Mikulášský hřbitov / Nicholas Cemetery

(Plzeň) Plzeň Východní Předměstí
GPS: 49.739811, 13.385978

The Nicholas Cemetery, founded originally far beyond the town walls, was gradually absorbed by the rapidly growing Prague (today Eastern) Suburb in the second half of the 19th century. While the Church of St. Nicholas still looks westwards over the Radbuza River as it did centuries before, the cemetery is now bordered by a busy road to the East; the spacious gardens and vineyards that had originally surrounded it have given way to the apartment buildings in the Petrohrad neighbourhood. However, not only the surroundings of the cemetery have changed. A large part of the complex is now occupied by a park and the tombstones are located only in the vicinity of the church and the chapel of St. Anne in the northern section. The only exception is the tombstone of playwright Josef Kajetán Tyl, which was left as a dominant feature in the northern section of the park.

The foundation of the cemetery is strongly linked to the construction of the Church of St. Nicholas. Pilsen burgher Vít the Painter founded it in his vineyards on a small hill above the Radbuza River at the beginning of the 15th century. Originally, it was built as a single-nave church with a beamed ceiling, a vaulted triangular presbytery and a vaulted sacristy at the northern side. Although it has been adapted several times and only the masonry has remained from the original structure, it still stands in its place as the only remaining Gothic monument in the area of Petrohrad and Slovany.

Probably just after Vít's death, the town bought the surrounding lands. As early as 1414 – with the permission of King Wenceslas IV – Pilsen burghers founded a cemetery there. Until that time, Pilsen’s residents had been laid to rest in cemeteries at the town monasteries and in the main square at St. Bartholomew’s Church. Only the town’s poor were originally buried in the secluded cemetery at the St. Nicholas Church. In the 16th century, however, evidence exists of citizens of non-Catholic faith being buried here as well. During the siege of Catholic Pilsen during the Hussite wars, the Utraquists made use of the strategic location of the cemetery and set up camp here.

The church and cemetery underwent significant changes in the 18th century as well. At first, the Gothic church was rebuilt in Baroque style and in the 1780s the Josephine reforms marked a major milestone in the development of the cemetery. Due to sanitary measures, the sovereign explicitly forbade burying the dead within the city walls. Thus, these insignificant suburban cemeteries near the churches of St. Nicholas and All Saints in the Roudná neighbourhood became Pilsen’s primary cemeteries. Probably thanks to the unique view of the city, St. Nicholas cemetery had been a cemetery of privilege since its foundation, the most prominent of the city’s figures choosing it as the place of their final rest. Although a great number of imposing tombstones bear the names of prominent merchants, artists, politicians and industrialists, the grave of playwright Josef Kajetán Tyl, whose life is inherently connected with Pilsen, is a special symbol of the cemetery. In an analogy to Prague’s Slavín Cemetery, the Nicholas Cemetery is often referred to as the “Slavín of Pilsen”.

During the 19th century, the capacity of the graveyard gradually ceased to be sufficient and it was finally closed at the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, the Friends of Antiquity Club in Pilsen was trying to draw attention to the historic value of the site and prevent its destruction, yet in the 1920s some unkempt graves were removed. Further interventions were to come as part of post-war changes. The planned city ring road involved the extension of Mikulášská Street at the expense of the cemetery, the remaining area of ​​which was to be destroyed and replaced by a public park. As one of the arguments for the planned intervention, the city pointed to the gradual deterioration of the neglected cemetery. Only the church and Tyl's grave were to be preserved and the honorary tombs were to be moved to the Central Cemetery. Tombstones of special artistic value were to be deposited in the courtyard of the Franciscan Monastery. Representatives of heritage preservation loudly opposed the proposal and the debate over the fate of the site went on for several years. In 1963 the conservationists succeeded in registering the whole area on the state list of immovable monuments. The City (then the City National Committee), however, decided to abolish it anyway.

The final proposal, preceded by an exhausting battle of conservationists and historians on one hand and the bureaucratic apparatus on the other, was a partial compromise. The most significant tombstones were to remain in St. Nicholas cemetery, but not in their original places. With the exception of Tyl's tomb, all the others were to be relocated to the church’s surrounding areas and a modern park was to be built in the remaining area. Works began in 1966; records of the course of construction provide evidence that the working methods were ruthless and lacked any piety or reverence.

The regime change brought a re-evaluation of the intended construction of a four-lane road directly in front of the cemetery gate, yet a certain form of extension of Mikulášská Street was still being considered. The Heritage Preservation Authority agreed to move the cemetery wall in 2001. However, the demolition of the wall and its rebuilding ultimately proved to be unnecessary. Thus, the modern history of the cemetery gives the impression of a series of largely insensitive interventions and unjustified demolitions. The preservation of at least part of the valuable site, however, is a testament to the efforts of individuals committed to the defence of historic values.