Clementinum: the Most Beautiful Library in the World

Clementinum contains one the most beautiful library in the world. The dazzling mirror chapel and the astronomical tower are also part of this huge complex that extends over an entire city block in the centre of Prague near Charles Bridge. Since the 15th century, astronomers, scientists, philosophers and musicians have come here to study the priceless books or to give concerts in the mirror chapel. The entrance to the Clementinum is at the back at Marianske namesti. The maze of high-pointed arches and tall windows give a good impression of the immensity of this complex.


Visiting Clementinum

There are two ways to visit the Clementinum
1. Guided tour
Guided tours of the Clementinum include the Baroque library, the astronomical tower and the Meridian hall. The tour runs every thirty minutes from 10am to 6pm and lasts 50 minutes. .
2. Classical concert in the mirror chapel
Classical concerts are given in the historic mirror chapel. During the performance the organist plays the 18th century organ.

What is the Clementinum?

Dating back to the 11th century, the Clementinum was a small chapel dedicated to Saint Clement and run by Dominican monks. The Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564) wanted to increase his power within the Roman Catholic Church and in Bohemia (now Prague). To do this, he invited Jesuits to come to Prague and donated them a building at a prime location right opposite Charles Bridge, the Clementinum. The Jesuits built a library with one of the most important collections of books and literary material and literature in Europe. Eventually, the Jesuits quarrelled with the Pope and in the eighteenth century the library was handed over to the city of Prague and became part of the Charles University.


The Buildings of the Clementinum

As the Clementinum was built over different periods, its architectural styles vary from room to room, The Inquisition resided here in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the sixteenth century the Jesuits arrived to spread Catholicism in Bohemia and built the St Salvator Church which is opposite Charles Bridge. About thirty houses and a number of streets were demolished to make place for the Clementinum. Since education is the important weapon of the Jesuits, the library was the most important part of the Clementinum.


The Clementinum consists of:

1. Mirror chapel: contains frescoes, carvings and an eighteenth-century organ. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played this organ during his visits to the Clementinum.
2. Library: Home of the Czech National Library with 20,000 books. The hall has impressive ceiling paintings and historical globes.
3. Astronomical Tower: A steep staircase leads to the top for a 360 ° view of Prague and used to be the place to study the celestial bodies.
4. Meridian room: the daylight that enters determines noon, the moment when the sun is at the highest point in the sky.
5. St. Salvator’s Church and St. Clement’s Church: Both churches are part of the outer wall of the Clementinum.

Clementinum Guided Tour

Narrow stairs lead to the second floor library. On the way up you pass display cases with curiosities. They contained various tools used by astronomers to explore the Universe and map the constellations. Along the walls and on the ceiling, a number of frescoes depict scenes from literary works. It is not allowed to enter the library but manuscripts are on display under glass as well as books with outstanding calligraphy and illustrations. These are the life’s work of the monks who wrote, illustrated and copied only very few books during their lifetime. They copies were given to some of the most prestigious libraries in the world.


The Vysehrad Codex

The showpiece and most valuable manuscript of the Clementinum library is the Vysehrad codex. A late eleventh century illuminated gospel book, also known as the Coronation Gospels of King Vratislav, first king of Bohemia. The book was probably commissioned by Czech diplomats in honour of the anniversary of the coronation of the Czech king Vratislav, who was crowned in 1085. The pages with the images of the Evangelists, the genealogy of Jesus Christ and an image of Saint Wenceslas are impressive. Most of the manuscript was the work of one scribe. The book on display is a facsimile.

The Library

The library can only be seen from a distance, through open doors. The number of books is impressive, cabinet after cabinet with a total of more than 20,000 dating to early 17th century. The frescoes adorning the ceiling are in perfect original condition. They depict the Temple of Wisdom, a Greek Mythological city believed to contain thousands of theological books. Jan Hiebl, the same artist who painted the frescoes in the Mirror Chapel, is the artists. He uses trompe l’eoil technique to create a dome-shaped effect on the flat ceiling. The frescoes seemingly sparkle with sunlight. It is an illusion because hardly any daylight comes in: this to protect the books that would suffer too much from the sunlight. From triangular niches above the windows, significant Jesuits of the college look down at the visitors: Petrus Canisius Doctor of the Church, the philosopher Arraga and theologian Edmond Campian.

The Bookcases

The floor-to-ceiling bookcases are of wood and shine in the soft light. Some supporting columns are sculpted as spirals and topped with gold-coloured capitals. At the top of each cabinet are golden name plates engraved with the names of the Jesuits who built this library. At the back of the library is a portrait of Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790), who included for books from closed monastery libraries to be placed in the Clementinum.

The Book Collection

The book collection consists mainly of theological books in various languages. Books with a white spine and a red mark were here at the time of the Jesuits. The collection includes Mozartiana’s collection, material related to Tycho Brahe, astronomer, and alchemist, and Comenius, theologian and educator, as well as historical examples of Czech literature.


Geographical and Astronomical Globes

The globes on display are of various sizes and show historical diagrams and maps of the world. It is interesting to see how opinions have changed over the years. The shapes of continents would grow or shrink based on the latest technology or information. There are also several astronomical globes that represent the position of the stars in the sky. Everything is made by the Jesuits. Mathematician and astronomer Jan Klein (1684-1762) was specialized in making astronomical clocks.

Around 1760 the astronomical clock on the Old Town Square stopped once again. Jan Klein appreciated the historical value of this clock and offered to repair it and would only charge for material costs. His offer was not accepted. In 1787 during a major renovation of the town hall, the city council intended to remove the non-working clock and ‘put it in the rubbish bin’. Antonin Strnad, professor at Charles University and clockmaker Jan Landsberger repaired the clock, but only the part that indicates the actual time, not the astronomical clock

The Meridian Room in the Astronomical Tower

The tower of the Clementinum dominates the area. Its top is adorned with a sculpture of Atlas carrying the celestial orb on his shoulders. Initially, it was a lookout post, but in the mid-eighteenth century it was used to study the celestial bodies. Until 1920, noon time was determined here. When the sun’s rays passed a certain line on the wall, a flag was flown from the balcony of the tower, so that the people of Prague knew the exact time. This was customary until 1920. Up 1930 the tower was an astronomical observation post. In 1938 the astronomers moved to the Ondrejov Observatory in the village of Ondrejov, 35 kilometers southeast of Prague.


Mirror Chapel, not included in the guided tour

The mirror-chapel is a fine example of Baroque architecture and was built in 1724. The interior features ornate frescoes, a mirrored ceiling and gilded stucco. Each fresco shows a scene from the Ave Maria. The rust-coloured walls and the peach-coloured ceiling give the chapel a warm atmosphere. The faux marble columns lining the walls contain beautifully framed works of art. Most were created by Jan Hiebl, a relatively unknown Czech artist who impressed visitors with his works in the chapel. There are two organs, one of which was played by Mozart during his 1787 visits to the Clementinum. Classical concerts, mostly works from eighteenth-century composers, are given in the mirror chapel

Paper Swallow

‘The girl with the paper swallow’ (2005) is a sculpture made by the Polish sculptor Magdalena Poplawska who studied at the Prague Academy of Art, Architecture and Design art academy in Prague. The girl is seated on a cornice on of the Hall of Services of the National Library.


Clementinum National Library and Digitization

The National Library of the Clementinum gave a number of historical books to Google for digitization. These books can be read through the digital library on Google Books.
The library itself is also digitizing manuscripts from their collection. This resulted in a wonderful find: a thirteenth-century fragments of six two-part compositions composed in the circle of Notre-Dame in Paris. It was found included in a fifteenth-century manuscript. This is an important discovery as it provides a better understanding of development of European medieval music.

How to get there

The Clementinum is located near Charles Bridge. The entrance is at Marianske Namesti 5, (next to the New Town Hall).
Visit only with a guided tour every thirty minutes from 10 a.m. Last tour at 6 p.m.
The mirror chapel is not included in the guided tour. The chapel is only open for concerts. Book seats in advance as these concerts are popular.
The astronomical tower has a lift to the third floor, then you will have to climb a flight of stairs (87 steps).

Public transport: metro station: Staromestska (line A), tram 2, 17, 18 stop Staromestska

!! If possible, plan your visit on a sunny day because the sun will shine on the wall of the meridian room and the noon hour can be read.

photos Marianne Crone and Wiki Commons

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