Journeys to Glory... Prague

by Helen Splarn

‘Prague stands at the crossroads of history, where past and present converge. Here, the representatives of religious and worldly powers have clashed with one another in argument and battle. For in Prague, history has seldom paraded as light-hearted entertainment, burlesque or empty comedy. Its constantly repeated themes are far more serious: they have to do with the nation’s very existence’.

- Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic

Situated on the river Vltava, Prague is one of the most spectacular cities in Europe. Geographically it also lies at the centre of Europe and has served as the crossroads for many ancient trade routes. This unique position has influenced the formation of Europe as the east and west divided. This is as true in the arts as it is in politics and religion. In response, Prague created a mysterious and beautiful city that has inspired the imagination and fuelled the human soul.

The struggle between eastern Europe and the west is still seen today, as the gap between progress and tradition draws closer. 60 million visitors come to Prague every year to try and capture on film that which has been lost in the west. Yet what they seek cannot be seen, it is in the very fibre of the buildings, in their richness and harmony. It is an internal recognition of something higher, something greater than ourselves. Throughout history these great architects, sculptors and artists have created a reflection of their own inner beauty, making Prague a city of enlightened creativity.

In order to understand the Prague of today we have to travel back to a time when legend and folklore were intertwined with everyday events. From the beginning Prague has always been seen as a woman and a mother, Her origins are veiled in mystery stretching far back into history, to a mystical time when the gifted and magical Princess Libuse had a vision.

‘I see a great castle whose glory will reach to heaven; it is located in a deep forest, bounded by the waves of the Vltava. You will find there a man who is digging out a threshold. And because even the great noblemen must bow low before a threshold, you shall give it the name Praha’. — Princess Libuse

In Czech Praha or Prague means threshold. Princess Libuse is the embodiment of the feminine. Indeed Prague is built on the foundations of her vision and the power of the feminine; even the first church, built in 874 was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Although devastated by fire in 1142, the chapel of the Virgin Mary was rebuilt.

These themes of birth and rebirth, the struggle for freedom and the search for enlightenment are entrenched in the very stonework of the buildings and the brush strokes of the artists. You can literally feel the feminine in her creative form, flowing through Prague, breathing life into each generation.

By the 10th century Prague was well established as a Romanesque city with a flourishing economy, attracting traders and scholars alike. They came from as far away as Spain and Islam. Concentrated around the Old Town Square and Little Quarter, Prague soon became a flourishing economy and a feudal stronghold. Daily life was focused around the castle which houses the magnificent Basilica of St George which was built in 920AD.

Also within the castle is the Vladislav Hall. A magnificent example of flamboyant gothic architecture, the hall is a staggering 203 ft long. The original ceiling is decorated with a network of broken ribbing, which gives it a living, fluid feeling like vine climbing the walls. These self suspended shapes represent the ascent of the mind and the spirit upwards, towards God.

From its inception, Prague boasted a wide range of architectural styles which all seemed to live side by side in harmony. The birth of Gothic art in the early 1100’s saw Prague establish itself as a Gothic city under the reign of Wenceslas. From the outset it was a mixture of cultures, religions, architecture and beauty, made all the more interesting by the remarkable and stimulating blend of the Czech, German and Jewish cultures that lived side by side. The Old-New Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter was built in 1270 and is the oldest in Europe. It has a subtle blending of Gothic and Jewish architecture forming a perfect balance.

The Old Town Square itself has been added to, over the centuries. The Old Town Hall is a complex of several buildings erected between the 14th and 19th centuries, including ‘Dumo du Minute’ – or ‘House of the Minute’ originally medieval, it was re-modeled in the Renaissance and decorated with Stucco during the time of Rudolf II. Prague is also famous for her astronomical clock. It is said that the town council blinded the clock maker after he finished the clock so another one could never be made.

Charles IV came to the throne in 1349 – during his reign Bohemia enjoyed its first golden age, becoming a major center for European culture.

In 1348 Charles founded the Prague University – the first and oldest university in Europe. The ‘Carolinum’, still remaining today is the oldest building of the Charles university. Prague became an intellectual center well versed in the arts and sciences and possessed with a remarkable vitality. Scholars flocked from all over Europe to this great enlightened seat of learning.

To accommodate the new scholars and thriving town Charles IV undertook the enlargement of the town by creating an extensive new area called ‘New Town’.

Regarded by many as the true heart of Bohemia, Prague Castle stands as a potent symbol of the Czech nation and its history. The center of political power and the struggle for social, political and spiritual freedom, the castle witnessed rulers rise and fall.

Within the castle is the cathedral. Its origins date back to 1310, but it is Charles IV who determined its shape. The soaring shapes used in Gothic architecture represent a desire to be closer to God. The cathedral brings every shape and element into a complete harmony climbing heavenward. This was a time when much of the populace was illiterate and their only expression was through the church. They couldn’t write down their desire to be one with God, so they expressed it in the buildings they created.

If the castle is the heart of Bohemia then the Charles Bridge is the spirit, joining the west bank with the east. This 700 year old bridge was built at the site of the Judith Bridge, a Romanesque bridge destroyed by a flood in 1342. It reflects the city’s situation in Europe, two branches of the same culture, battling the contradictions between tradition and progress. An expression of man’s journey through Europe’s evolution.

Again Prague stood center stage in Europe’s fight for spiritual freedom when in 1415 Jan Huss, a lecturer at the Charles University, led the Husstie revolt which ended with him being burnt at the stake. It foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation that would spread throughout Europe in the early sixteenth century.

As the Gothic age gave way to the Renaissance a number of artists from northern Italy came to Prague, bringing with them new artistic ideas.

The Hapsburg emperor, Rudolf II took up residence at Prague Castle in 1583. He was an avid collector and generous patron. His court was an international community of artists, scholars, astrologers and mathematicians. All received a warm welcome – all were given free reign to explore their fields and push new boundaries of the known world.

By 1600 his court was an international community of painters, sculptors, scientists, mathematicians and astrologers. His lively interest in the sciences kept him in touch with research throughout Europe. The scholar John Dee came from England, together with spiritualist Edward Kelley and astronomer Tycho Braha from Denmark.

This was a time of wonderful artistic vitality, the old and the new converged, and tradition and progress lived in harmony. Prague was seen as a cultural center of exceptional importance. Karl van Mander, painter and theorist wrote in 1604: ‘Whoever aspires today to do anything great need only come to Prague, to the greatest patron of the contemporary world, the Emperor Rudolf II’.

Baroque architecture gave Prague her distinctive city skyline. Linked with the counter reformation, Baroque art and architecture was an evolution of all man’s artistic capabilities after the Renaissance. Even the style of Baroque reflects this struggle for freedom as it liberates itself from the rules and prescriptions of the Renaissance, creating a unity of space – earning it the title ‘harmonious architecture’.

New rulers commissioned new palaces and in 1679 Troja Castle was built. It shows a stunning collaboration between sculptor and artist. The statues on the main staircase outside the Castle lead to a magnificent mural in the main hall.

This mural, commissioned under Hapsburg rule is a tribute to Leopold’s victory over the Turks and their conversion to Catholicism. In reality, victory goes to beauty and artistic achievement. Painted by the Italian Marchetti, he was the first to use ‘trompe l’oeil’ techniques. We see the themes of reality and appearance, power and weakness, spiritual freedom and religious repression which were frequently explored in Baroque art. On this elaborate backdrop ‘life’ was seen ‘as a play’.

The Klementinium, built in 1722 by Kilan Ignatius Dientzenhofer, is a beautiful group of buildings which houses the Baroque library. Within the library are paintings by Jan Hiebl. They exquisitely portray the temple of wisdom with light pouring in from the heavens, enlightening the arts and sciences. What is revered here is a great sense of awe, the feeling that man is searching for the knowledge of the universe, kept secret in ancient scriptures, locked away in science and hidden in the stars.

Located in the noblemen’s suburb of the New Quarter, the Church of St Nicholas dominates the surrounding landscape. It embodies the Baroque ‘spirit’ by using the art of illusion to create three dimensional space. This can be seen in the circular domes which seem to be open topped with the sky passing by and angels watching from above. Again it is an expression of enlightened creativity at a time of external enforced spiritual repression.

Mozart had a great affinity with Prague, visiting it on several occasions. He said ‘The people of Prague, they understand me’. He was greatly loved and appreciated by the people who paid homage to his unique gift. While here he composed “Don Giovanni” which he conducted for the first time at the Estates theatre in 1787.

Unlike the rich depth of Baroque architecture, classicism was much weaker and reduced to superficial decoration. Buildings were seen as expressions of economic and cultural might. There was a resurgence in National pride and this was reflected in the architecture of the day. The Bank of Commerce and Tradesmen, built in 1894 has a very grand staircase leading to the transaction area, with statues from the various regions of Bohemia surrounding the area, and it is characterised by naturalism reminiscent of folk art.

The National Museum was erected for the ‘Glory of the Czech nation’. Built in the late 1800s the lines are temple like, with clear defined spaces suggesting the ‘Golden age’ of Greek culture, expressing the lightness of being.

The 3rd golden age of Prague architecture reached a peak with Art Nouveau. Again east met west as a rich cultural life was marked by intense political activity, becoming increasingly open to international trends and mounting dangers.

The Municipal House was officially opened in 1912 to serve as a center for Czech official and social undertakings. It is a building unique in its architectural harmony and painting styles. Created by leading Czech artists like Alfons Mucha, many statues represent historical and cultural symbols like poetry, science, philosophy, commerce and industry. Its ‘spirit’ is a focal point for Czech culture. The words outside the main entrance say ‘Hail to you Prague! Brave the time and malice as you have resisted all the storms throughout the ages’.

Buildings such as the Hotel Europa built in 1903 and the main train station, built between 1900 and 1909 symbolised Prague’s transformation into a ‘modern metropolis’. While the magnificent Jubilee Synagogue captures a revival in the Moorish style using Art Nouveau principles. Its rich decorations and symmetrical patterns is a perfect synergy of east and west.

Franz Kafka was born in 1883. It was a short life but an intense one. The world acknowledges him as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. Taking inspiration from the small and cramped streets of Prague that he knew so well, Kafka explored the universal themes of mans eternal search for the human soul and the existence of God. Books such as ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Castle’ explore the desperation of humanity in his seeking, like a child lost in the wilderness. Kafka attended Prague university in 1906 and while there became a member of the literary group. Here he met a professor at the University, Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein interested Kafka when he started to talk about ‘Nationalism’ – saying how it brought out the worst in human beings, setting the citizens of one country against those of all other countries. Einstein said ‘Patriotism is a shrine that a man keeps in his house. The state to which I belong as a citizen does not play the least role in my spiritual life’. This struck a chord with Kafka.

By the late 1930s Czechoslovakia’s political situation had become extremely difficult. The German invasion of March 1939 precipitated the second world war. Even here Czechoslovakia played a vital role in the development and shaping of modern Europe. Today Prague has finally won its freedom. Although politically stifled and cut off, this enforced isolation allowed the ‘spirit’ of Prague to remain intact. This manifested itself during the revolution that opened the way to freedom in 1989. Revolutions are usually marked by bloodshed. The November revolution which was called the ‘Velvet Revolution’ was a unified show by the people that they would no longer suffer under repression. In the true ‘spirit’ of enlightenment, they fought their battle by protest, postering and passive resistance.

Foreign visitors are struck by the beauty that is Prague. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once compared it to a ‘rich, vast epic poem of architecture.’ If this poem is dedicated to anyone it is dedicated to the glory of the divine and mans ability to express this glory.

There can be no one who leaves Prague without the realisation that it is the home of a culture at once ancient, rich and original and of great importance to us in the west. This importance lies in the intrinsic beauty of the architecture. A beauty which stills the mind, ignites the heart and soothes the soul. Only here where all that is creative is enlightened do we experience the beauty and potential of humanity as a spiritual, integrated and harmonious being.

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