On May 24, 1391, the Bethlehem Chapel was founded in Prague’s Old Town as the first preaching chapel in Europe, cementing its central place in Czech medieval history and its pivotal role in the emergence of the Hussite movement and the spread of the Bohemian Reformation.
Established by a foundation deed by Hanuš of Mühlheim and Jan Kříž, the Bethlehem Chapel (Betlémská kaple in Czech) is named after the massacre ordered in Bethlehem by King of Judea Herod the Great to kill the newborn Jesus Christ – an episode found in the New Testament largely believed to be fiction or myth by biblical scholars.
Breaking with the tradition of the Medieval Bohemian church of using the German language, the new chapel – never considered a parish church despite its considerable size – used only the Czech vernacular for its sermons. A few decades after the foundation of Charles University in 1348, the Bethlehem Chapel became an important center of the Bohemian Reformation and Czech intellectual and religious life during the following decades.
Also a rector at Charles University, reformer Jan Hus preached there from 1402 until his excommunication in 1412, attracting large crowds of followers and leading to the rise of the Hussite movement which would eventually trigger the so-called Hussite Wars.
After the Bohemian Estates’ defeat at the by the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, which led to the re-Catholisation of the Czech lands, the Bethlehem Chapel was briefly administered by the Unity of Brethren.
The Jesuit Order was expelled in the late 18th century, and the chapel became property of the state. Neglected and falling into ruins, the building was almost entirely demolished. It was only until after the end of the Second World War that communist authorities restored and renovated the chapel, officially reopened in 1954 as a national cultural monument of Czechoslovakia.
Now administered by the Czech Technical University in Prague, the Bethlehem Chapel is used as the school’s ceremonial hall, hosting graduation ceremonies as well as an annual ecumenical meeting to mark the burning of Jan Hus on July 6. Various cultural and social events are also held there, and most of the chapel is open to visitors all year long.
An asteroid discovered in 1997 by Czech astronomer Miloš Tichý was named after the chapel, located between Bethlehem Square and Husova (Hus street) in the historic centre of Prague.
To mark the 600th anniversary of the death of Jan Hus, a bronze plaque was unveiled in 2015 in the chapel’s tower and an ingenious installation set up on one of its exterior walls, a sign reading “For the Truth” which becomes visible only in sunny weather.