St. Vitus Cathedral (Czech: Katedrála svatého Víta) is a Roman Catholic cathedral in Prague, and the seat of the Archbishop of Prague. The full name of the cathedral is St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert Cathedral. This cathedral is an excellent example of Gothic architecture and is the biggest and most important church in the country. Located within Prague Castle and containing the tombs of many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors, the cathedral is under the ownership of the Czech government as part of the Prague Castle complex. Cathedral dimensions are 124 x 60 meters, the main tower is 96.5 meters high, front towers 82 m, arch height 33.2 m.
The current cathedral is the third of a series of religious buildings at the site, all dedicated to St. Vitus. The present day Gothic Cathedral was founded on 21 November 1344, when the Prague bishopric was raised to an archbishopric. Its patrons were the chapter of cathedral (led by a Dean), the Archbishop Arnost of Pardubice, and, above all, Charles IV, King of Bohemia and a soon-to-be Holy Roman Emperor, who intended the new cathedral to be a coronation church, family crypt, treasury for the most precious relics of the kingdom, and the last resting place cum pilgrimage site of patron saint Wenceslaus. The first master builder was a Frenchman Matthias of Arras, summoned from the papal palace in Avignon. Matthias designed the overall layout of the building as, basically, an import of French Gothic: a triple-naved basilica with flying buttresses, short transept, five-bayed choir and decagon apse with ambulatory and radiating chapels. However, he lived to build only the easternmost parts of the choir: the arcades and the ambulatory. The slender verticality of Late French Gothic and clear, almost rigid respect of proportions distinguish his work today.
While Matthias of Arras was schooled as a geometer, thus putting an emphasis on rigid systems of proportions and clear, mathematical compositions in his design, Parler was trained as a sculptor and woodcarver. He treated architecture as a sculpture, almost as if playing with structural forms in stone. Aside from his rather bold vaults, the peculiarities of his work can also be seen in the design of pillars (with classic, bell-shaped columns which were almost forgotten by High Gothic), the ingenious dome vault of new St Wenceslaus chapel, the undulating clerestory walls, the original window tracery (no two of his windows are the same, the ornamentation is always different) and the blind tracery panels of the buttresses. Architectural sculpture was given a considerable role while Parler was in charge of construction, as can be seen in the corbels, the passageway lintels, and, particularly, in the busts on the triforium, which depict faces of the royal family, saints, Prague bishops, and the two master builders, including Parler himself.
Work on the cathedral, however, proceeded rather slowly, due to the fact that in the meantime the Emperor commissioned Parler with many other projects, such as the construction of the new Charles Bridge in Prague and many churches throughout the Czech realm. By 1397, when Peter Parler died, only the choir and parts of the transept were finished.
After Peter Parler’s death in 1399 his sons, Wenzel Parler and particularly Johannes Parler, continued his work; they in turn were succeeded by a certain Master Petrilk, who by all accounts was also a member of Parler’s workshop. Under these three masters, the transept and the great tower on its south side were finished. So was the gable which connects the tower with the south transept. Nicknamed ‘Golden Gate’ (likely because of the golden mosaic of Last Judgment depicted on it), it is through this portal that the kings entered the cathedral for coronation ceremonies.
The entire building process came to a halt with the beginning of Hussite War in the first half of 15th century. The war brought an end to the workshop that operated steadily over for almost a century, and the furnishings of cathedral, dozens of pictures and sculptures, suffered heavily from the ravages of Hussite iconoclasm. As if this was not enough, a great fire in 1541 considerably damaged the cathedral.
Through most of the following centuries, the cathedral stood only half-finished. By the time of St Wenceslas jubilee in 1929, the St Vitus cathedral was finally finished, nearly 600 years after it was begun. Despite the fact that entire western half of Cathedral is a Neo-Gothic addition, much of the design and elements developed by Peter Parler were used in the restoration, giving the Cathedral as a whole a harmonious, unified look.