St Nicholas Church Old Town
Some buildings in Prague are so old that nobody is really sure exactly how old they are. St Nicholas Church Old Town is one of them. The best we can say is that the original church is “likely” to have been built in the 12th Century but the oldest documented evidence of the church isn’t until 1273. This puts it around the same time as the construction of the original Church of Our Lady Before Tyn on the opposite side of the square. If that is correct then it was likely to have been a Catholic Church as the Tyn Church was Utraquist. The ST Nicholas Church Old Town is part of the Old Town and Jewish Quarter Walking Tour and the Prague Architecture Walking Tour.
If we believe that the original St Nicholas Church Old Town was Catholic then we know for sure that by the late 14th Century it was already entertaining ideas for supporting the Reformation. It was recorded that popular reformers of the time preached here but that the church never became fully Utraquist as Latin was still used for services.
The First Changes of St Nicholas Church Old Town
The original building was a small parish church for people who lived in the immediate area and stood here approximately 400 years with no significant changes. By the time of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) the larger Church of Our Lady Before Tyn was taken over by the Catholics and in 1635 the St Nicholas Church Old Town was given to Benedictine monks who later set about building a monastery at the rear of the Church gardens.
The Second Changes of St Nicholas Church Old Town
Not even 2 years after the completion of the monastery, the Benedictines commissioned a brand new church in the fashionable Baroque style by the most famous of the Baroque architects in Prague, Kilian Dientzenhofer (where the money came from is still a grey area). The original St Nicholas Church Old Town was then demolished and what you see today was built between 1732 and 1735. Artistically there are several references to Catholic Orders including both Benedictine and Jesuit.
Closed for Business
The Benedictine Order was not the most popular of the Catholic groups. They lasted barely 50 more years before being kicked out by King Josef II in 1787 and anything of value was taken from the church to be sold. Curiously the pews that you see today are originals from the 1735 construction and were not considered valuable so were never removed.
From Russia With Love
For the next 90 years St Nicholas Church Old Town was used for non-religious purposes, a storehouse for grain, even a place for sailors to sleep etc but in 1870 it once again becomes a church, this time it’s Russian Orthodox. Little evidence of any art or fixtures of that time remains now except for the chandelier, 1400 pieces of Czech crystal made in the town of Harrachov, it is 4.5 metres wide and weighs 1.5 tons.
Following the end of World War One the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia was formed on October 28th 1918. A year later the congregation at this Church celebrated with a service in Czech language for the first time for 400 years. On January 8th 1920 it broke away from the Roman Catholic church and was officially recognised by the state as the Czechoslovak Hussite Church but as far as I can tell, it’s what can also be called Presbyterian.
People don’t realise but St Nicholas Church Old Town is owned by the state and in 2014 the state decided to put CZK45 Million into a renovation. Originally this was just going to be the facade but it was extended to include renovation of the iconic chandelier as well. And when the scaffolding came down in 2016 every guidebook about Prague immediately went out of date because the church was no longer white. It wasn’t stated in the general press why the church was no longer white so after a few months I contacted the Prague Tourist Office to ask why. They told me that the only reason this had been white was when it was taken over by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1870. The state was merely returning it to the original colour.