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.

As these first examples suggest, Charles’s tastes in painting ran to the stately and the colorful. But they also ran to the cosmopolitan. Places of devotion in Bohemia benefited from his love for panel paintings that adorned their hauntingly regal central figures, masterly examples of the Byzantine Orthodox icon style, entirely outside normal time and space, with some of the representational bells and whistles of contemporary Italian art. The Madonna of Most, for example, painted in tempera on a panel and heavily gilt, assumes as stiff and solemn a posture as any figure from an Eastern icon. So does her son. They seem a brilliant exercise in a conventional Eastern Orthodox mode. Yet his dress, with its brilliant and intricate pattern of gold embroidery, and the lively goldfinch he holds in his hand reflect the influence of contemporary Italian painting. In the spectacular Strahov Madonna, the same elements appear, but the balance is different. A stunning, Italianate Virgin, her face expressive and human, and a baby with a plump, mobile face take the positions and bear the fringed cloak and translucent veil of their counterparts in a Byzantine icon (see the illustration on page 52). Like the city itself, its painters’ workshops had become a place where men and traditions mingled.

As colorful, varied, and swarming with detail as the panel paintings on show here are a profusion of illuminated manuscripts, glowing with colored inks, their margins alive with minutely observed figures, often as active and diverse as the painted inhabitants of larger works are stately, calm and uniform. Wild men in tournament armor and magnificently feathered helmets, scantily clad bath maids, and a welter of bright imaginary flora sprawl down the frontispiece of the psalter of Wenceslas IV. Dignified roundels showing the Six Days of Creation and riotously colorful animals, real and heraldic, surround two columns of text in the Bible of Konrad of Vechta. Grave, robed figures neatly drawn on a green ground, beneath a deep blue sky starred with gold, scan the sky and look for signs of the divine spirit in the dirt on top of Mount Athos in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville—a Bohemian copy from the early fifteenth century of that fantastic romance, the prototype of all modern travel writing and itself in part a strangely cosmopolitan work that describes monstrous races and non-Christian religions with equanimity, interest, and respect.

The Metropolitan’s erudite labels3 and recorded commentary help the visitor to discern in miniature, in the margins of these books, cultural encounters as wild and unexpected as those that took place on the larger stage of Prague’s architecture. Charles and Jan of Streda had a taste for French styles in illumination—for example, the three-dimensional human figures that French miniaturists were especially skilled at making, in contrast to the flatter, decorative figures in the Bohemian style that appear in the Creation roundels of another great Bible, now in the Morgan Library. Christian decorative motifs of various kinds were so attractive that they burst the boundaries of the culture that produced them. It is astonishing to see, in copies made in Prague of the Hebrew Bible and Jacob ben Asher’s The Row, birds, animals, and human figures in the same styles that appear in Christian Bibles in Latin and the vernaculars. Jews and Christians coexisted with difficulty in the Prague street. Yet in their libraries they inhabited provinces of the same aesthetic country.

As always, it is hard to know for certain what Charles and other Bohemian patrons had in mind when they chose artists and subjects, either on the macro-scale of the great panels or the minute ones of the books. These were sophisticated, bookish men, who enjoyed the company of Petrarch and were fascinated—and horrified—by the radical prophet Cola di Rienzo. They certainly took a deep interest in the iconography of the works created for them. A letter to Charles from his chancellor, Jan of Streda, recommends a painter in strikingly precise and sophisticated terms:

The industry of the present painter has properly depicted, with the aid of his art, both powers, that is, the kingly dignity and the priestly authority, as they follow from a single principle. Thus a celestial attendant, as you see in the painting, crowns both of them with the clemency of divine providence: Caesar, that is, as the ruler of the world, and the Roman pope, to whom the power to bind and to loose is granted from on high. And both of them are brought upwards into the kingdom of heaven, as the upper frame of the picture shows—if, that is, both of them have carried out their work with due regard to Christian charity, which, I think… is rarely found.4

It seems that both the chancellor and his lord knew how to read complex works of art for their underlying messages, and expected that they would be able to frame sharp theological explanations for visual schemes. No doubt their successors did as well, and looked with informed and sensitive eyes at a complex and demanding image like the magnificent fifteenth-century Virgin and Child in Paradise that appears late in the show. They needed no labels to tell them that its glowing green hortus conclusus alluded to the Song of Songs while its figure of Mary, her lap strewn with flowers, assumed a posture that indicated humility.

But the preserved texts do not show that the lords of Prague had a comparably precise written language for discussing the formal qualities of statues and paintings—for example, the glorious flowers that wreath the Virgin and Child in Paradise, their soft colors subtly set off by the white and gold border of the painting. Did they discuss these qualities at all, or leave them up to those who did the work, as a modern customer might let his tailor make decisions about seams and vents? Artists, in this world, did not practice the fine arts, in a modern sense, but they worked at closely regulated, demanding crafts. Mastering one of these had more to do with gaining tacit knowledge and learning traditional recipes than with formal analysis of aesthetic or theological problems. Perhaps the most excitingly strange object in this entire show is an itinerant miniaturist’s model book, made in Prague early in the fifteenth century. In this boxed set of folding cards, each individual card bears four model images executed, with great elegance and virtuosity, in silverpoint and brushwork.

This was in effect the miniaturist’s Desk Reference, which provided stock images of the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, men and women, horses, griffins and spiders. Once commissioned to illuminate a manuscript, the miniaturist would mix and match these prefabricated elements. Stylish, deft, and surprisingly expressive, these images would have left their owner only modest room for individual touches once he had contracted to transfer them to particular empty spaces in a patron’s vellum Bible. A miniaturist or painter who worked with such a model book may well have chosen at random when he needed to fill empty space on a page or in a panel: griffin or spider, camel or lion was, perhaps, all one to him.

Still, the works exhibited here show a notable consistency of taste. It seems likely that the politically savvy Charles, as the exhibition’s organizers suggest, favored some works of art that not only exalted his patronage of the Church, but also connected him with the Byzantine emperor and, by visual suggestions and syntax, with the Eastern Church that that emperor ruled, and whose devotees filled Slavic lands near Bohemia—and others that connected him to great urban centers of wealth and craft in the western regions of the Holy Roman Empire, like Nuremberg.

Even more striking than these mild, graceful, and sublime statues and paintings are the many specimens of a very different technology of the divine that found adopters throughout Prague and Bohemia. Charles and his artists wrought at the vast scale of the Gothic window wall and the sculptured tower. But they also lavished at least as much dedication—and wealth—on work done on a radically different scale. The religious practices of late medieval Europeans took many forms. Alongside the thirst for spiritual nourishment, which inspired formal meditation, raged a thirst for the divine in its most material form: a desperate desire to see, and if possible to possess, the divine at its most tangible, in the form of the Host and the physical relics of the saints that endowed cathedrals and shrines with their identities and protective powers. Sermons mattered; but so, even more, did the formal liturgy, with all the rituals and coded gestures that attended its celebration. For most men and women, lived Christianity was public, performed Christianity, the religion of the congregation and the Mass.

The artisans of Prague expended energy, skill, and lavish materials as exuberantly on these material evidences of God’s work in the world as they did on the artistic representations of the Creation and the Passion that are more familiar to us these days. The rooms of the Metropolitan exhibition gleam with the fantastically rich and imaginative products of their industry. Vast pinnacled shrines, richly wrought of iron, gold, and glass, their structures so complex that they look like miniature churches, displayed and protected the Host in its crystal monstrance. Heads and limbs of gold, rendered so boldly and schematically that they oddly resemble Fritz Lang’s robot from Metropolis, could be opened to reveal the skulls and bones of departed saints.

Chasubles and other vestments, brightly charged with color and texture, must have turned every priestly motion and gesture into part of a magnificent pageant that appealed to all the senses. Charles, the practical politician, knew that finely housed relics would attract worshipers to his Cathedral of St. Vitus and the other shrines that he founded or promoted. But he believed as passionately in their power as anyone else. A French chronicle of the later Middle Ages depicts him, an old man on his last visit to Paris, having himself carried on a litter to visit the city’s great relics and gain from them a spiritual benefit that his own collection evidently could not provide.

High-end craftsmen—goldsmiths and jewelers—had been at work in the city for some time. But in the age of Charles IV and his successors, their numbers grew and the products of their work swelled into a magnificently jeweled flood. Castles bulged with the hoards of royal jewels, huge, brilliant, and multifaceted, sometimes set in insignia designed for coronation rituals and held to emphasize the royal power, sometimes simply accumulated in wildly glittering abundance. Semiprecious stones—above all jasper—glowed in slabs from the walls of chapels and swelled into the smooth shapes of beakers and other ritual vessels. The same sensibility that responded so ardently to the soft plain statues of the Beautiful Style somehow also had room for an aesthetic of Too Much Is Not Enough, and the Metropolitan exhibition makes clear that late medieval Prague and its environs were a preeminent center of luxury production and consumption. Skilled men and fast talkers of every kind descended on Charles and his successors like hunger on a loaf, in the words of Benvenuto Cellini. Like Italian rulers, the kings of Bohemia even found themselves besieged by those most creative and ambitious of Renaissance craftsmen, engineers offering them newfangled weapons. No manuscript in the show outdoes the Bellifortis, a compendium of military technologies, for illustrations that are sublimely rich and strange. Its author, the royal military engineer Konrad Kyeser, promised everything from self-propelled tanks and explosive rockets to diabolic spells—and represented every one of his fantastic devices working in real time.5

Prague’s first great moment was, in many ways, as sumptuous in its creations and as pregnant with possibilities as Florence’s fifteenth century. Yet Florence went on to become the capital of a grand duchy, exchanging the freedom it could no longer defend for a splendid official culture of palaces and academies. Prague, by contrast, became in the fifteenth century the first capital of Europe’s chronic disorders. The reformer Jan Hus—who appears here, in a vivid illustration, on the pyre where he was burned as a heretic—and his allies preached against the established church. They denounced the corruption of the popes and demanded not only vernacular Bibles but that laity as well as priests could receive communion with both bread and wine. Gradually the Hussite revolution in and outside Prague took on a national flavor, as a movement of Czech speakers against Germans. Like the Spanish civil war preceding World War II, the rise of the Hussites was a tryout on the small scale for the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the next century, and like the Spanish civil war it spawned strange and scary social experiments and much violence.

Charles IV and his successors had made their city great—and had done so in the years of the Black Death, when Europe’s population plummeted and cities elsewhere shrank in population, wealth, and ambition. Perhaps, though, they directed too much of their cultural patronage at themselves. Perhaps, once enclosed in their new palaces, praying in their jasper-walled chapels and reading in their splendid libraries, they could no longer imagine what it felt like in the streets outside, where Catholics and dissenters, Christians and Jews brushed elbows. Certainly their huge investment in culture could not, in the long term, sustain either their power or the peace. Their cosmopolitan city was torn apart by riots and religious wars. All that is left—all that we can see—are the spectacular ruins of their dream. But even these shards of their crystalline vision still gleam with the wealth and taste and energy of those who conceived and those who made them.

This Issue

December 15, 2005