Kees Zoeteman and Astrid van Zon
In the heart of Europe, on a hilltop near Prague, we find Karlštejn Castle. Its great tower pierces high in the sky, harboring a secret. We went in search of that secret, because it is said to be the only place on earth where an attempt was made to portray the ultimate goal of the Apocalypse, the attainment of the New Jerusalem, and shape it as a place of power.
Who was Charles the Fourth? What role did the Apocalypse play for him? How special is it that after seven centuries his castle with the secret still exists? Does it still have a role to play towards the future? Questions we will dwell upon.
Charles IV, king and emperor
Charles IV was born May 14, 1316 in Prague and died 62 years later on November 29, 1378 in the same city. He was from the House of Luxembourg. He was German king from 1346, king of Bohemia from 1347, king of Italy from 1355 and also emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
After his coronation in 1355 by the pope, he was formally allowed to call himself Roman emperor. Yet even before that, he already had the authority of emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, because under his predecessor, Louis the Bavarian, it had been determined that a candidate elected by the elector princes, even before his coronation by the pope, was rightfully king of the German Empire. Pope Clement VI and the French king Philip VI had already agreed to his German kingship through the actions of his father in 1346. In 1365, moreover, he became king of Burgundy. Charles IV is considered one of the most important emperors of the late Middle Ages and one of the most influential European monarchs of his time. In Bohemia, because of his many merits, he is still revered as Father of the Fatherland.
The position of emperor of the “Holy Roman Empire” was political in nature and lasted for about a millennium. The Empire included Central Europe and surrounding countries in varying proportions. At the peak of its size (12th and 13th centuries), the Hohenstaufen dynasty ruled, and the Empire encompassed all of central Europe, as depicted below.
The Empire with the imperial title went back in a sense to Charlemagne, who introduced the imperial title in 800, although it was not until 962 that the first king, Otto I the Great of Germany, was crowned emperor by the pope.
The Empire was not a state in the modern sense of the word, but a political association of secular and ecclesiastical territories directly or indirectly subject to the sovereignty of the Roman German emperor or king (B. Stollberg-Rilinger, 2009, Das Heilige Römische Reich Deutscher Nation. Vom Ende des Mittelalters bis 1806, pp. 7-8). The emperor’s relationship with his territories changed repeatedly, as did his range of power. The cohesion between these territories decreased rather than increased during the Middle Ages. The emperor was seen in medieval Christian thought as the secular counterpart of the pope, with universal authority.
The name ‘Holy Roman Empire’ developed gradually. The empire was called Roman because it was seen as a continuation of the earlier Roman Empire. The word Holy was added in the 12th century to indicate that imperial dignity would have been transferred directly from God to the emperor. This was a result of the emperors’ desire to become less dependent on papal interference. The head of the church was the mediator in this and crowned and anointed the king as emperor. German kingship was not hereditary. The king was chosen by the electors, who formed the feudal upper class of the Empire. In the Middle Ages, the king could only call himself emperor after being recognized by Rome. This required papal approval and coronation, which was often given only after diplomatic negotiations. Since the 16th century, the king assumed the imperial title as a hereditary title without the intervention of Rome.
The Holy Roman Empire was dissolved on the authority of Emperor Napoleon in 1806.
The Holy Roman Empire in the 13th century; Source: Alphathon /'æɫfə.θɒn/ – File: own workData: File:Droysens-26.jpg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48588928
Charles IV was crowned emperor by pope Innocent VI. He chose Prague as his seat and Bohemia thus became the center of the Holy Roman Empire during his period.
The person of Charles IV
Charles IV was not yet seven years old when he left Bohemia with his father to receive a solid education at the court of the French king in Paris. There he acquired an unusually broad knowledge of languages for his time, including German, French, Latin and Italian. He was a religious and pious man, but also developed in his life an increasing self-consciousness about his own role. As a youth he received instruction in biblical matters from Pierre Roger de Beaufort, abbot of Fécamp (1291-1352), whom he greatly admired, and who became the later Pope Clement VI (1342-1352).
Pope Clement VI, 15th-century Fresco of Clemens VI by Mario Giovanetti in the chapel of Saint-Martial, Limoges, France.
Charles IV described his early years in a then-unusual biography Vita Caroli, which he compiled as a lesson for his successors. An interesting analysis of this and of others’ perception of the meaning of his life is given by Teresa Hartinger (Karl IV. Ein Herrscherleben im Spiegel von Eigen- und Fremdwahrnehmung, Diplomarbeit zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades einer Magistra der Philosophie an der Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz am Institut für Geschichte, Begutachter: Ass.-Prof. Mag. Dr.phil. Johannes Gießauf, Graz, 2019; https://unipub.uni-graz.at/obvugrhs/content/titleinfo/3948224/full.pdf). She concludes that Charles IV’s autobiography shows “a deeply religious and devout man, who, as a layman, could carry out biblical exegesis independently, knew how to use his political power, and usually mastered his opponents intellectually”. He sets himself up as a high-minded, peacemaking politician, who unlike his father prefers diplomacy to war. He emphasizes in his biography, on the one hand, the importance of the grace of God, by which, in his experience, he was spared death several times, and on the other hand, the dangers of vanity because, even of a king like him, in the end nothing remains but dust.
The positive appreciation of Charles IV in Bohemia contrasts with a more critical attitude on the part of other participants of the Holy Roman Empire, where it was felt that he favored Bohemia at the expense of the interests of the rest of the Empire. Charles IV founded a new district in Prague, had built the Charles Bridge over the Vltava, which was named after him. He built the Karlštejn Castle, where the crown jewels were kept. He also renovated Prague Castle, located in the heart of the city of Prague, where the imperial residence was established. He founded the first university in Central Europe in Prague, and raised St. Vitus Cathedral, which included a new royal crypt for the remains of Bohemian kings and religious dignitaries.
In reports from the Church, Charles IV emerges as a peace-loving king, a gentle and pious monarch, who knew how to subdue the wrath of the people and lead it toward peace and harmony (Hartinger, 260). Charles IV, before being crowned emperor, made the following oath to the pope (Hartinger, 261):
“Ich, Karl, König der Römer, nach Gottes Willen zukünftiger Kaiser, verspreche,
gelobe, sage zu und beeide vor Gott und dem heiligen Petrus, dass ich Beschützer
und Verteidiger des Papstes und der heiligen römischen Kirche bei allen ihren
Bedürfnissen und Interessen sein werde. Dafür werde ich ihre Besitzungen,
Ehrentitel und Rechte schützen und bewahren, soweit ich durch göttlichen
Beistand bestärkt werde, nach meinem Wissen und Vermögen, in rechtem und
reinem Glauben. So helfe mir Gott und diese heiligen Evangelien.”
The emperor’s piety has not been extensively reported. However, it is known of him that he collected relics of patron saints, which he gathered together especially in Karlštejn Castle. They would have been intended as a circle of heavenly counselors who supported Charles IV during his reign and were to form a direct bridge to God (Martin Bauch, 2010, Der Kaiser und die Stadtpatrone: Karl IV. und die Schutzheiligen der Städte im Reich, in: Susanne Ehrich / Jörg Oberste (Hgg.), Städtische Kulte im Mittelalter (= Forum Mittelalter Studien 6), Regensburg, 188.). He expressed this by crossing the threshold of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the Karlštejn Castle with bare feet.
He married four times, had many children and thus strengthened his role in Europe. His last years he suffered greatly from gout. Duet o a fall in 1378, he broke his femur and died in November of that year.
In summary, Charles IV emerges as a ruler who was able to carry through his intentions against the will of his opponents and to rule in a time made extremely difficult by plague and natural catastrophes (little ice age), during which he managed to stand as a European for many above the parties. He was a religious man, whose spiritual interests, however, have not yet come into focus.
The role of Karlštejn for Charles IV
Charles IV built, 25 km southwest of the center of Prague, the castle Karlštejn, initially as a summer residence for hunting, but given its location later as a well-defended military sanctuary where the treasure of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire and of the kingdom of Bohemia could be kept, as well as relics collected by him. It was also given a religious ritual function for him.
Construction began in 1348. The most eye-catching part of the castle is the 60-meter-high square tower, which does stand within the castle walls, but otherwise was connected to the other buildings of the castle only with a wooden bridge, so that the bridge could be quickly removed and the tower could be defended separately. This tower stands at the highest point of the hill and contains on the second floor the Chapel of the Holy Cross. A little lower is the Marian (lesser) tower, which contains the Chapel of the Holy Virgin and a smaller chapel of St. Catherine, located on the second floor. The Imperial Palace is again lower on the southeast side of the castle against the outer wall. From there, a bulge of the wall runs to the southwest, where the southernmost tower contains the well. With this structure, the visitor traverses the path upward from the outer domain, the palace, to that of the soul, the Chapel of the Holy Virgin, and enters finally in the Chapel of the Holy Cross the world of the spirit, the greatest treasury.
The large tower was built on the north side with a wall 7 meters thick to withstand even the worst attacks from outside. The other walls have a still respectable thickness of about 4 meters. The thick walls and the location high up against the hill made Karlštejn impregnable. An example of this is the siege in 1422 by the Hussites. With 24,000 men, they besieged the castle for 24 weeks, but to no avail. Thus, the great tower with its special contents never fell into foreign hands.
Images and objects derived from the Apocalypse can be found in both chapels of the castle. For example, in the Chapel of the Holy Virgin, which occupies half the area of the second floor in the small tower, images from the Apocalypse can be found in what remains of the original murals. The church was dedicated in 1357, after which these murals were added in the period up to 1362 (Jiri Fajt, Jan Royt, Libor Gottfried, 1998, The Sacred Halls of Karlštejn Castle, Central Bohemia Cultural Heritage Institute, Prague, p.13).
The function of the small tower with the Chapel of the Holy Virgin
After the lowest lodgings of the emperor and his servants, in which daily life took place, we visitors reach another level in the small tower. This tower houses the church of Mary and the chapel of St. Catherine. Upon entering the somewhat dimly lit church, the wooden Romanesque statue of the Madonna and Child catches the eye, set up in the altar niche. The frescoes on the walls are quite damaged. Originally, all four walls had apocalyptic images. Up close, the images are still easily recognizable as the seals, the image with the four horses, and the trumpets. They denote the higher spiritual reality we are approaching, with the seals being characteristic of the imaginative world and the trumpets of the inspirational world (see also text fragment 40). “The seven seals bring us into the inner court of the temple. The seven trumpets are the way into the sanctuary of the temple.” In addition, we see three great cosmic images that show man the way on his individual path. Firstly, the image of the angel with his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the earth and from which John is given the booklet to swallow. Secondly, the image of the woman enveloped by the sun and standing on the moon with the child in her arms threatened by a seven-headed dragon. And thirdly the image of the battle in heaven between Michael and the dragon. These are all images that bring us to the threshold passage into the spiritual world and hold a future promise. Before it comes to that, however, man must overcome the inspirations of the dragon, his own lower self, so that his soul can be transformed to a new union with God. Man cannot achieve this alone. It is not surprising, then, that we find the Marian church connected to the Catharine Chapel by a narrow corridor. This chapel was reserved for the emperor to pray and meditate. In the chapel, two frescoes are depicted, one below the other. Below we see the crucifixion of Christ and above it Mary with the child on a throne.
The frescoes are encased in semi-precious stones. If man can connect himself to the death and resurrection of Christ, and through this can receive Christ, the possibility arises to overcome the lower self, the dragon, and transform the soul. This concerns a voluntary choice of man.
Thus this Marian church can be seen as a necessary step and image for the soul. The battle with the dragon must be fought in one’s own soul before one can ascend via the wooden bridge to the most sacred chamber. The climb we make within the fortress via the small tower to the most holy in the great tower can thus be experienced as a mystical path.
The large tower
The staircase along the great tower is decorated with images of St. Wenceslas (907-935) and his grandmother St. Ludmilla (860-921), both patrons of Bohemia, preparing eucharistic gifts. The ceilings above the steps are decorated with angels playing musical instruments.
When one arrives as a visitor on the second floor of the great tower, one is surprised by the vast space of the Chapel of the Holy Cross, the holy of holies of this castle.
The atmosphere in the Chapel of the Holy Cross is overwhelming and at the same time subdued. A golden glow radiates, partly due to the sunlight that entered during our visit.
Apart from the niches to the windows, which are made of rock crystal, the perimeter of the chapel is designed in a cubic form, with the ceilings vaulted and covered with golden stars. The ceilings of the niches are frescoed.
Ceiling frescoes in the niche of the west window of respectively The enthroned with the sealed book and The 24 elders around the Lamb with the seven horns.
The central image and largest painting is that of the crucified Christ, with next to him Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. This painting also incorporates the most important relics: a splinter from the actual cross on which Christ was hung, affixed to his chest, and a thorn from his crown of thorns, which is incorporated into his halo.
The walls are plastered in a band to shoulder height with cut gemstones, whether in a cross pattern or not. The joints between the crystals are covered with worked gold strips. Above this band of precious stones, a large number of portraits, 130 in all, of angels, holy men and women, evangelists, apostles, popes, bishops, kings, knights and other dignitaries are mounted in several layers. They act as legitimizers of Charles IV’s kinghood and emperorship, but also as connectors for the king with the spiritual world. To this end, for example, the frames around the portraits provide cavities for the insertion of relics such as bone parts and hair of the depicted, by which, in Charles IV’s eyes, these persons were physically present here. Jan Royt (The Chapel of the Holy Cross, Národmí památkový ústav – státní hrad Karlštejn, 2016, 15-21) describes the arrangement of these portraits in the Chapel of the Holy Cross, with the fence standing in the center of the room having a function in assigning important and less important figures. Above the fence hang a dozen precious stones. The use of precious stones in the chapel may indicate that the chapel was meant to represent the New Jerusalem (Royt, 17). Royt lists the following arrangement as a possible hierarchy in the portraits: 1. Holy patriarchs (such as Adam, Abraham), 2. Holy prophets (such as Isaac, Ezekiel, King David), 3. Holy disciples from the Old and New Testaments, 4. Holy apostles, 5. Holy evangelists, 6. Holy confessors, 7. Holy martyrs, 8. Holy virgins, and 9. Holy husbands and widows. Royt (p.18) shows himself to be a supporter of the interpretation that the Chapel of the Holy Cross should be seen as the Church of the Holy Grail. To this we shall return.
Some examples of portraits include those of John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Charlemagne, Hildegard von Bingen, John the Evangelist and Lazarus.
Rudolf Steiner’s interpretations
As for the spiritual significance of Karlštejn and its Chapels, little can be found in the official literature. What is clear is that a connection is made with the content of the Apocalypse. How it should be interpreted, however, requires further clarification. For this we can turn to Rudolf Steiner, who visited the Castle and its Chapels on one occasion and his statements were published by fellow visitors. Another important source is Karlstein, Das Rätsel um die Burg Karls IV by Michael Eschborn (1971, Stuttgart, Verlag Urachhaus).
To begin with, we must realize that the castle was built at the end of the period of the so-called intellectual or mind soul and in the transition to the time of the consciousness soul. Charles IV can be seen as an initiate who formed a bridge between the two soul qualities and between Western and Eastern Christian movements. Karl König, the initiator of the Camphill movement, has also addressed this (see Hans Müller-Wiedemann, 1992, Karl König, Ein mittel-europäische Biographie im 20.Jahrhundert, Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart, p. 379-408) and refers to the beginnings of Rosicrucianism shining in this period, which was also the basis of the Golden Bul with which Charles IV managed to lay down the procedure for the succession to the throne in the Holy Roman Empire for the centuries to come. This bul is an example of a combination of spiritual and secular affairs, and the emperor also felt that he was truly a representative of the world of spirit on earth. Karlštejn, according to Karl König, is the symbol of the continuity of the working of the spirit in the age of the consciousness soul. In the Chapel of the Holy Cross he experiences the presence of the Holy Spirit, “da entzündeten sie etwas, was das Feuer des Heiligen Geistes gewesen ist” (p.399). Karl König also sees in the three buildings of Karlštejn (Palace, Chapel of the Holy Virgin and the Chapel of the Holy Cross) the basis for the later threefolding idea for social life.
On June 17, 1918, Rudolf Steiner and his wife Marie, along with the Polzer-Hoditz couple and the Klima couple, traveled to Karlštejn. Steiner called Charles IV the last initiated monarch on the throne, and several construction details of the castle would attest to this (Ludwig Polzer-Hoditz, 1985, Erinnerungen an Rudolf Steiner, Dornach: Verlag am Goetheaum, pp. 97-99, 292-294). Polzer-Hoditz’s wife, while climbing the stairs to the Chapel of the Holy Cross, drew Steiner’s attention to an image of St. Wenceslas in which he was seated on a throne as part of a ritual. “The chymical wedding of Christian Rosicrucian,” was Steiner’s brief reply. Later Rudolf Steiner, absorbed in deep thought, stood bowed to the altar after which he explained that the Chapel of the Golden (Holy) Cross represents a conscious copy of the Grail Castle.
Heavenly Jerusalem and the Grail Castle
The legend of the Holy Grail appears from the late eleventh century in conjunction with the saga of King Arthur and his knights. According to Rudolf Steiner, the spiritual background of the grail is the imagination that man receives upon spiritual retrospection of the (own) etheric body. In a conversation with Johanna Countess Keyserlingk (Adalbert Graf Keyserlingk, 1974, Koberwitz 1924, Stuttgart, p.82), Steiner mentions that the Grail Castle really exists in the etheric world and that its connection to the Apocalypse is that the New Jerusalem is the primal image of how this (Grail Castle, KZ) will be in the future.
This so-called grail-imagination (GA 145, p.109 ff.) comes about with the increasing ability of clairvoyance. When the I and astral body leave the etheric and physical body, which is asleep, and perceive them from outside, this sleeping body is perceived from outside as lying enchanted in a fortress. Here the fortress is the symbol for the human skull. We thereby perceive the human being on earth as imprisoned, as enclosed by rock walls. Outwardly this appears to us as the small skull enclosure. But looking at the ether forces, which underlie this, we see that these ether forces flow upward from the other organism (of the astral body and I, KZ). They sustain the earthly human being who is actually in that skull enclosure, as in a fortress. Everything flows upward through the nerve strands to the human brain, which appears as the “mighty sword” that man has forged for himself on earth. And also the forces of the blood flow upward like a “lance” to the magic castle of the brain in the skull.
In the original Grail legend, the ruler of the castle is a king over a fishing people (GA 54, p. 438ff). This people with their king represents our own souls. This Amfortas is actually no longer worthy to be king of the fishing people because he wants to rule over his people by using power. Therefore, he is also not worthy to receive true salvation through the grail. Parcival, upon first encountering the sick Amfortas and seeing the grail, is not yet self-aware enough to ask about the purpose of the grail and what is needed next (GA 145, p.125). This is a theme in the age of the consciousness soul: developing a broad interest in human beings. In the transition to the age of the consciousness soul, man must learn to actively ask about the spiritual world, otherwise it will remain closed. The Fisher King must overcome his personal interests and make them so great that they include the importance of Jesus Christ for all mankind. And Parcival must learn to lift his innocent perception to the inner understanding of the gift of the holy grail, which is the search for the highest that is achievable for man. By asking, Parcival becomes an initiate into the mystery of Christ. The grail is also the bowl that Christ used with his disciples at the Last Supper, and in which Joseph of Arimathea collected the blood of the crucified Christ on Calvary. In such a bowl the blood of Christ was taken to a holy place. Only those who ask for the unseen, become an initiate. The initiate who drinks from the grail obtains “eternal life”.
In apocalyptic terms, the result of Christian initiation is the coming down of the New Jerusalem. The seventh great seal, first shown by Rudolf Steiner at the Munich Congress in 1907, summarizes this. In it the Grail Castle and the New Jerusalem come together.
This seal depicts the cube, which is also the characteristic size of the New Jerusalem. Earlier we saw that this cube represents, like a fortress, our skull, in which the etheric forces of our nerve strands, depicted here as serpents, converge. Above it are depicted the astral soul forces and their associated colors, and at the very top we see an inverted goblet or grail bowl symbolizing the cleansed blood resulting from the action of the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove. This is the sphere of the Manas, the transformed astral body. The subsequent steps of initiation in a much more distant future, are the purification of the etheric body to the Buddhi, the Christ within us, and then of the physical body to the Philosopher’s Stone, the Atman, the Father within us.
The purpose of this exploration was to better understand the intentions with which Charles IV shaped Karlštejn Castle and its Chapels. Although the Apocalypse played an important role in this, it was more the theme and quest for the Holy Grail and the Grail Castle that were central to his time. We can see in Charles IV an initiate who sought opportunities to transfer his wisdom outwardly in a manner appropriate to his time. In doing so, he had to take into account a church that had burned the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar in 1313, and was not open to founding a new esoteric order (Eschborn, p.89). As far as is known, he was not part of a brotherhood and went through his inner path in solitude. In Karlštejn we find a Grail Castle, not invisible like the Munsalvaesche or destroyed like the MontSégur, but intact and in full glory still preserved to our time. Karlštejn Castle is a beacon in which the secret of the Apocalypse was revealed, in a place that at the time was the center of political Europe. Charles IV also planted seeds for the future with Karlštejn and Prague Castle. Rudolf Steiner, at a meeting with Ida Freund, where he was staying and from whose house he overlooked Prague Castle, made the comment, “One day the first flames of the sixth Post-Atlantic era (Philadelphia, KZ) will be kindled there. (Quote included in the English version of Ludwig Polzer-Hoditz’s biography, A European: A Biography, prepared by T.H. Meyer, Temple Lodge Publ. , 2014, p.171, which includes additional material in addition to the translation of the most recent German version).
It is extraordinary that the work of Charles IV in the form of both castles near Prague still exists and is still so intact. Who is capable of still finding and understanding this public secret?