The complex of rock sculptures called Betiém in Nov@ les near the village of Kuks belongs to the most important monuments of the High Baroque in Central Europe. It is situated in East Bohemia, approximately 150 km from Prague, not far frorn the regional centre and @historical town of Hradec Kràlové (Kônigsgratz). They came into being thanks to the initiative of the well-educated and art-loving earl Franz Anton Sporck (âpork), a typical cavalier of the Baroque period. Earl Sporck made a significant contribution to the development of many fields of Baroque culture in Bohemia. The main centre of hîs activities, apart from Prague, was his country estate in Kuks where, in the first three decades of the 18th century, he built a unique monument of Baroque urbanisme The complex of the hospital and spa in Kuks, with the surrounding landscape magnificently embellîshed with sculptures and other external works embedded in nature, expresses the extreme polarities of the Baroque period. The Baroque fluctuâtes between the seeking of worldly pleasures on one hand and spirituel asceticism with the permament memento of life's vanity and the omnipresent death on the other (Memento Mori). The most important part of the Kuks sculptural monuments is the complex of rock sculptures called Betiém (The Christmas Crib).
The core of the Kuks seulement consisted of a complex of buildings situated in the wide valley of the Elbe. It included a castle with a spa, a cloister, a hospital and a church with a family vault. The building activities went hand in hand with lanscaping and external works which resulted in the creation of a series of sculptures placed in the open air. Among those there were also the rock sculptures in Nov@ les near Kuks, which acquired the name Betlém (literally ,Bethlehem").
The sculptural décoration of the building complex was done by prominent Czech Baroque sculptons, includîng the workshop of Matthias Bernhard Braun, one of the most outstanding représentatives of European radical Baroque.
From the beginnings of the 18th century, M.B. Braun, born in Austria, had been a prominent représentative of a robust, expressive sculpture, inspired by the earlier work of Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. It is precisely the work done on the commission of Earl Sporck in Kuks and his surroundings which represents the culmination point of Braun's art.
In the forests near Kuks, Earl Sporck gradually built four hermitages, several summer palaces and fountain springs decorated with sculptures. Most of these attractions can be found along the forest path leading from Kuks to the so called New Forest (Novg Les) in whose vicinity'the Jesuits from the 2ireê monastery had earlier started with the building of the Stations of the Cross. Sporck and Braun wanted to develop the idea of the Stations by adding to it a unique complex of religions scenes featuring old hermits and episodes from the life of Christ. This complex was to be dominated by a grand scene of Christ's Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi whose Czech name, Betlém (The Christmas Crib), eventually began to be used for the whole area.
Matthias Bernard Braun accepted the commission and, in coopération with the members of his workshop, carved a series of biblical scenes and statues of the saints directly înto the sandstone bouiders which formed part of solid rock formations. When working on the series M. B. Braun was helped by his nephew Antonin Braun and his brother Dominic. The monumental, larger than life sculptures, carved gradually between the years 1723 and 1732 without any complicated préparations directly on the spot bear witness to the mastery of their author and his breath-taking imagination. It is precisely the exceptionally close link between the sculptures and their naturai environment (inspired by Sporck's romantic fondness for visiting mountain ranges and bizarre sandstone rocks, as well as by the memory of Braun's birthplace in Tyrolean Alps) which creates the unique atmosphère accentuated by the changes in light quality during the 24-hour cycle as well as during the vegetative cycle of seasons. The whole illusionist theatre (Theatrum Sacrum) inspired by the spirit of Italian places of pilgrimage included also a series of smaller structures, two hermitages with the
statues of St. Hieronymus and St. Antony, the sculpture of the Holy Trinity in Stanovice and a number of woodcuts and paintings located on the rocks or cut directly into trees and polychromed. Most of these works are known to us only thanks to a detailed description from 1729, since they dissapeared without a trace, or were moved to another place.
At present the locality offers to view the following monumental works (whose complex is now called after the central scene Betlénn):
The most impressive statue, larger than life, is that of beatified Garinus, the protagonist of a well-known Spanish Baroque legend. The story of the legend is about a sinner who had been condemned to the life of a beast in the impenetrable wilderness of the deep forests. He could be saved only by an innocent human being who, face to face with the terrifying creature crawling on all fours could respond to his bestial roar with a Christian greeting. Garinus thus encounters the present day visitors as suddenly as his legendary predecessor on the threshold of his cave on the wail of which there hangs a crucifix.
His companion and fellow-hermit, beatified Onufrius, rests nearby, dressed in animal skin and leaning on a skull. The musculature of the athletic body as well as the face with overgrown hair and beard evokes weil this almost supernatural being and the drama of his fate.
Another hermitic figure represents St. John the Baptist dressed in camel hair and lying at rest in a desert, with the Lamb of God by his side.
In the neighbourhood there lies on a stone bed another hermitic figure representing the penitent St. Maria Magdalena, also with the necessary attribute of a skull.
A little apart from the sculptures there stands a monumental well called Jacobls Weil. It is carved from a single piece of rock and on its undulating edge we can see the famous scene from the New Testament depicting Christ and the Samaritan woman with a jug of water. Since this sculpture has been partially damaged, the individuel figures may be identified from the basic composition and structuring of the rock mass. The preserved torsos with the marks of the energetic sculptor's hand stimulate our imagination when we try to picture the original appearance of the statues which were most probably polychromed.
The centrepiece of the sculpture complex in Novg les near Kuks consists of two large reliefs carved in a rock which is about four metres high and fourteen, metres long. One of the reliefs represents the scene of the Conversion of St. Hubertus (probably the oldest sculpture of the series) which is known also as the Ecstasy of St. Hubertus. The scene features the saint who, hunting, encounters a stag crowned by a shining crucifix between his horns. This relief may be interpreted also as a tribute to the patron saint of hunters and hunting, a popular pastime of the period and also one of Earl Sporck's hobbies. Sporck was likewise the founder of a prestigious order of St. Hubertus which he himself awarded to emperor Charles VI.
Another monumental sculptural composition on the central rock wail represents the scene of Christ's Nativity with the indispensable suite of adoring shepherds and a donkey with an ox in the background. Three kings whose Oriental origin is indicated by a caravan of camels are coming from the right side to pay tribute to the new lord of the world - the scene of the Adoration of the Magi. The magnificent scene originally included also separate statues placed in the area in front of the relief or on the roof of the artificially created cave. By the creation of additional spatial plans these statues contributed to the three-dimensional illusion of the theatrically composed scene.
The sculptures of the complex are carved from natural material, siliceous sandstone rock in which there is almost ho feldspar. The grains are held together by layers of secondary quartz. The stone contains also small quantifies of ferrous oxides and hydroxides. The average size of a grain ranges from 0,5 mm to 0,8 mm. The whole series of rock sculptures is surrounded by a forest and connected by a pedestrian path.