Plague column at Vyšehrad
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The Black Death is commemorated by Prague’s fascinating plague columns

When you wander through Prague, you’ll notice a lot of squares have Baroque columns in the center. Some of these have a dark meaning behind them — many were to give thanks for the end of a recent plague or epidemic, usually the Black Death. Plague columns can be found all across Bohemia and Moravia. The elaborate one in Olomouc is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Prague’s plague columns aren’t quite as fancy. The typical plague column is surrounded by angels and some specific saints, and often topped by St. Mary or a cross. Back in the middle ages and Renaissance, there was little that people could do to battle the epidemic disease except pray, take quack medicines, follow special anti-plague diets or try to get protection against Black Death from a magic amulet. 

So once the Black Death outbreak subsided, the typical thing was to declare that the prayers had been successful and then erect a monument to give thanks to the heavenly spirits for their intervention in ending the Black Death. 

Prague’s three largest plague columns can be found in the touristy center. These were all erected to mark the end of the plague epidemic of 1713–15. Some 13,000 people died, about one-quarter of the Prague population at the time.

Across Bohemia, 200,000 people died. Prague was hit hardest in 1713. The Black Death moved to Moravia in 1714, with the final cases in 1715.

It was the last major Black Death outbreak to hit the region, but in later years it would see cholera, typhus and other epidemics, as well as famines.

Plague column in Malostranské náměstí black death
Plague column in Malostranské náměstí
Plague Column in Malostranské náměstí black death
Plague column in Malostranské náměstí
Plague Column in Malostranské náměstí black death
Detail of the plague column in Malostranské náměstí
Central figures at Malostranské náměstí black death baroque gothic tarot prague
Central figures at Malostranské náměstí

Malostranské náměstí

The upper part of Malostranské náměstí is home to the Holy Trinity Column (Sloup Nejsvětější Trojice), completed in 1715. This column — technically an obelisk —is the work of architect Giovanni Battista Alliprandi, one of the Italian artisans who worked on Baroque palaces across the city. Sculptures were by Jan Oldřich Mayer and Ferdinand Geiger. 

The lower part features Jesus with a golden cross and God the Father with a triangular halo. Above that there is a dove depicting the Holy Spirit. Mary, with a crown of stars can be seen with Czech patron saints: Vojtěch (Adalbert), Jan Nepomucký, Prokop, Ludmila and Václav (Wenceslas). An eye in a triangle (the Eye of God) tops the obelisk, which is a bit unusual. 

Sculptures by Franz Platzer were added at the bottom after the famine of 1772. The ground in front of the obelisk has the date 1882, which perhaps refers to a renovation.

Lightning hit the eye in mid-August 2023, causing significant damage that is currently being repaired. Some people might regard this as a bad omen.

Plague Column in Maltézské náměstí black death baroque gothic tarot prague
Plague column in Maltézské náměstí
Date on the plague Column in Maltézské náměstí black death
Date on the plague column in Maltézské náměstí
Plague Column in Maltézské náměstí black death gothic baroque prague tarot
Plague column in Maltézské náměstí
Plague column in Maltézské náměstí baroque gothic tarot prague
Image on the plague column in Maltézské náměstí

Maltézské náměstí

Another plague column in nearby Maltézské náměstí in Kampa features John the Baptist. The work by sculptor Ferdinand Maxmilián Brokoff was erected in 1714–15 for the Order of the Knights of Malta. It was originally part of a fountain.

John the Baptist is on top of a column on a three-sided base.  Angels around the base hold shields covered in Latin text. Relief images depict the beheading of John the Baptist and other scenes.

John the Baptist is the patron of the Order of the Knights of Malta. The statue was meant to thank him for sparing the order’s members from the Black Death. They mostly stayed inside the compound, which reduced exposure. The religious order still exists, and the wall of the garden of its embassy is now the John Lennon Wall.

Plague column at Hradčanské náměstí black death
Plague column at Hradčanské náměstí
Plague column at Hradčanské náměstí baroque gothic tarot prague black death
Plague column at Hradčanské náměstí
Plague column at Hradčanské náměstí baroque gothic tarot prague black death
Mary on top of the Plague column
Plague column at Hradčanské náměstí baroque gothic tarot prague black death
Saints around the base of the plague column

Hradčanské náměstí

The third column for the 1713–15 plague is near Prague Castle on Hradčanské náměstí. This is the most typical design with a star-crowned Mary on top.

The construction was approved in 1725 by Emperor Charles VI and the first stone was placed a year later, over a decade after the Black Death outbreak ended. Lack of funds was behind the delay.

The statues of the Virgin Mary and the saints were created by Ferdinand Maxmilián Brokoff in 1724–28. After his death they were completed by his student František Ignác Weiss. Mary was gilded in 1884 and replaced by a copy in 1894.

Saints at the bottom include Czech patrons Vitus, Václav, Vojtěch and Jan Nepomucký, plus Charles Borromeo, Elizabeth of Thuringia, Florian, Peter and Paul. The date 1903 is embedded in the sidewalk, probably from a renovation.

Restoration work began in 2013, as the column was in danger of collapsing. The light-colored statues are copies and the dark ones are originals. 

House at the Golden Well black death
House at the Golden Well
House at the Golden Well baroque gothic black death tarot prague
St Rosalia, center
House at the Golden Well Prague Bohemia gothic tarot magic
One of the lions on the front of the House at the Golden Well
House at the Golden Well Prague Bohemia gothic tarot magic
Dog at the foot of St Rocco

Karlova Street

Many plague columns feature four saints: the Czech patrons Václav and Jan Nepomucký plus two saints who oversee illnesses — Rocco and Sebastian. Rocco exposes his injured leg. The dog with puffy cheeks next to him fed him while he recovered. Sebastian is pierced with arrows, and is supposed to protect people from the invisible arrows of illness. St Rosalia, a patron against plagues, is also included.

These five figures and some others can be seen on the narrow facade of the House at the Golden Well (dům U Zlaté studně) near Charles Bridge on Karlova street. The stucco reliefs by Jan Oldřich Mayer were added to the 14th-century building facade around 1713. The building itself dates to the mid 1300s.

Adding the figures to a facade was a neat solution to thank the relevant saints, and also saving money as columns are expensive. The entrance to Charles Bridge already had a column for protecting wine and Old Town Square had a victory column, so a third column in the area would have been a bit much. 

Plague column at Karlovo náměstí black death baroque gothic tarot prague
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí black death baroque gothic tarot prague
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí baroque gothic tarot prague black death
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí baroque gothic tarot prague black death
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí
Plague column at Karlovo náměstí

Karlovo náměstí

An earlier epidemic was the inspiration of the plague column and fountain at Karlovo náměstí, in front of the New Town Hall. Vienna’s Great Plague of 1679 hit Prague the following year.

The column features Joseph and Baby Jesus on top, surrounded by cherubs with golden wings, and Habsburg emblems beneath the capital. Four lion gargoyles adorn the base.

Last renovated in 2016, the column stands in the middle of a fountain base made of eight semicircles. It is not unusual to see unhoused people rinsing out some clothing or washing up at the fountain. 

Plague column at Vyšehrad baroque black death gothic tarot prague
Plague column at Vyšehrad
Plague column in Vyšehrad tarot prague bohemia black death gothic
Column in Vyšehrad
Plague column at Vyšehrad magic bohemia tarot of prague
Plague column at Vyšehrad
Rotunda of St Martin
Rotunda of St Martin
Column in Vyšehrad
Column in Vyšehrad
Column in Vyšehrad
Column in Vyšehrad

Vyšehrad

A rather small plague column can be found in Vyšehrad, between the Rotunda of St Martin and Chapel of Ave Maria. It has four mosaic faces in its capital and dates to before 1685, as it can be seen in sketches from that time. The column probably was in memory of the 1679–80 outbreak of Black Death. The mosaics, likely added in the 1920s, depict Sts. Vojtěch, Prokop, Ludmila and Václav.

Plague column in Kinský Garden baroque gothic tarot prague black death
Plague column in Kinský Garden
Plague column in Kinský Garden baroque gothic tarot prague black death
Plague column in Kinský Garden
Plague column in Kinský Garden
Plague column in Kinský Garden
Plague column in Kinský Garden
Plague column in Kinský Garden

Kinský Garden

The column in Kinský Garden apparently originally stood near today’s bus turnaround at the Smíchovské nádraží station and was moved in the early 20th century to a spot way up in a wooded area near a small pond.

It dates to 1686 and was made for Old Town burgher Jiří Jan Raisman. The four-sided capital has reliefs of Christ on the cross plus Rosalia, Rocco and Sebastian. Likely it would have been in thanks for the end of the 1679–80 plague.

The column also is supposed to work as a sundial, with the spear in Jesus’ side, the arrow in Sebastian, Rocco’s pilgrim stick and Rosalia’s lilies all casting shadows. The current placement of the column has it shaded by trees, though.

Prague column in Troja baroque gothic black death tarot prague
Plague column in Troja
Plague column in Troja black death prague gothic tarot
Plague column in Troja
Plague column in Troja
Plague column in Troja
Plague column in Troja
Plague column in Troja

Troja

A final column can be found in the Troja section of Prague 8, but in the 16th century that would have been far outside the city in an area of vineyards and estates. This simple affair is a stone column with a metal cross on top.

A recent plaque near it in Czech says: “Plague column from the 16th century. It recalls the cemetery for victims [that was] in the gorge above the pillar. Plague epidemics affected the Czech lands in 1568, 1582, 1585 and 1599. The column was saved from destruction after 1948 by people from the Prague Zoo. Restored by the care of the Quido Schwanka Foundation  – Troja, green city, AD 2002.”

Mary atop the Victory Column baroque black death gothic tarot prague
Mary atop the Victory Column
Column in Old Town Square baroque black death gothic tarot prague
Column in Old Town Square
Crosses for Covid victims baroque black death gothic tarot prague
Crosses for Covid victims
Column as a sundial black death
Column as a sundial

Old Town Square

The newest column in Prague was erected in 2020 in Old Town Square. It was completed during the Covid pandemic. It is a copy of a 17th-century victory column that was destroyed in 1918 during rowdy celebrations of the independence of Czechoslovakia from the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

The fragments of the original are in the National Museum. The copy was made by a private group starting in 2000, but it took years to complete the main parts and even longer to get permission from the city to place it on the square. 

While the meaning of the column is to mark the victory of Bohemian forces over Swedish forces in 1650, the column has often been associated with the Black Death.  During the 1713–15 plague, Emperor Charles VI said that the epidemic was a divine punishment that could only be cured by prayer. People gathered in Old Town Square to pray before the statue of Mary that caps the column.

Even before the erection of the copy was finished in 2020, people left flowers at the base in memory of those who fell to Covid. Once it was completed, the space in front of the column was marked with thousands of chalk crosses for the epidemic’s victims. Even today, many people mistakenly think the column was erected as a plague column dedicated to Covid and some tour guides even help to spread that misinformation.

An article by BabaBarock with Raymond Johnston. Copyright BabaBarock Ltd, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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