Newsletter | Nov/Dec 2015

The Hospital of Kuks
by Lucia Bogatay

Engraving of Count Franz Anton Sporck,in 1738, from Wikapedia

On a cloudy day in late October, my last day in the Czech Republic, Lenka Capekova and I drive to East Bohemia, to a small village near Prasky Hrad, called Kuks. It is a former spa town, with an 18th Century hospital. Most of the original complex is missing, but what remains is now almost completely restored. It is still only a fragment of a much larger complex, built by its founder, a fascinating minor German nobleman and art patron named Franz Anton von Sporck.

Sporck’s father had been ennobled for his service in the Thirty Years War, and for fighting against the Turks. He was rewarded with an estate in Bohemia and had purchased this site along the Labe in 1662 when he was 65. Franz Anton was born there that same year, and inherited all his father’s estate when he was 17. A well-educated and cultured man, Franz Anton seems to have been somewhat insecure in his recent nobility, and somewhat conflicted. He traveled around Europe, spending much time in the court of Louis XIV who was building Versailles at the time. He determined to build something on that scale in Bohemia which would impress the more seasoned nobles, whom Franz Anton nevertheless apparently despised. He discovered a mineral spring on his land beside the Labe River, near Hradec Kralove, and in the thirty years from 1694 to 1724 he built a deluxe spa complex, complete with baths, infirmary, chapel, racecourse, theater, gardens, guest houses and a new mansion for himself. The chapel and perhaps the mansion were designed by the Italian born G.B. Aliprandi, who at the time was an architect in great demand in Prague.

Franz Anton was a complex personality, with some major contradictory impulses. There seems to have been a powerful moral and religious component (Franz Anton had had a Jesuit education), especially present in the magnificent chapel, and the didactic and religious sculpture he commissioned, but that was balanced by an equally strong intellectual and luxurious sensibility which provided the rich entertainments and lavish accommodations.

The site was richly decorated with large sculptures, many of which still survive. By far the finest were those by a famous Tyrolean sculptor named Matthias Bernard Braun. Sporck was one of his first Czech patrons. The only earlier one was the group of St. Luitgard for the Charles Bridge in Prague. But Sporck may have gotten him that commission.

Axial view from the Mansion site in Kuks, photo by Lucia Bogatay

Once completed, the complex provided entertainment and comfort for the rich and talented. During that period Kuks, with its concerts, salons, hunts and lavish parties at this upper-.class Baroque resort gave competition to the famous spa towns of Western Bohemia, Kolovy Vary (Karlsbad) and Marianske Lasne (Marianbad). During Sporck’s lifetime it was certainly the social and cultural center he intended it to be. There were fairs in which wine was dispensed from wells, hunting parties that included royalty, knighthood ceremonies for a hunting order Sporck (the Knights of St. Hubert; of which the Emperor was a member), and Venetian nights on the river with music and cannon salvoes.

However, only 20 years after it was finished, and two years after the death of Sporck, a terrible flood on the Labe permanently destroyed the healing spring which fed the spa, and swept away three bridges, the race track, the Summer Pavillion, and assorted other buildings. Thereafter the site went into decline and over the years most of the remaining structures were pillaged for building materials. The hospital, its chapel and a couple of spa buildings, a grand stair and some worker housing are all that remains. Sporck’s mansion was the last to be pulled down, which happened in 1901.

The Terrace with Statuary copies. Photo by Lucia Bogatay

Tom and I visited Kuks in 1993, and saw what remains of it in its original disrepair. I am glad to see it now renovated and restored. Even with the missing buildings, there is more than a hint of the magnificence of the original complex with its grand North-South axial layout.

From North to South, it crosses the Labe River valley. Sporck’s mansion and hot spring with spa buildings were on the slope above the North side. A grand stair bordered by cascades down either side led from the site of the mansion (which was on axis with the hospital and chapel), passes a hotel and assembly rooms (one of them now housing a restaurant). Below that is the river. The Axis continues across an old bridge, and passes through fields dotted with picturesque cows, and random statuary borders the path as it climbs up the opposite hill, where a double stair leads up to a large terrace lined with statuary to the chapel and the hospital beyond it.

The Virtues and Vices by Matteius Braun, photo by Lucia Bogatay

Copies of Braun’s magnificent larger-than-life baroque statuary of the Vices and Virtues on the hospital terrace. The originals have been moved to the hospital dining room where one can enjoy their remarkable dramatic power and wonderful movement of these allegorical tours de force. The various vices and virtues are all personified beautifully. One has to believe that some of the ailments treated in the hospital might have been avoided had people seen the allegorical statues BEFORE they got infected.

The tour includes a visit to the famous pharmacy, which still has its original decorated ceramic jars (labeled) and even turned wooden boxes which we are told are quite rare. These are set out on beautifully decorated cabinets and shelving. We see also the large elegant chapel of the hospital, where we are treated to a concert by a pair of Renaissance musicians playing various period instruments and singing in Czech medieval and Renaissance songs. They play various winds, strings, percussion, a tiny organ, cow horn flutes, a primitive zither-like thing, bag pipes, in addition to singing beautifully. Quite impressive. I buy a disk.

Our complete tour ends with a tour of the crypt of the hospital founder and his family. Only four of us have opted to see this last part of the tour, a cold, dark domed space under the chapel where ancient decaying wood coffins and catafalques have been faithfully preserved without repairs, or even dusting. Indirect light sources high up in the dome provide only a dim light, augmented by those of us with flashlights. A small window on axis allows a view into the crypt, so we are often aware of silhouetted forms of people peering down at us. A visit to this spooky place is perfect for today, which happens to be Halloween!

We observe that the remaining site organization reflects the progress of the patients, and their illnesses. First, one took the cure at the spa. Second, if the cure failed, one moved to the infirmary on the hill across from the spa, gently lectured to by the virtues and vices. The impressive chapel encourages repentance and offers comfort. Behind the hospital patients can enjoy the formal garden. which also provides fresh vegetables. Third, for those who don’t respond to treatment, beyond the garden is a graveyard. The entire process, from taking the waters to reposing peacefully in the ground, is laid out before us!

The original included an area we don’t have time or energy to see, “The New Grove at Zirec” which had some amazing large biblical sculptures, many carved in live rock, the last works done at Kuks by Braun. I remember seeing them with Tom, but by the time Lenka and I have finished our late lunch, it is getting dark, and cold, so we decide to leave.

It is hard not to read into the complex the imagined contradictions of its creator. Extremes of indulgence and repentance, pleasure, and pain, life and death, intellect and art. It combines the heath giving waters, medical attention (or palliative care), with moral and religious instruction, and an appetite for celebrity and shameless self promotion But nevertheless, the place still exudes sadness and decay, in spite of the repairs and as the Blue Guide’s unnamed excerpt writer concludes: “Thoughts on the transience of earthly glory might easily come to the visitor to Kuks today, and yet the sense of pathos which the place emanates is also integral to its haunting and unforgettable appeal.”

View of the Hospital and Chapel looking South. Photo by Lucia Bogatay

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