A sad tale stands behind the melodious bells in the tower
The beautiful pilgrimage church called the Loreta, in the Prague Castle neighborhood, has more than its fair share of legends.
Construction of the church started in 1626, and one of its most notable external features is a tower with a carillon, made in 1694.
Inside the church complex, there is a copy of the Santa Casa, the alleged home of the Virgin Mary. The original is in Loreto, Italy — thus giving the church its name.
The bell tower can be seen in the background of The High Priestess card in The Tarot of Prague, while The Priestess herself is an allegorical figure from the base of a statue of Emperor Charles IV. She represents one of the four original faculties of Charles University.
The square near the Loreta (Loretánské náměstí) in Prague is by legend a portal to the underworld, and the pagan Princess Drahomíra of Stodor is supposed to have been sucked down into the underworld from there at the end of the Dark Ages. Others are alleged to have vanished in misty smoke from the spot as well. Drahomíra’s column stood there until the late 1700s.
The flip side to that legend is that the bell tower is considered by some people a first step on the way to Heaven. Souls can stop in the tower and rest before going on to Heaven, and some souls rest quite a while and are said to sometimes be visible. It is hard to spot them among the tourists, though, and mostly they are benign so very little is ever said about them causing any trouble.
The tower is also the site of a rather sad story told by Jan Neruda (whose torso, coincidentally, figures into The Magician card).
The tower has 27 bells, and during one of the plagues that afflicted Prague, a woman living in the nearby area called Nový Svět had 27 children. She referred to them as her own set of church bells. Each bell in the tower would chime at a different time, the largest once an hour and the smallest every quarter hour. It was the same with the children, with the smallest always needing something.
Although she was rather poor, when the oldest was struck by the plague the mother went to the church to say a prayer and donate a silver coin, hoping for a miracle. Instead, the largest bell chimed and the oldest daughter died.
She repeated her prayers and donations with each child and the result was the same. The bell corresponding in size to the child would chime and the child would die.
Finally, the youngest daughter was struck by the plague and the mother went to the church with her last silver coin, and the smallest bell chimed, leaving her alone in the world.
When the mother herself fell ill, she worried that nobody was there to take care of her. When she died, though, all of the bells chimed in song that is said to have resembled angels’ voices.
The legend is meant to explain the finely tuned sound of the carillon, which still plays music on a regular basis.
The Loreta complex is home to one of several Black Madonnas in Prague, as well as a statue of a crucified bearded woman called Saint Wilgefortis — though this is a misunderstanding, and it is simply Jesus in a rather unisex 11th century tunic.
The main reason for pilgrims visiting the church is the copy of the Santa Casa, which was financed by the Lobkowicz family. According to legend, the original was moved to Italy by angels from the Holy Lands during the Crusades in 1291. The copy contains some bricks from the original. The copy was even made with the same little bits of wear and tear that the original has, including damage from a lightning strike that was meant as a warning to unbelievers.
The bell tower was built at the end of the 17th century, sponsored by Prague resident Eberhard of Glaukau. The bells were made by Amsterdam-based Claudius Fromm (aka Claude Fremy). The 27 bells cover 2.5 octaves in range and weigh 14 hundred weight.
Each bell had its own aristocratic sponsor, with Emperor Leopold I backing the first one. The bells were set up by clockmaker Peter Neumann so they can ring on the hour. They can also be played in concert from a piano-type keyboard. Only one bell has been replaced over the years.
The history of the building has at times been turbulent. Damage from cannon balls can be seen on one of the walls of the Capuchin monastery next to the Loreta. This comes from the Prussian siege in 1757.
Several noted architects worked on it, including Giovanni Orsi, Kryštof Dientzenhofer and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer.
Nový Svět is home to its own set of legends, as it is the street where alchemists often lived during the reign of Emperor Rudolf II. Astronomer and astrologer Tycho Brahe lived at the House at the Golden Griffin (U Zlatého noha) around the year 1600. He is alleged to have complained that the constant tintinnabulation of the bells from the local churches disturbed his work, and this was even before the carillon was built.
Other names are associated there as well, but often with little proof.
Inexplicable and oddly colored alchemists’ smoke is said to still rise on occasion from the chimneys on this lost street that time has forgotten. The smoke, though, is seen less often since the introduction of modern heating. Perhaps it was just coal smoke and the wish for nostalgia.
Nový Svět means “New World”, but the translation “Other World” has also been suggested.