National Museum Diary

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I was introduced to Prague’s National Museum during July of 1991, when, for the first time, I saw objects and attire from World War II on exhibit there. I couldn’t believe that I was actually looking at real Nazi uniforms and authentic items from the horrific era of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a period I had only read about in books while growing up in the USA. The exhibition made me even more aware of what a nightmarish time of oppression and terror it had been. I had never felt so close to history before that trip to Prague. It was an unforgettable experience for me, as were many moments during that first foray to one of the lands of my ancestors. By the time I moved to Prague in September of that year, the exhibition was gone. I occasionally visited the museum after that, but nothing there would influence me that strongly.

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Fast forward to late October of 2018, when the National Museum reopened after seven years of reconstruction. The once grimy façade of the Neo-Renaissance gem now looked squeaky clean. Inside the most significant scientific and cultural institution in Bohemia was an exhibition about Czechs and Slovaks during the 100 years of existence since Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918. Right now, though, I am going to write about what I saw in the building itself as I savored the beauty of the sculpture, painting and architecture of the interior.

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First, it is necessary to have some background about the museum in order to appreciate it fully. The year 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of its founding, as Kašpar Maria Šternberg and other prominent Czechs established the institution in 1818. During the 19th century, the museum became a symbol for Czech nationalism. At the time, Czechs were experiencing an era of Germanization with the Habsburg rulers at the helm. The Journal of the Bohemian Museum published there in Czech had a profound influence on Czech literature.

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The current building was erected from 1885 to 1891 thanks to architect Josef Schulz. The edifice survived World War II but not without damage. The items normally housed in the museum had been transferred to another location, fortunately. Still, that wouldn’t be the last time the National Museum became a victim of historical events. When the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Prague in August of 1968, the Soviets shot at the museum, riddling it with bullet holes. The Russians also destroyed some sculptures, for instance. During 1969, university student Jan Palach set fire to himself as a protest against the rigid normalization period in front of the museum. He would succumb to his injuries in the hospital. The National Museum was also damaged during the construction of the Prague Metro in 1972. Six years later a large highway around the museum would prove a detriment.

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The museum has served as a backdrop for many demonstrations and events throughout Czech history. I recalled the museum looming in the background as I walked around the State of Saint Wenceslas in December of 2011, observing all the candles and tributes to former dissident-turned-president Václav Havel shortly after his death. I had set a rose in front of the statue. Thinking back, I missed those days when Havel had been in the Castle.

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The exterior of the National Museum that dominates Wenceslas Square is noteworthy. Sandstone statues, stucco and exquisite reliefs all add to its elegance and distinction. Allegorical statues are situated above a fountain, for example. The building consists of a large central tower with a dome and a lantern. There are four domes. A pantheon is located beneath the main dome. The exterior staircase is grandiose, too. In front of the museum, there is a splendid view of Wenceslas Square.

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The moment I stepped inside the museum I was again entranced with its elegance. The entrance hall consisted of a monumental staircase fit for royalty with a coffered ceiling and 20 tall columns of red Swedish granite. Above are two floors with decorated arcades and beautiful floors. Upstairs I saw portraits of rulers of Bohemia and four paintings of significant castles in Bohemia – Prague Castle, Karlštejn, Zvíkov and Křivoklát. I loved spending my spring and summer weekends castle-hopping. I remember the many strolls I took to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge many early mornings when I first moved to Prague and resided in the center. The chapel at Karlštejn Castle was one of the most beautiful sights in a castle interior. I also spent time admiring the 12 depictions of historical places in Bohemia, such as that of Český Krumlov, the most picturesque town in the country after Prague with its castle boasting three tours and Baroque theatre as well as extensive castle garden. Bronze busts rounded out the decoration.

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The pantheon is perhaps my favorite section of the museum because it celebrates Czech history and culture, two subjects dear to my heart. The paintings, statues and busts serve as poignant reminders of the nation’s cultural accomplishments and historical contributions. Even the door of the pantheon is magnificent with its rich woodcarving. In the pantheon I found statues of Czech historical figures who have made me excited about the nation’s history – František Palacký, a 19th century historian, politician and writer dubbed The Father of the Nation. His seven-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia remains a significant source of information for modern day historians. He also was a major participant in the Czech National Revival.

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Jan Amos Comenius’s likeness was there, too. He was a religious and educational reformer who authored textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries as well as one of the most important works of Czech literature, The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart. The statue of Antonín Dvořák made me think of his New World Symphony, which I saw the Czech Philharmonic perform in an awe-inspiring concert. Karel Čapek’s statue brought to mind my graduate studies that in part focused on his plethora of works of various genres. The paintings in the chamber are also extraordinary. One of the lunettes that celebrates Czech history in the pantheon shows the founding of Prague University, now Charles University, in 1348 with Emperor Charles IV playing the central role.

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The statue of first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk has an intriguing history. It was removed during World War II and slated to be melted, but somehow survived a tenure in a junkyard and was reinstalled after the war. During the Stalinist 1950s, the government wasn’t exactly enthralled with Masaryk, so his statue was placed in the depository. When the liberal reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring were in full swing, the statue of Masaryk was reinstated in the pantheon. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Masaryk’s likeness remained there, even though the Communists did not put him in a favorable light. If I could live in another time period, I would choose the 1920s of Czechoslovakia, when the country was freshly on a democratic path with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk leading the way.

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Once again, the building cast a magical spell on me as I felt overwhelmed by the painting and sculptural decoration. Both the exterior and interior were filled with a sense of grandeur and splendor that made me reluctant to leave.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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View of Wenceslas Square from the National Museum

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Zlatá Koruna Monastery

 

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I traveled by a very comfortable train to the monastery of Zlatá Koruna (“The Golden Crown”) one summer morning. When I got off the train, I almost panicked. I was in the middle of nowhere. Soon, though, I got my bearings, found the village and made my way to my destination. The monastery is situated only six kilometers from the historical, romantic town of Český Krumlov, in a picturesque setting next to the Vltava River.

The monastery of Zlatá Koruna was founded by King Otakar II of the Přemyslid dynasty in 1263 for the Cistercian Order. Legend has it that King Otakar II promised to establish a monastery and dedicate it to the Virgin Mary if he won the Battle of Kressenbrunn in 1260. Though burned down by the Hussites during the Hussite Wars in 1420, the monastery was reconstructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Zlatá Koruna suffered again, though, when, at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, it housed various factories.

It looks nothing like a factory now, I thought to myself as the tour of the three-aisled basilica, big and small convent buildings and chapel began.

The elaborate Rococo stucco décor and exquisite Rococo wall paintings throughout the monastery astounded me. I was impressed by the refectory, the former monastery dining room, which housed three early Baroque frescoes dating from 1685. The painting at the door of the refectory showed prophet Habakkuk with an angel. The middle fresco took up the Holy Trinity theme. Another fresco was devoted to Hagar with his son Ishmael and an angel. The entranceway to the refectory was decorated by a huge canvas that told the story of Josef in Egypt.

The Chapel of Guardian Angels was the oldest preserved part of this monastery, dating back to the late 13th century and, I soon realized, a gem of early Gothic architecture in the Czech lands. In 1763 painter František Prokyš adorned it with beautiful Rococo frescoes.

The Chapter Hall, built in 13th century Gothic style, featured Rococo paintings depicting religious allegories. In the Cruciform Passage area of the Big Convent, my eyes were drawn to the rich Rococo stucco decoration and stunning frescoes by Lukáš Plank. These works illustrated scenes from the history of the Cistercian Order, the guide told our group.

The Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary was also dominated by stucco ornamentation. The main altar dated from the late 18th century and was adorned with sculptures by Jakub Eberle. I did not miss the High Gothic rose window in the transept, either.

Other sights that enthralled me included the epitaph of Přemysl Otakar II.  An empty coffin was opened by the God Saturn, Pallas Athena standing at his side. Designed circa 1772 by Jakub Eberle, the epitaph showed off a black coffin surrounded by rich sculptural ornamentation and dynamic, twisting figures as well as white and gold decoration.

During the 1700s the monastery served as a school for children, and part of the tour highlighted teaching aids in the form of small pictures depicting significant personalities from Czech history. Other pictorial learning tools included pictures of a carpenter’s workshop and a blacksmith’s workshop, for instance. An exhibition about literature in southern Bohemia rounded out the tour. A Czech literature enthusiast, I was enthralled with the displays.

Afterwards, I took a walk across the bridge to the other side of the Vltava and relaxed on the embankment. I thought about many things – happy and sad moments, failures and successes – as I gazed at the monastery from the opposite embankment. It was a sunny summer day, the perfect weather for traveling. I watched many people canoe down the gentle river. Before long, though, it was time to get lunch and then head for the small shack that served as a train station. While waiting for my train back to Prague, I stared at the monastery in the distance. Then I boarded the train, and the monastery disappeared from sight. View from Zlata Koruna

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor living in Prague.

Vyšší Brod Monastery Diary

Vyssi Brod MonasteryWhile staying in the picturesque southern Bohemian town of Český Krumlov, I took a day trip to the nearby Cistercian monastery Vyšší Brod, located in the town by the same name and nestled in the Šumava mountains region. Now once again the property of the Cistercian Order, the monastery, founded in 1259 and built over a period of 100 years, still retains a Gothic appearance with features of both Early and Late Gothic architecture, as I noticed upon my arrival.

 

First, I stepped into the church itself and especially took note of the high altar and the side altar of the Virgin Mary. Built from 1644 to 1646, the Early Baroque high altar is made of brown gilded wood. I loved how it was adorned with statues, such as those of Saint Eugene the Pope and Saint Bernard. A sculpture of the Crowning of the Virgin Mary and another of the Holy Trinity also impressed me.

 

The side altar of the Virgin Mary boasted a valuable panel painting of the Madonna of Vyšší Brod by the Master of Vyšší Brod sometime after 1400. Set against a golden background, the blond Mother of God cradled a naked baby Jesus while angels hovered above her and saints posed at the sides.

 

Then there were the abbots’ tombstones, some in Mannerist style and others from the Baroque era I also saw the wood inlaid and gilded choir studded with Baroque statues of various saints. A glance upwards and I was looking at exquisite Gothic stained glass windows decorated with themes from the lives of saints.

 

An art lover, I was enthusiastic to see the monastery’s art collection. Mostly Gothic and Baroque, it featured many Dutch and Flemish works (yes!) as well as Baroque creations by Czech artists such as Petr Brandl (one of the Baroque painters I hold dearest!). Baroque seascapes and landscapes by Norbert Grund and František Xavier Palko’s rendition of the 12 apostles and a portrait by Czech master Jan Kupecký were among the dazzling canvases in the exhibition. I especially liked Grund’s landscapes.

 

Soon it was time to visit the library, which held 70,000 volumes, making it the third largest Czech monastic library. Only Strahov and Teplá boasted more books. I set my eyes on Rococo bookcases dating from 1756. Works from 1500 to 1800 made up part of the collection, though some pieces dated as far back as the 13th century. A five-volume Latin Bible also caught my attention. It hailed from the early 14th century. Chants of the Cistercian Order were written at the turn of the 15th century.

 

VyssiBrod1Then our group came to the Library Corridor, which is home to 19th century and early 20th century collections written mostly in Latin and German. We moved on to the Philosophical Hall where books about such subjects as math, biology, and chemistry as well as German dictionaries are stored. The astounding fresco on the ceiling was the work of Lukáš Vávra. Latin quotations by Saint Bernard promoting education could be seen above the windows. In the center of the room I was blown away by a detailed map of the Czech lands that featured even the tiniest villages from the 1600s. I was awed by the attention to detail.

 

The Theological Hall was best known for keeping one of the largest collections of bibles in Central Europe, and the holy books in the collection come in 40 languages. Can you believe it? The white pigskin bindings hailed from the middle of the 18th century. Another fresco by Vávra adorned the ceiling, this one showing a 12-year old Jesus in a temple. The guide pointed out something intriguing about the painting. If you look closely, you notice that some of the things featured in the fresco didn’t exist when Jesus was alive. For example, one man donned glasses, another held a book, and there was glass in a window. The style of clothing and the architecture were also ahead of their time. Then the tour ended.

 

On the main square in the town, only steps away from the monastery, I found a restaurant in a hotel where I was able to have my favorite chicken with peaches and cheese. Then I stood across the street, waiting for the bus back to Český Krumlov, but it seemed that I had the wrong information. It would be another two hours before a bus came along, according to the schedule at the stop. I spent another hour in the restaurant, downing Viennese-style coffee and glasses of nonsparkling water and then stood at the bus stop for a while on that nice, though crisp, day. I let my mind wander and just succumbed to the feeling of happiness that overwhelmed me.

 Tracy A. Burns is a proofreader, writer and editor in Prague.

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