Karlstejn Castle surpasses those other castres already on the World Heritage List in the exceptional nature of its ideological calling, which ensured that this architectural composition be complemented by utterly unique artistic décoration.
The castle was built in 1348-57 on a spur extending from a rocky ridge in a picturesque, hilly landscape around 30km south-west of the Czech capital, Prague.
The building of the castre was the main element in an extensive programme by which the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, Charles IV, sought to elevate the lands of the Bohemian Crown to the cultural and political centre of what was then the largest state in Central Europe. The castle's calling was to be a stately and safe depository for the Imperial and Bohemian Crown Jewels, and the extensive Imperial collection of holy reliquaries.
The castle spreads over three vertically offset rocky terraces, which enabled a significant gradation in its individuel parts. A forecourt lies in the fortified entrance area between the first and second gates. The economic and administrative basis of the castle lies in the Residence of the burgrave of Kari§tejn and the working courtyard that descends to the westernmost part of the spur, terminating in the Well Tower. The masses of the inner castle, reached through a third gate and surrounded by an inner wall, on the other hand, rise from the rectangular Imperial Palace with its semi-circular bastion to a smaller residential tower which contains the Church of the Virgin, and on to the dominant landmark, the residential Great Tower, which contains the Chapel of the Holy Cross. The smaller tower, set further to the south, is known as the Marian or Lesser Tower; the Great Hall that occupied the whole of its first floor was consecrated in 1357 as the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for the newly-founded Karl@tejn Chapter. In the south-western corner of this space is the entrance to the Emperor's private oratory, later known as St Catherine's Chapel.
The décoration of the Church of the Virgin and St Catherine's Chapel presents the most mature expression of the architecture, painting and craftsmanship of the Prague Court circle. Two fields of the cross vault in the chapel, with coping stones covered in gold leaf and precious stones, are decorated in guilt and punched ornament on a blue background. Almost the whole wail area is covered in a cladding of polished precious stones set into relief decorated stucco. The décoration of the chapel is complemented by frescoes of a high artistic standard.
The compositional grouping of the masses of the castle buildings culminâtes in the independently fortified, five storey Great 'tower to the north, sited on the very peak of the castle spur. The most important space within the Great Tôwer is the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which occupies the entire second floor. The chapel is the ideological centre of Karlâtejn, the space for which the entire castle was built. The Chapel of the Holy Cross has the character of a rare, monumental repository, in which the remains of saints and the Imperial and Bohemian Crown Jewels were kept. The greatest of care was devoted to the décoration of this sanctuary. The chapel has two fields of cross vaulting, and is divided into two section (a 'nave' and a presbytery) by a high, gilded screen inset with precious stones. The lower parts of the chapel walis and the deep window recesses from the skirting to the vault are covered in a cladding of predominantly red precious stones. The vault is similarly covered in gilded stucco, with round glass insets.
On the upper parts of the chapel walls, frescoes were limited to the deep window reveals, and on the walls there is a collection of 129 outstanding panel painting by Master Theoderic, attached to the walls in gilded reliquary frames. These paintings are portraits of the apostles, knights, sovereigns, ecclesiastical dignitaries, prophets and angels - members of the Army of Heaven, to whose protection the Emperor entrusted the Imperial sacrements. The collection is one of the most notable high points of Medieval artistry.
Karl@tejn Castle served as the repository of the Imperial Crown Jewels until the beginning of the Hussite Wars in 1420, when together with the Bohemian Royal Treasury they were
removed for reasons of security. Despite long sieges, the castle was never captured by Hussite forces. The rénovations of the second half the 15th and early 16th centuries left their most conspicuous traces in the building of the Burgrave's Residence. Further interventions, aimed mainly at preventing the castle fallîng into ruin, were made in 1570 at the command of the Emperor Rudolf 11; the repairs carried out by the Prague Court Architect Ulric Avostallis gave a Renaissance imprint to the Medieval castle. From the beginning of the 17th century the significance of the castle declined, particular after 1619 and the définitive remo@val of the Bohemian Crown Jewels and state archive to Prague.
Interest in the complex was renewed in the periods of the Enlightenment and, especially, the Romanticism of the late 18th century. The Viennese Imperial Court supported rénovations from as early as the beginning of the 19th century, when some of the most urgent repairs were carried out. Attempts to return the Great Tower to its Gothic form took place during subséquent repairs in 1837 - 40.
A celebration and national pilgrimage to the castle were held in 1848 to mark the quincentenary of its foundation. From 1853 professional oversight of repairs was taken over by the Central Commission for the Preservation of Monuments then founded in Vienna. Preparation of a project for the restoration of the castle was entrusted to Friedrich Schmidt, Professor at the Viennese Academy, at whose recommandation the artistic direction of the building work was given to his student, Josef Mocker. The définitive version of the project was approved by the Central Commission only in 1888.
The overall re-Gothicization of the castle at the end of the 19th century is a telling example of the results of the then relatively young discipline of monument care. The restoration of the most valuable parts of the castle - i.e. the two towers with the Imperial apartments in the palace - was realised to high levels of professionalism and craftsmanship. Given the state of the castle at the beginning of the 19th century, it can safely be assumed that it is thanks to these extensive rénovations that the castle as a whole was preserved as a monument of immense historical and artistic value.