Old Jewish Cemetery is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe and one of the most important Jewish historical monuments in Prague. It served its purpose from the first half of 15th century till 1786. Renowned personalities of the local Jewish community were buried here; among them rabbi Jehuda Liva ben Becalel – Maharal (ca. 1526–1609), businessman Mordecai Maisel (1528–1601), historian David Gans (ca. 1541–1613) and rabbi David Oppenheim (1664–1736).
The Old Jewish Cemetery is not the first Jewish cemetery in Prague – its predecessor was so-called 'Jewish Garden“ located in the area of present New Town of Prague. This cemetery was closed by order of King Wladislav II Jagello in 1478 because of complaints of Prague citizens. Later it disappeared under the streets of New Town. We know that the history of the Old Cemetery started before that, but the exact date when it was founded is unknown. The only clue is the oldest gravestone in the cemetery from 1439 which belongs to rabbi and poet Avigdor Kara.
Starting at the middle of the 15th century, the gravestones record is a continual time line of burials. The final gravestone is dated 1787; three years earlier, the enlightened sovereign Emperor Josef II had banned burials inside the city walls for hygienic reasons. Later Prague Jews used a cemetery in Žižkov, founded in the 17th century because of plague epidemic.
During the more than three centuries in which it was in active use, the cemetery continually struggled with the lack of space. Piety and respect for the deceased ancestors does not allow the Jews to abolish old graves. Only occasionally the Jewish Community was allowed to purchase grounds to expand the cemetery and so many times it had to gain space in other ways; if necessary, a new layer of soil was heaped up on the available area. For this reason, there are places where as many as twelve layers now exist. Thanks to this solution the older graves themselves remained intact. However, as new levels were added it was necessary either to lay over the gravestones associated with the older (and lower) graves to protect them, or else to elevate the stones to the new, higher surface. This explains the dense forest of gravestones that one sees today; many of them commemorate an individual who is buried several layers further down. This also explains why the surface of the cemetery is raised several meters higher than the surrounding streets; retaining walls are necessary to hold the soil and the graves in place.
There are two kinds of Jewish burial monuments – the older is a slab of wood or stone, basically rectangular, but with various endings at the top. Tumba (in Hebrew ohel – tent) appears later, in baroque times. It is generally more representative than the first mentioned kind and resembles a little house. Such tumbas commemorate on the cemetery for example Maharal or Mordecai Maisel. Tumbas do not contain the remains; they are buried underneath in ground.
The oldest gravestones on Old Jewish cemetery are plain, yet very soon the number of ornaments (pilasters, volutes, false portals, etc.) began to increase. Most decorated gravestones come from 17th century. However, on every gravestone there are Hebrew letters that inform about the name of the deceased person and the date of his or her death or burial. From 16th century the gravestones characterize the deceased also through various symbols, hinting at the life, character, name or profession of the people.References:
The Church of Our Lady before Týn is a dominant feature of the Old Town of Prague and has been the main church of this part of the city since the 14th century. The church's towers are 80 m high and topped by four small spires.
In the 11th century, this area was occupied by a Romanesque church, which was built there for foreign merchants coming to the nearby Týn Courtyard. Later it was replaced by an early Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn in 1256. Construction of the present church began in the 14th century in the late Gothic style under the influence of Matthias of Arras and later Peter Parler. By the beginning of the 15th century, construction was almost complete; only the towers, the gable and roof were missing. The church was controlled by Hussites for two centuries, including John of Rokycan, future archbishop of Prague, who became the church's vicar in 1427. The roof was completed in the 1450s, while the gable and northern tower were completed shortly thereafter during the reign of George of Poděbrady (1453–1471). His sculpture was placed on the gable, below a huge golden chalice, the symbol of the Hussites. The southern tower was not completed until 1511, under architect Matěj Rejsek.
After the lost Battle of White Mountain (1620) began the era of harsh recatholicisation (part of the Counter-Reformation). Consequently, the sculptures of 'heretic king' George of Poděbrady and the chalice were removed in 1626 and replaced by a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, with a giant halo made from by melting down the chalice. In 1679 the church was struck by lightning, and the subsequent fire heavily damaged the old vault, which was later replaced by a lower baroque vault.
Renovation works carried out in 1876–1895 were later reversed during extensive exterior renovation works in the years 1973–1995. Interior renovation is still in progress.
The northern portal is a wonderful example of Gothic sculpture from the Parler workshop, with a relief depicting the Crucifixion. The main entrance is located on the church's western face, through a narrow passage between the houses in front of the church.
The early baroque altarpiece has paintings by Karel Škréta from around 1649. The oldest pipe organ in Prague stands inside this church. The organ was built in 1673 by Heinrich Mundt and is one of the most representative 17th-century organs in Europe.