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Prague: The Glorious Moment

Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347–1437

Catalog of the exhibitionedited by Barbara Drake Boehm and Jirí Fajt
an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 20, 2005–January 3, 2006
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 366 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper)

In 1933, Willy Haas came back to Prague from Berlin. The editor of one of the great Weimar periodicals, Die literarische Welt (The Literary World), Haas had flourished in the Twenties, publishing major work by Kafka, Cocteau, Benjamin, and others. Driven out of Berlin by the Nazis, he came home, and used his citizenship and his native knowledge of the Czech language to rebuild his life. Many of his German friends came too: the brothers Magnus Herzfelde and John Heartfield, the publishers of the Weltbühne, even Thomas Mann, who took advantage of his honorary citizenship of Czechoslovakia to hold a public lecture after Germany had stripped him of citizenship and fortune.

This was the last, artificial flowering of something like the Prague in which Haas had grown up—a magnificently cosmopolitan society. Jewish families like his, Haas recalled in later life, spoke German and were Austrian patriots. High officials spoke “a completely denaturalized, sterile, grotesque, imperial Czech-German.” The nobles in their mysterious palaces in the old city “spoke French and belonged not to a nation, but to the Holy Roman Empire, which hadn’t existed for a century.” Haas’s nurse, his governess, and the family’s cook and maid spoke Czech. Only when he reached the age of six and went to school “was it decided that I would be a German and Austrian.” Somehow, the whole city functioned beautifully, its respectable, half-respectable, and totally unrespectable neighborhoods all proudly conscious of their places in society and quite distinct from one another—so long as no one “scratched the lacquer hard enough to show that they were all of the same wood.” No one—not Haas, nor his eminently bourgeois family and teachers, nor his playmate Franz Werfel, nor his slightly older neighbor Max Brod—had ever dreamt that the social labyrinths of their beloved city could become whispering galleries in which informers lurked and Sudeten Germans threatened. But in the weeks after Munich, Haas and his remaining friends sat in their cafes in deathly silence, death in their hearts, knowing that they must leave or perish.1

The period between the Munich treaty and the occupation of Prague in 1939 was ghastly: but it was not the first time that this drama played in Prague. For centuries, the city had been Europe’s capital of cosmopolitan dreams—a magnificent Utopia in stone, the symbol of a politics that transcended national and linguistic divisions. For centuries, Prague was not a strange and wonderful place hidden in the East, but the center of European culture—the on-again, off-again capital of the Holy Roman Empire, a city of scientists, poets, and professors. And more than once before, the dreams had metamorphosed, seemingly without warning, into nightmares of civil and religious strife. Under the great cathedral and the Hradcany castle, reason slept and innocent blood ran in the streets. An extraordinary current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum takes us back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the historical moment when Prague first took on the cosmopolitan cultural role and the imperial aspirations that it would retain for centuries—a glorious moment, as vivid and colorful as a scene in a snow globe, and soon to be shaken by the forces that would tear Prague apart again and again in later years.2

Prague was already a cultural center when the young Charles IV, who was born in Prague but reared at the French court, arrived in Bohemia in 1333. His grandfather, Wenceslas II of Bohemia, who followed the example of the great rulers of Western Europe and used the arts to enhance the prestige of his court, had composed Minnelieder of his own. Craftsmen of high quality, some of them trained in France, worked for ambitious patrons like Jan IV, bishop of Prague, Charles’s rival for authority in the city. Jan had his chapel splendidly adorned with “the images of all the bishops of Prague, in order,” his refectory with instructive verses from Scripture and the coats of arms of local nobles, and his bedroom with “the symbols of the prophets and the apostles,” which he brought back with him from the papal curia in Avignon. Charles, who had acquired knowledge of early-fourteenth-century art and letters in France and knew the cities of Italy at first hand, still exaggerated when he claimed, later in life, that he found Bohemia desolate on his return.

Nonetheless, Charles’s investments in the arts were extraordinary in both scale and quality. In part, they represented a natural way to communicate with his subjects. In an age of dynastic kingship rather than geographically coherent nations, rulers often found that they must win allegiance from men and women whose language they did not speak. When Charles came home, he had entirely forgotten his Czech. A skilled linguist, he soon mastered the language. But he also decided, from the first, to speak to his subjects—especially the noble ones—in a visual language as well, imposing his identity on vital sites of political and religious power as systematically as an alpha dog sprays his territory. By doing so he transformed Prague into a royal, even an imperial, city—the appropriate base of operations for the man who became king of Bohemia in 1346 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1355.

But the arts mattered to Charles for less pragmatic reasons as well. A deeply pious king, especially in his early years, he wanted to make his chosen city not only the symbol of his worldly power but a reservoir of something far more profound: the spiritual power that only God and His saints could provide. Here too he needed the help that artists could provide, for only they could devise the buildings, images, and containers splendid enough to make Prague worthy to form the central link in a cosmic economy of grace. The young king and his allies proved brilliantly successful, and mustered artists of the highest quality. They transformed the built and visual, material and spiritual worlds of the Bohemian elite, and much of the work they commissioned—brilliantly displayed and explicated in the current exhibition—still takes the breath away.

Charles knew northern Italy, where the Visconti rulers of Milan—like the republican rulers of Florence—were already experimenting with formal city planning. First of all, accordingly, he set his mark on the city. He seized the high ground—the fortified Hrad hill that still dominates the Old Town on the left bank of the Moldau. Here he built a royal castle; here, on the site of the ancient round church where Bohemia’s patron saints were buried, he reared a new cathedral of Saint Vitus. Both were cast in the French style, and both were spectacular. At the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, ingenious use of photographs and an enlarged city view enables the visitor to appreciate the spectacular layout of Charles’s new imperial city—as well as the great stone Charles Bridge that connected old Prague to his New Town across the Moldau, and his great royal castle of Karlstejn.

Huge ink drawings on parchment, delicately detailed and crisply rendered—elevations for the ornate windows, buttresses and pinnacles of the Cathedral of St. Vitus—display the precision and expertise of the Prague architect Peter Parler, whose workshop constructed much of the building. Changes in the drawings reflect the process of stylistic and technical innovation and refinement that went on for decades in the actual building of the cathedral—and let the visitor imagine the forgotten debates among architect, workmen, clerics, and their royal master that transformed it from a simple, strict, and traditional structure into a mobile, fluent masterpiece of late Gothic.

Buildings provided a stage for the rituals of royal, and later imperial, power: and Charles and his artists dressed this one and many others with extraordinary panache. Sculptors working in limestone, sandstone, lindenwood, and bronze carried out experiments of many kinds in three dimensions. It is a shame that it was impossible to bring to New York the extraordinary bronze equestrian statue of Saint George cast by Hungarian artists for Prague Castle in the 1370s, with its muscular twisting horse, calm saint, and handsome dragon—a work that anticipates the achievements of more famous Italian sculptors in the next century. But the central thread of the story stands out clearly. Bohemia became a center for what gradually took shape as the “Beautiful Style”—one endlessly replicated, with small, clever variations, in the gently curved figures of the Virgin and the saints that Czech patrons loved, round-faced, dreamy, and swathed in heavy drapery that falls the full length of their bodies in graceful, weighty folds.

Sometimes as finished in the back as in the front, and evidently designed to be looked at from every direction, these statues—for example, a stunning colored Virgin in painted limestone, round-cheeked and human, delicately holding a stylized baby—have a distinctive presence, soft and commanding, which reflects their function. The late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed a great vogue for personal, interior devotion, for formal meditation on the holy histories of the gospels. Charles himself loved spiritual reading, and plagued his chancellor, Jan of Streda, for a good German translation of Augustine’s Soliloquia. The catalog entry makes a good case, citing both visual and textual clues, that this limestone statue had a precise religious purpose. The Virgin covers her baby with a protective right hand and holds up his foot to draw the viewer’s attention. In a vision, Mary explained to the mystic Bridget of Sweden, whose writings circulated across Europe, that she had known when her son was an infant what he would suffer in adulthood: “As I saw the holes made by the nails in his hands and feet, which, as I understood from the prophets, he would suffer at the Crucifixion, my eyes filled with tears, and my heart was torn by pain.” The Mary of this statue reveals, with her soft gestures, her terrible foreknowledge. The image was lovely and gentle—but it was also, for the informed viewer, something more: a technology of the spirit, crafted not only to impress pious Christians with its beauty but to help them gain access to a particular level of religious sentiment.

As appealing as the sculptures that swirl gracefully through this exhibition—and similar to them in some ways—are the extraordinary painted images, on panels and in books, that glow from walls and vitrines. Charles’s Bohemia fostered a rich and many-layered culture of painting, one evidently as dear to the King’s heart as its architecture. For his spectacular Holy Cross Chapel at Karlstejn, its walls sheathed with jasper, gold, and amethyst in sheets, Charles commissioned the astonishing Master Theodoric, his court painter, to portray saints. Theodoric’s images of Saint Charlemagne and Saint Luke—the latter perhaps a self-portrait, since Luke was the patron saint of painters, and the portrait, unlike the others in the chapel, gazes directly out at the viewer—are stately, commanding studies in male sanctity. Swathed in heavy clothing, bent with the cares imposed by their vocations, both men have huge, expressive eyes, faces scored with years of experience, and magnificent beards, Gothic fantasies of curls on curls. They are unforgettable figures, consumed by the revelations they have received but still ready to propagate them.

  1. 1

    Willy Haas, Die literarische Welt: Erinnerungen (Munich: List, 1957).

  2. 2

    The exhibition catalog offers richly detailed information about Charles IV and his successors and, even more so, about the artists who worked in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Bohemia. The wider historical setting is illuminated by Peter Demetz’s remarkable survey, Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City (Hill and Wang, 1997). Other episodes from Prague’s pre-modern past have been the objects of some remarkable works of scholarship, notably R.J.W. Evans, Rudolf II and His World (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1973; reprinted with corrections, London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, The School of Prague: Painting at the Court of Rudolf II (University of Chicago Press, 1988).

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