel inspiration

The Cemetery Book: Graveyards, Catacombs and Other Travel Haunts Around the WorldThe Cemetery Book: Graveyards, Catacombs and Other Travel Haunts Around the World by Tom Weil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have a friend who likes to travel? This is the ultimate guidebook for people who love cemeteries. Travel writer Tom Weil rambles through graveyards on every continent, describing what he’s seen and filling in the history of the places. It’s a wonderful book, if somewhat painful to read: there are just too many places I want to see now! The book suffers (in my opinion) from a lack of illustrations, but it serves as a wonderful inspiration to go out and fill that void. Maybe if you buy the book, your friend will pony up for the planet tickets?

This review originally appeared on Gothic.Net in December 1999, as part of my “Don’t Go to the Graveyard without Me” review.

Copies are available on Amazon: The cemetery book: Graveyards, catacombs, and other travel haunts around the world

View all my reviews

Beautiful gravestone motifs

Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish GravestoneGraven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone by Arnold Schwartzman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an indispensable little book this is! It collects 240 full-color photographs of motifs on Jewish gravestones, breaking them down into family symbols, workman’s tools, Talmudic references, etc. Like an encyclopedia, it defines each symbol, gives a reference from the Bible or Jewish lore, and remarks on the differences in symbolism from one community to the next. The artistry of tombstone carvers has never, in my experience with cemetery books, been as completely or as beautifully documented as this.

Inside are gravestones that depict Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, candelabra which were believed to ward off grave robbers, hands feeding the charity box, skeletons with scythes, Jewish cherubim, lions, monkeys, fantastic birds, even a scorpion (which the author can’t explain). The variety is startling and impressive.

My only disappointment with the book is the size of some of the photos. A two-page layout demonstrating the blessing hands motif contains 28 pictures, each less than two inches square!

Throughout the book, the photographs themselves are wonderfully reproduced, even the tiny ones. The printing captured the spectrum of lichen, as well as the ivy and grasses that surround the stones. The stones themselves seem rough enough to touch. The sunshine looks as if it’s warmed the stones. The occasional shadow looks chilly.

Chaim Potok’s foreword explores the second commandment (“No graven images”) and its relationship to the creatures here displayed. He grounds his discussion in passages from the Talmud and Jewish authorities (whom I wish he had named), saying that there was never any consensus on what constituted an image. Perhaps tombstone carvings are permissible because they are in low relief, rather than three-dimensional?

Potok also reviews the history of Jewish grave markers. The first tombstone is mentioned in Genesis, when Jacob places a monument at Rachel’s grave.

Schwartzman uses the centuries of vandalism of Jewish cemeteries to detail the persecution Jews have suffered. Many of the communities recorded on tombstones in this book have ceased to exist. I am glad these beautiful carvings were recorded before they too disappear.

Occasionally you can find copies on Amazon: Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone

View all my reviews