An Island of Baroque Art
Many stories from the Baroque period start with a miracle. The story of Kuks probably started with fraud. The owner of the estate, eccentric Count František Antonín Špork, invited a committee of most prominent capacities to the springs in the scenic valley at the end of the 17th century, who decided that the water was healing. However, modern chemical analyses have not confirmed any exceptional properties of the local water.
The healing effects of the water were a mystification which, however, led to the creation of one of the most impressive jewels of Baroque art in the world. An extensive and detailed hospital complex was almost overnight built on both sides of the Label River valley as well as in the adjacent forests. Count Špork hired the best architects and sculptors. The fame of the spa quickly spread and it became a much-sought-after centre of social life, just like the founder wanted. The founder of Kuks not only placed emphasis on the treatment procedures, but also on the social life of the guests. At the time of its peak, Kuks was a sensation for all senses.
“There were various fantastic things in Kuks, various works of art, made by the best artists, various curious devices and appliances, of which the legend told unbelievable stories. The personality of Špork himself, who wanted to have his own little Versailles in Kuks with a busy life, attracted many, especially the nobility who could entertain themselves in the large and well-maintained forests.” (Halík from Dvůr Králové)
The water from springs flowed on the monumental cascade staircase decorated with sculptures of tritons into the fountain with the sculpture of Polyphemus, from which music was emitted thanks to an ingenious mechanism hidden inside the back of the river god. A racecourse was built along the bank of the Labe River, decorated with a row of dwarfs chiselled out of stone. The spa had a permanent theatre scene where leading companies regularly hosted in the season. U Zlatého slunce pub made sure that the guests had full stomachs. The adjacent forests were not only used for sports hunting under the patronage of St. Hubert, but also for meditation. The sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun transformed the local sandstone rocks into a unique gallery under the open sky, dominated by figures of the pilgrims Onufrio and Garin. At the same time, visitors of the Kuks forests could meet real hermits that Špork supported on his estate.
Symbolically, what started with water, ended with water. In December 1740, the Labe River flooded most of the spa. The operation was never restored and the natural disaster was followed by military conflicts that affected the surroundings of Kuks in the following century. Unfortunately, only a part of the original project has been preserved in Kuks.
The series of allegoric statues of Virtues and Vices, an unsurpassed work of art by Matyáš Bernard Braun, would be enough to make this place famous. The masterpiece was to remind the guests of Count Špork of the conflict between good and bad and brought a moralising dimension to the carefree spa life.
The owner of Kuks was not only a great patron of art, but also a person with philanthropic tendencies. He had a hospital for war veterans built opposite the spa complex, on the right bank of the Labe River. The façade of the hospital building is dominated by the Holy Trinity Church, where Špork was buried in the family crypt.
And why should you visit Kuks today? Despite the transience of human work, the Baroque premises on both banks of the Labe River is a beautiful and peaceful place that has been given its mark of uniqueness and generosity thanks to the recent reconstruction. Far from civilisation, you will find a small piece of land that Count Špork once transformed into a famous spa, more impressive than Karlovy Vary. Just like in the past, wine flows from the massive triton statues during festivals, you can walk through the restored vineyards and taste the local springs, just like the European elite at the turn of the 17th and 18th century.
During the extensive reconstruction of Kuks, a new museum of Baroque book printing was built on the left bank of the Labe, where you can admire the functioning copper plate engraving and book printing press from the 17th century and the valuable original works by Michael Heinrich Rentz – the most prominent engraver and graphic designer of Baroque Bohemia. Thanks to his beautiful engraving we know what Kuks looked like 300 years ago. On the premises of the majestic hospital on the other side of the river, check out the newly reconstructed Baroque pharmacy U granátového jablka, and also a collection of paintings that depict death in its many forms. The collection of the unique frescos, Dance of Death, was only recently discovered and it reminds visitors of the transience of human life that highlights the unique atmosphere of Kuks in its many forms.