City Museum of Prague Diary

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I had wanted to visit the City Museum of Prague again for some time, but I had just not gotten around to it. I remembered how the intriguing museum took visitors through the joys and disappointments of Czech history. This time, I went to see a temporary exhibition about Prague during the 20-year existence of the democratic First Republic, but, of course, I explored the entire museum as well.

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It was even more impressive than I had remembered. In the main hallway, I saw the calendar dial for Old Town’s Astronomical Clock, painted in 1865 by well-acclaimed Czech artist Josef Mánes. The dial was divided into circular rings. I took notice of the medieval syllable calendar. The folk costume-clad figures represented the 12 months, celebrating Slavic identity. I recognized Troský Castle in the background for September, and I knew that December symbolized the tradition of Czech pig-slaughtering, a custom the European Union did not approve of. A castle addict, I was excited to see Bezděz Castle in the background of the portrayal of March as a young farmer did his ploughing duties in the foreground. I remembered walking 4 kilometers from the train station to the ruins of Bezděz. It had entailed two kilometers of a steep, rocky incline that led to the remnants of what must have been at one time an impressive castle. I liked walking around the ruins, several pages that described each part in my hand, trying to imagine what it had looked like in its heyday. I wasn’t a big fan of ruins, but this one had charmed me.

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Mánes had also painted figures as zodiac signs. I saw dolphins with a plump cherub for Pisces. Sagittarius featured an Old Bohemian warrior while the depiction of Capricorn did not include any human figures but rather a cherub guiding a goat.

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I also noticed that Romanesque elements had greatly influenced the adornment on the dial. I recalled the Romanesque church in Regensburg, Germany, the façade an architectural delight. I had also seen many churches with Romanesque features in Czech villages. At the ruins of Vyšehrad Castle in Prague, St. Martin’s rotunda fit the Romanesque style.

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I walked into the prehistory section, not knowing if I would find it interesting as prehistory was not my cup of tea. I discovered that the first archeological find in Prague was unearthed near St. Matthew’s Church in Prague’s sixth district, a nice walk from where I had lived for many years. The small church had an intimate flair, and if I had been religious, I would have gone there for services. I would also like to be buried there. It is a relatively small and beautiful cemetery in my favorite section of Prague, but I do not think that would be possible. The cemetery is home to some famous Czech artists – architect Pavel Janák and actor Jiří Kemr.

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I also learned that the first farmers in Central Bohemia came in 6 BC. Another interesting fact was that the Celts, in the second half of 1 BC, were the first people to wear trousers in Central Europe.

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The medieval displays were eye-catching. Frescoes and wall paintings from Prague houses were highlighted. I read that Prague’s boroughs were created in the 13th and 14th centuries when a medieval fortress had been built. I already knew the Old Town was founded by King Wenceslas I during the 1230s. I read about the origins of the various districts of Prague. A statue that got my attention showed Christ in agony, hailing from 1413 and made of linden wood. Ceramic stove tiles showed pictures of Hussite soldiers from the 15th century, when the Hussite wars ravaged the Czech lands.

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Rudolf II’s Prague was also featured in the museum section that documented Prague from 1434 to 1620. Artists had flocked to Prague, which had made a name for itself as a center of European Mannerism. Rudolf II’s collection of art and curiosities was certainly impressive. An art gallery at Prague Castle displayed much art that had been attained during his reign. I had also seen many of Rudolf II’s curiosities in the Kunsthammer in Vienna.

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Of course, the Thirty Years’ War was given much attention, as the Catholic victory over the Protestants would greatly influence Prague and Czech history for hundreds of years. Before the war, there were many Ultraquists in Prague society. The defining battle for the Czech lands was at White Mountain in Prague during 1620. The townspeople of Prague were not happy with the then current legal, economic and political roles of towns and took part in this battle. During the war, the Saxons occupied Prague, and the Swedes pillaged and bombed the New Town in Prague.

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I remembered living near the Vltava embankment in the pleasant New Town. I tried to imagine the damage and destruction that those bombs had brought to the quarter. It must have been a devastating sight. Prague became part of a province after the war, and Baroque art and architecture became the fashion. In 1624 Catholicism became the only religion allowed in the Czech lands. During the Baroque period, Czech artists including the Dientzenhofer family of architects, sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun as well as painters Karel Škréta, Petr Brandl and Norbert Grund made their way to Prague in 1710 and had a great influence on the art in the city.

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The reign of the Habsburgs brought with it a long period of Germanization and a centralized monarchy that dominated the 18th century. Some of the exhibits on display from this century were intriguing, to say the least. A table clock took on a macabre character, featuring a skeleton wielding a scythe. There was also a wooden throne from St. Vitus Cathedral, made in the second half of the 17th century. A glass garden with musicians and nobles was another impressive creation.

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Then Prague experienced peace for 100 years. The exhibition ended with the Baroque section, but there was more to the museum, specifically Antonín Langweil’s model of Prague, constructed from 1826 to 1837. He had worked in the University Library at the Clementinum when he was not creating this amazing three-dimensional model of the city. The precision and detail left me in awe. He did not finish the project, but what he did create is astoundingly beautiful and innovative. I saw many sights I had first become acquainted with when I was a tourist in the city during the summer of 1991 – Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge and the Lesser Quarter’s main square as well as the Old Town, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

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I recalled walking to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge early each morning when I first moved to Prague and lived in the Old Town. I would never forget standing below the balcony of Prague Castle on a frigid February evening in 1994 while Václav Havel gave a speech as the first President of the newly created Czech Republic, his wife Olga by his side. I recalled the moment I had set my eyes on Old Town Square for the first time, back in 1991, feeling at once that I had found my true home.

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What I found just as impressive as the exhibits were the richly adorned coffered ceilings in the museum. The painting is incredible. One used to be in a house in Prague and hails from the 17th century. On walls of the upper floor is a magnificent painting of the city.

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While I already had a solid foundation in Czech and Prague history before this visit, I realized how important this museum would be as a learning experience for tourists who really wanted to become acquainted with the historical events that had shaped the city’s identity through the Baroque era.

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It was such a shame that the displays ended with the Baroque era, but there was no more space in the museum. I thought that a museum of more recent history should be created with a special room celebrating Václav Havel as a dissident, playwright and president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

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Walking through this museum, I was moved by the lands’ often tumultuous history and reminded how the history of the city seeps into my soul every day, no matter where I am. Just looking around me, I feel the history, which is one of the traits I like most about Prague. It is one reason I feel at home here and don’t want to leave.

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

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2018 Travel Diary

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A building in Rovereto, one of my favorite places I discovered this past year

For me 2018 will always be associated with Palladian villas and the Veneto region of Italy, the excitement of Berlin and remarkable Czech sights. I also visited some unforgettable art exhibitions in Prague and elsewhere in Europe.

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Basilicata Palladiana, Vicenza

During March I traveled with a friend via the arsviva agency to the Veneto to see Palladian sights and other architectural gems in Vicenza, Padua and Rovereto. The three cities were fascinating, each with its own unique character. I was especially drawn to Vicenza for the Teatro Olimpico, Palazzo Leoni Montanari and Palazzo Chiericati. Of course, I admired the elegant arches and arcades of the Basilicata Palladiana.

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The highlight of my tour of Palladian architecture was the Teatro Olimpico, one of only three Renaissance theatres in existence. Palladio’s plan was based on classical architecture. I most admired the illusive architecture in the set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, which featured painting with a false perspective. It looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage into the horizon. Also, it was difficult to fathom that the clear sky was really painted. The illusion seemed so real.

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A Russian icon in the Gallerie d’Italia

I cherished my time in the galleries of Vicenza. The Gallerie d’Italia was decorated with rich statuary, stucco ornamentation and frescoes. It houses 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century sculpture made of Carrara marble and vases from Attica and Magna Graecia. However, the highlight of the gallery for me was its superb collection of Russian icons. I had only seen more intriguing collections in St. Petersburg.

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The interior of the Civic Museum

The Civic Museum in the Chiericati Palace also caught my undivided attention. The palace itself was a work of art, designed by Palladio in 1550 with frescoes and stucco adornment decorating the interior. The art spanning from the 1200s to the 20th century was incredible.

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Villa Rotunda – no pictures allowed inside

I also saw some Palladian villas, including La Rotunda, which inspired Thomas Jefferson in his design of his home at Monticello. The exterior’s appearance is that of an antique villa. The geometric design connects the sloping portico roofs with the ribs of the dome. The geometric interior was planned for comfort and beautiful views. The rooms are organized around a central hall with a dome. The villa has three floors and a mezzanine.

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Basilica of San Antonio or Basilica del Santo – no photos allowed inside

In Padua I gazed in wonder at the Basilica of Saint Antonio, which is huge with eight cupolas. The interior has a Latin cross pattern with three naves separated by pilasters. The various chapels were outstanding. The Chapel of Saint Giacomo, hails from the 14th century with six columns of red marble included in the décor. The work, “The Crucifixion” is divided into three parts on the walls. Pictures on lunettes narrate the life of Saint Giacomo the Great.

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Basilica of San Antonio, Padua

The main altar of the basilica was created by Donatello. The pictorial narration of the altar includes four miracles of Saint Antonio, sculpture of the Crucifixion, Madonna with Child and the figure of Saint Antonio, for example. The Chapel of the Saint includes the tomb of Saint Antonio. On the walls are nine reliefs of marble figures recalling miracles performed by Saint Antonio. There was so much to see, a person would need a few days to do this place of worship justice.

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Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

I also was enthralled with the Scrovegni Chapel, which featured amazing 14th century frescoes by Giotto di Bondone. Thirty-eight panels of frescoes cover three walls on three levels. I was flabbergasted, staring at each fresco in a trance.

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From the Depero Futurist House of Art, by Fortunato Depero

I was very impressed with Rovereto, a picturesque town below the Dolomites. Its charming, narrow streets and squares cast a magic spell on me. I visited the Depero Futurist House of Art, the only Futurist museum in Italy, featuring the works of Fortunato Depero, a painter, sculptor, writer and graphic designer. I learned that Futurism rejected the past and celebrated modernity as well as technological advances. The museum included furniture, painting, tapestries, cloth material, drawings, collages, posters, toys and a film. I loved the vibrant colors of many of the works.

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Nowadays school children hang out or wait for tours at the Berlin Wall remnants

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Glazed dome of Reichstag

In May I spent five days in Berlin, a city I had not visited since 1991 except for a one-day visit to the Gemaldegalerie several years earlier. The East had undergone radical changes since then, to say the least. Most of the Wall is gone. The former Communist section of the city is lively with bars and restaurants and includes most of the main sights. Now a Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks greet visitors past the Brandenberg Gate. Back in 1991, the difference between East and West Berlin was almost tangible, the East being gray, depressing and drab.

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Gemaldegalerie

Once again I inspected the art ranging from medieval days to Neoclassicism in the Gemaldegalerie. I was very moved by the 220 meters of original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Berlin’s Cathedral impressed me a great deal with the eight mosaics decorating its dome. I had a tour of the Reichstag’s glazed dome, a superb structure of modern architecture soaring 47 meters. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe greatly moved me with its 2,711 concrete blocks of equal size but different heights. The DDR Museum with its multimedia exhibits gave me an idea of what life was like for East Germans under Communism. The Old National Gallery bewitched me with its 19th century art collection, and the temporary exhibition Wanderlust featured 19th century landscapes with travelers on foot. I particularly liked the pictorial renditions of Naples and places in Sicily. I saw the Ishtar Gate and a building from Aleppo in the Pergamon Museum, for instance. The Museum of Decorative Arts was a treasure, too, with amazing exhibits in fashion, design and object art from the Middle Ages through Art Deco.

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Plague mask worn by doctors in the German Historical Museum

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Pictures of concentration camp prisoners

What impressed me the most was the German Historical Museum, where I spent a good part of two days. Encompassing 2,000 years of German history, the museum takes the visitor from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994 by presenting historical facts, personalities and events and by portraying everyday life in the various eras. I especially liked the plague mask worn by doctors treating patients with this disease. Made of leather, it had a long beak and looked as if it belonged in a commedia dell’arte play. The section about World War II was especially gripping. The Germans were certainly facing that horrific part of their past head-on in this museum.

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Troja Chateau from Prague’s Botanical Gardens

When my parents visited, we toured the dazzling Rudolfinum with its beautiful Dvořák concert hall. President Tomáš G. Masaryk was elected in that building on three occasions, when Parliament had met there during the First Republic. I visited the lovely and vast Botanical Gardens in Troja, examining the southern part and the greenhouse. The views of Troja Chateau from the gardens were unbeatable.

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Prague’s National Museum restored

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Painting of Karlštejn Castle in National Museum

Shortly after it reopened after a seven-year renovation, I spent time in the National Museum of Prague. The exhibition about Czech and Slovak relations during the past 100 years and life under Communism was outstanding. The permanent display also was captivating, but the place was so crowded. A Neo-Renaissance gem, the National Museum features amazing sculpture, painting and architectural elements. I especially liked the pantheon, where paintings, statues and busts celebrate Czech culture and history. The four paintings of castles in Bohemia impressed this avid castlegoer. I also explored the Hanspaulka, Ořechovka and Baba sections of Prague with their distinctive villas.

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Gothic archway in Horšovský Týn Castle

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From Horšovský Týn Chateau

Out of Prague I made my way back to Osek Monastery below the Krušné Mountains, established in the 13th century. The Chapter Hall was one of the first Gothic buildings erected in the Czech lands while the interior of the church takes on a Baroque appearance. Hořovice Chateau is much younger, hailing from the late 17th century. The Late Baroque décor includes a fantastic ceiling fresco in the hall of the main staircase. The Large Dining Hall amazes with Second Rococo adornment. Horšovský Týn Castle and Chateau offers six tours; we had time for two. Established in the 13th century, it includes an 18th century pool table with its sides decorated in tortoiseshell and intarsia. A Rococo jewel case and Holland Rococo display case caught my attention, too. The Italian vedutas of Venice made me long for that Italian city. The 18th century Dancing Hall features four big wall mirrors and a 28-branch chandelier made of Czech glass. Ceiling frescoes also captured my interest. However, the original Gothic portal at the entrance to the chapel was the most outstanding architectural feature. The chapel was magical, too. Velké Březno, one of the youngest and smallest chateaus in the Czech lands, also amazed.

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Ceiling fresco at Hořovice Chateau

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Velké Březno Chateau interior

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Velké Březno Chateau exterior

I also spent time in museums this past year. In Vienna I saw the excellent Monet exhibition as well as the Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibition. Both captivated me. In Prague the exhibition showcasing the various collages of Jiří Kolář was an art highlight. The exhibition about Czech and Czechoslovak history in the Riding School of Prague Castle was unforgettable. There were many more art-related highlights, but I do not have time to mention them all.

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Collage by Jiří Kolář

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Prague Castle Riding School exhibition

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From Czechoslovak Exhibition at National Museum, cash register from beginning of 20th century

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

 

 

 

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

Jiří Kolář Exhibition Diary

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I recently saw an exhibition of artist Jiří Kolář’s breathtaking collages and other works at the Kinský Palace in downtown Prague and was very moved by Kolář’s emphasis on freedom, personal expression and democracy. Many of his works were created when Czechoslovakia was oppressed during the totalitarian regime. His 66 political collages from 1968, after the Russians sent in the Warsaw Pact tanks to crush the liberal reforms of what was called “Prague Spring,” poignantly show how the Soviets had strangled Czechoslovakia in what would lead to an era of normalization, which encompassed rigid totalitarian reforms. Kolář confronts viewers and challenges their perceptions by often combining images that do not necessarily seem to correlate. He distorts and destroys images, expressing the cruelty of the Communist era and the longing for democratic ideals.

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Born in 1914 in the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire that enforced Germanization, Kolář witnessed the establishment of a democratic Czechoslovakia at the age of four. While he took up cabinet making initially, he would go on to become one of the most significant poets, writers, painters and translators. Even an injury that resulted in him losing a finger did not stop him from making a difference on Czechoslovakia’s literary and art scene. For a while, he took on odd jobs, working as a construction worker, butcher, waiter, security guard and bartender, for example.

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The country was introduced to his collages as early as 1937. During 1942, he joined the Group 42 existentialist artists that greatly influenced Czechoslovak culture. It was not until 1943 that he started to devote all his time to writing and, soon after, to editing as well. His brief stint in the Communist Party, during 1945, lasted less than a year.

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Certainly, the Communist regime was far from kind to him. When the Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in 1948, Kolář became a banned author. While he was not allowed to publish, he scribed poetic diaries and authored manuscripts such as Prometheus’ Liver and Aesop from Vršovice. In the early 1950s, he was even imprisoned for nine months after the authorities found at his home a samizdat work written by a fellow dissident.

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During the 1960s, he took up experimental poetry, writing literary collages, and was one of the most influential artists to frequent the Café Slavia in Prague, where he met a young Václav Havel and others who voiced opposition to the Communist regime. His work was seen abroad during the 1960s, too. Some of his collages from this time included items that seemed misplaced, such as string, keys and shavers. He also started placing apples in his collages and designing apples of various sizes in various colors. The apples might symbolize temptation and the fact that all fruit looks similar, a powerful reminder of mass society in the modern world.

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Kolář experimented with various techniques of collage, even using textile and paper in his works. It was also during that decade that he mixed poetry with painting, finding a powerful and provocative voice by using both forms of expression that combined visual and literary art in a masterful way. He made collages of pictures he cut out of magazines and utilized excerpts of texts that epitomized the fragmentation of his country and the world. By doing so, he created new thought-provoking images.

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Even after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia during 1968, he continued to support freedom and democracy despite the rigid era of normalization that followed. He even signed Charter 77, a document drafted by dissidents, calling for human rights in Czechoslovakia. The Communist regime made sure there were severe repercussions for anyone brave enough to put their John Hancock on the proclamation.

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The Communist authorities forced him to emigrate, not allowing him back in his homeland after a stint in West Berlin. From 1980, he resided in Paris, though his Czech wife was not permitted to visit him there until five years later. He obtained French citizenship in 1984.

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After the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist regime, he visited Prague often. When he became severely ill in 1998, he moved back to Prague and even had to relearn how to walk. At the age of 88, in 2002, he succumbed to the spinal injury that had kept him hospitalized for the last years of his life.

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Kolář’s creations have entranced me for decades. I was introduced to his work in the early 1990s. I admire his direct confrontation with the viewer. He combines images that I would have never thought could be grouped together, challenging my view of the world. His messages often deal with harsh reality, but he also yearns for personal and national freedom.

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

Osek Monastery Diary

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Note: No photos were allowed inside

I traveled to the picturesque region below the Krušné Mountains to see Osek Monastery in 2018. It was my second visit in eight years. I remembered shivering with cold as I wore my rather thin jacket during that first visit, probably in October of 2010. Feeling partially frozen, I waited patiently for the bus back to Prague after a wonderful tour. I had enjoyed my time there immensely, but what I remember most is the cold that seeped through my garments.

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It was July when I came back for another look at the Cistercian monastery that was founded in the early 13th century, though monks had called the area home even at the end of the 12th century. This time, I arrived by car with a friend.

The Church of Our Lady at the monastery was a Romanesque creation, built as a three-aisled basilica in the shape of a Latin cross. The chapels and choir are rectangular. Measuring 76 meters long, during Romanesque days it was the biggest monasterial church in Bohemia.

The monastery was damaged during the Hussite wars of the 15th century during two years. The Hussites detested the Cistercians because, among other reasons, they were the wealthiest order in the Czech lands. The Thirty Years’ War brought devastation to the holy place. From 1580 to 1628, the monastery was closed.

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In the early 18th century, the Abbot Benedict Littweig ordered Baroque reconstruction. Two cupolas, the façade, sculptural ornamentation and the main altar all hail from that time period. The main architect of the makeover was an Italian born in Bohemia, Octavian Broggio from the Litoměřice region. He favored radical Baroque style and had experience working in Prague and in the area where he was born.

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During 1945 and 1946, the German monks who were living there were resettled in Germany for a while, and during 1961, they were sent to Germany again. At one point, the Salesians lived there, but the order was closed in 1950. The year 1950 would be the beginning of dreadful times. From 1950 to 1953, the monastery was used a detention center for priests. After that, it became a detention center for nuns. The Cistercian monks reclaimed the property in 1991 and left in 2010, when Abbot Bernard Thebej, who had overseen the monastery from 1991, died.

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I waited for the tour as I gazed at the Baroque façade with a superb portico. Saints John, Mark, Luke and Matouš faced me. I saw Saints Peter and Paul above them. I thought of the other Cistercian monasteries I had visited. In south Bohemia, I had seen both Vyšší Brod and Zlatá Koruna. At Vyšší Brod, I was most enamored by the library of 70,000 volumes, the third Czech monastic library. The Theological Hall with one of the largest collections of Bibles in Central Europe had also captivated me. I recalled the elaborate Rococo stucco decoration and numerous Rococo wall paintings at Zlatá Koruna as well as the early Gothic Chapel of Guardian Angels. Near Kutná Hora, not far from Prague, Sedlec Monastery had amazed me with its Santini-created Baroque Gothic style interior and paintings by Baroque master Petr Brandl. Plasy in west Bohemia also came to mind. Santini had done his magic there as well, and the Baroque pharmacy had such superbly painted drawers. I had toured Plasy at least three times. I had been impressed by Velehrad in Moravia, but I had been there so many, too many, years ago.

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The guide took us inside. The superb interior was pure Baroque with much stucco ornamentation. I was particularly drawn to one side altar because of its extremely morbid character. The altar featured Christ on the Cross, flanked by two angels, but the ornamentation made it feel creepy. It was adorned with figures of skulls and bones in Classicist style. At the foot of the Cross, there was a golden skull. I recalled the Cycle of Death murals at Kuks, a former hospital in splendid Baroque style. I had visited it on several occasions, so I was well-versed with the Baroque obsession for skeletons, skulls and bones. At the altar, there was a reliquary with remnants of Saint John the Baptist and other saints. All the chapels were impressive, but this one especially caught my attention.

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Interior of the church, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

There were two Baroque cupolas. I saw painted windows on one – a trademark of the Baroque style. Two Baroque organs graced the church. One of them had 666 pedals, giving it a mystical quality.

The choir benches – Baroque, of course – were amazing, made with intarsia decoration of wood on wood. The inlays were breathtaking. Black spiral columns and gold ornamentation added to the Baroque ambience. The guide opened a cabinet behind a bench: Hymnbooks were stored there. I could imagine the Cistercian monks singing in celebration and could almost hear their voices resound through the church. In front of the choir, there were modern benches where services were currently held. Facing these benches, underneath the floor, was the tomb of the last abbot.

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The main altar included impressive sculptures of the four apostles. Figures of angels also had prominent roles in the adornment. The painting of Assumption of Our Lady – the patron saint of the Cistercians – was the work of Jan Krištof Liška, a truly remarkable Czech artist. Václav Vavřinec Reiner, whose monumental painting I had seen at Duchcov Chateau a few months earlier, was responsible for the painting of the side altars as was Michael Leopold Willmann. Reiner also had created, along with Jan Jakub Steinfels, the ceiling paintings in the main nave and chancel. They portrayed scenes from the life of Christ and from the Old Testament.

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Aerial view of Osek, from http://www.mapio.net

The cloister surrounds a garden that is decorated with three tombstones from the 14th to 16th centuries. Eighteenth century paintings promoting the history of the order are features of the cloister. I could see Romanesque traits in the entrance portal to the cloister from the church.

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Vaulted ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

We passed by Well Chapel. A well, the monks’ source of water for a lengthy period, was the central element of the chapel, as the name suggests. Sculptural decoration adorned the well. On the wall behind it, there was a bright orange sliver of glass. This piece was original, dating back to the Gothic era. At that time, the glass had been brightly colored.

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Reader’s Lectern in Chapter Hall, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

The Chapter Hall was a Gothic delight. Constructed from 1225 to 1250, it was one of the first Gothic buildings in the Czech lands. The sandstone sculptures from this era were impressive. A Gothic statue of the Madonna hails from around 1430. Monks had frequented this area every day. In the middle of a room was a reader’s lectern from which monks would read aloud to those gathered in the space. A Gothic mechanism allowed the top of the lectern to swivel from side to side. In the chapel, the altar looked a bit flamboyant for late Gothic, with white and gold decoration. The wall paintings illustrating the history of the order were newer, dating from 1750.

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Gothic ceiling, from http://www.rajce.net, Photo Album from 2006

Near the entranceway to the chapter hall was a dog’s paw print. I wondered what kind of dog had made the imprint and if the dog had lived during the Gothic period or Baroque era.

I loved that the monastery’s architecture celebrated both spectacular Baroque and Gothic styles. After the tour, my friend and I found a busy restaurant with outside tables, where we had delicious food. The establishment seemed to be the popular place for lunch in the town.

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Our stomachs filled with a satisfying lunch, we headed back to Prague. I had learned during the tour that the monastery would soon be closing for three years to have the entire interior renovated. I felt lucky I had had the chance to visit before the renovation and knew I had to come back in three years, to see an even more superb Baroque and Gothic creation.

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

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Prague’s Botanical Gardens in Troja Diary

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I had visited Prague’s Botanical Gardens in the Troja district about 15 years earlier, but, for some reason, every time I thought of going back, the weather was bad or I did not have time. I love botanical gardens in foreign cities I have visited, such as Madrid. Why hadn’t I spent more time in the botanical gardens in the city where I lived? I chided myself one day in 2018.

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I finally got there again in the summer. I went with a friend in the morning, before the humidity and heat became too much to bear. The botanical gardens in Troja is vast. It measures more than 20 hectares with a greenhouse that had not been there when I last visited and an outdoor area divided into the southern and much larger northern parts.

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First, we explored the greenhouse that was erected in 2004. It is 130 meters long and 17 meters wide. Inside was a tropical forest. I loved the small bridge surrounded by foliage. The structure looked like it had jumped straight out of a Monet painting. I loved watching the fish in the glass tunnel that divided the freshwater pond into two sections. The fire eels and iridescent sharks were amazing. I would not like to stick my hand in that tank. I’m sure it would have been bit off right away. We also saw meter-long arowanas, angelfish and archerfish. We wanted to see some butterflies, but we only managed to set our eyes on two, but they were two beautiful butterflies!

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In the greenhouse, there is a lowland rainforest section with species from Australia, Africa and Vietnam, for instance. The biggest section features lowland rainforests of tropical areas in America, Asia, Australasia and Africa. Here we saw deciduous trees, lianas, coniferous trees and palms. We saw some well-known plants, such as begonias, but there were many rare species as well. One section of the greenhouse features vegetation from subtropical and tropical regions, which often experience dry seasons. We saw plants from Australia, Central America, Madagascar and places in Africa. The smallest section is dedicated to tropical regions found in the high mountainous regions. Only a few greenhouses in Europe have a cooled section that could support such species in that kind of climate. The air in this part is humidified by mist.

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Intriguing species that we saw include the Dutchman’s pipe, which is one of the most endangered species in the world. Its brown flowers look like mushrooms. It is located in the wild only in seven places in Central America. The giant fern is one of the oldest plants in the world. Its leaves can grow up to seven meters long. The trunk can be as much as three meters tall and one meter in diameter. The climbing pandanus, which can grow to 20 meters in height, is found in the wild in the Luzon Island of the Philippines. We also saw cocoa trees, which were once sacred to the Aztecs, who considered it to have seeds that are the food of the Feathered Serpent. I loved the turquoise color of the jade vine, which is found in the wild only on three islands in the Philippines. The torch ginger flowers, red with yellow edges, were beautiful. It is from Southeast Asia, and paper can be produced from its stems. We also saw the marsh pitcher plant, native to the mountains of Venezuela.

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Then we visited the southern part of the gardens. I loved the Ornamental Garden best with its large, colorful flowerbed. The Japanese Gardens dotted with azaleas is another delight. A wine press, a wine shop and Mediterranean vegetation are also located in the southern section. In addition to the Ornamental Garden, my favorite feature was the view of St. Claire’s Vineyard and Troja Chateau, a place dear to my mother and me. The Baroque chateau had been built from 1679 to 1685, its desin inspired by Roman villas. The chateau’s French garden boasted superb statuary. From the Botanical Garden the views of the city and of the chateau were breathtaking.

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Baroque Troja Chateau

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St. Claire’s Vineyard, which we saw from the top of a hill, has a long history that goes back to the 13th century. You can buy wine made from its grapes in the wine shop, but I do not drink alcohol, so I have not tried it. We saw the Baroque chapel of St. Claire, too.

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Alas, it became too hot and humid to continue after a few hours, so I did not get to the northern section during this visit, though I did go there when I first came to the gardens. I have to go back to see the variety of gems that it offers – a Mediterranean garden, forest biotopes from Asia and North America, a North American prairie, a cacti section, wetlands, a lake and a semi-desert section. I saw a picture of the peony meadow, and it was so enchanting. I will definitely go back there when the weather is not scorching hot. The northern part is so big that I do not know if I could see everything in one visit.

I was very glad that I had begun to get acquainted with Prague’s botanical gardens again, and I am sure I will be back to discover more of its treasures.

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

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Jablonné v Podjěštedí and the Minor Basilica of Saints Zdislava and Lawrence Diary

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The Minor Basilica of Saints Zdislava and Lawrence

I had wanted to visit Jablonné v Podještědí for a long time. I was not disappointed. I thought that Jablonné v Podjěštedí was a tranquil town. My friend and I savored delicious ice cream on the main square. Only later did I read about the history of the town, a tale, which is no less captivating than the town itself.

Nestled under the Lusatian Mountains of north Bohemia near Lemberk Castle, the town was first settled by Czechs and Germans. It was founded by Havel from Markvartice in the 13th century. His wife Zdislava came from a religious, noble family. She would become a saint for helping the poor and healing people. The monastery in the town was founded during the mid-13th century and was inhabited by Dominicans. During the 14th century, Jablonné v Podjěštedí held a prominent position as a customs checkpoint, and in 1369 Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV visited the town.

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An old postcard of the town from http://www.luzicke-hory.cz

The 15th century brought destruction and havoc as the Hussite Wars raged throughout the Czech lands. The Hussites razed the town. The monastery and church also sustained much damage.

Things would get better, though. By the mid-15th century, life was good again. During the 16th century, prospects looked even brighter as trades and businesses flourished. New buildings were erected, too, including a chateau, school, town hall and brewery.

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The main square of the town, aerial view, from http://www.luzicke-hory.cz

The owner of the town, Jindřich Berka from Dubá, did not get along well with the Dominicans in the monastery. Luther’s Reformation played a major role in religious life as Lutheran pastors preached there. There was so much friction between the Catholics and Lutherans in the town at that time that Emperor Rudolf II had to intervene in order to calm things down.

The Thirty Years’ War brought much destruction and plundering. Afterwards, the Lutheran pastors were expelled, and Catholicism dominated religious life again. Still, there was no love lost between the owners of the town and the Dominicans. In 1628 all Protestant books and pictures of Czech martyr Jan Hus as well as renditions of Martin Luther were burned on the town square. By 1648, the town was in very poor shape. Less than 160 families called Jablonné v Podjěštedí home. A plague epidemic did not help matters.

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Aerial view of Jablonné v Podjěštedí, from http://www.turistka.cz

The 1680s was a decade of reconstruction. The monastery was transformed into a Baroque jewel thanks to architect Jan Lukáš Hildenbrandt. The Baroque church was consecrated in 1729. Two years later the remains of Saint Zdislava were brought to the church to stay.

During the 18th century weaving and many other professions characterized the town. Markets took place in Jablonné v Podjěštedí, and economically the town prospered.

Unfortunately, the seven-year Silesian war between Austria and Prussia destroyed parts of the town. By the end of the 1760s, typhus and famine had hit. Things got even worse when, in 1788, a fire ravaged almost the entire town. Then the Dominican Monastery was shut down by the edict of Emperor Joseph II.

The beginning of the 19th century did not bring any tranquility to Jablonné v Podjěštedí. Most of Europe was at war with Napoleon. Soldiers from Poland, France, Austria and Russia came to the town. One day in August of 1813, Napoleon even made an appearance.

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On the main square, from http://www.turistka.cz

Then the damage was repaired, and the textile industry took off.  Many guilds cropped up, and 350 weavers worked there. The second half of the 19th century featured expansion and construction as well as a cultural boom. Factories also came into existence there.

Then World War I broke out. On the outskirts of town, there was a POW camp with 14,000 Jews plus Russian, Serbian, Italian, French and British soldiers. The camp was closed down in 1918. Some Ukrainians made Jablonné v Podjěštedí home from 1919 to 1921. Czech soldiers took control as 1918 came to a close. The German National Party resonated with many of the German inhabitants, but there were also attempts to promote Czech nationalism by establishing Czech schools.

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The interior of the Minor Basilica of Saints Zdislava and Lawrence

An economic crisis ensued, and the Sudeten Party found many followers in the town. On October 3, 1938 this part of the Sudetenland was taken over by Germany, and the few Czechs living there moved. Days later, Jablonné v Podjěštedí became part of the Third Reich. During World War II, refugees from towns that had been bombarded came there for shelter. The Russian army liberated the town on May 9, 1945. After the war, a school cafeteria was located in the monastery. The Dominicans were sent to work camps

During the Communist era of the late 1960s and 1970s, high-rises that became eyesores of the town came into being. A poultry farm and a food processing plant also were built.

After the 1989 Velvet Revolution toppled the Communist regime, tourists came to the town. In 1995 Saint Zdislava was canonized by Pope John Paul II. Now there are about 4,000 inhabitants.

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The interior of the basilica

I was struck by the history of this town because it seemed so peaceful, even though it had been through so many trials and tribulations. I tried to imagine flags of the Third Reich flapping from the buildings on the main square. I tried to imagine the dancing flames on the piles of books and pictures that were burned as an attempt to purge the town of Lutheran beliefs. I tried to imagine the main square with so many buildings destroyed, in ruins, during the Hussite wars and during later wars. To be sure, that main square could tell a lot of stories if it could talk. Life went on, through good and bad the town persevered, and now tourists have taken an interest in the place due to the dazzling basilica.

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A church stood on this site as far back as the 13th century, established by Zdislava, the wife of Havel of the Markvartice clan and future saint. She was buried in the church during 1252. By the 17th century, the church and priority were in such a bad state that they were demolished. A Baroque church was built on the site of the Gothic church that had been torn down. It would become a church to which pilgrims flocked because Zdislava was buried there. The church was not consecrated until 1729.

The year 1788 was a particularly bad one. A fire destroyed the church and priory and then the Dominican brothers, who had settled in the monastery as far back as the 13th century, were abolished due to Emperor Joseph II’s edict.

While the exterior of the basilica enthralled me, I was surprised to find the interior just as enticing. if not more so. The floor plan takes the shape of a Greek cross. The interior is 45 meters high, 29 meters wide and 49 meters long.

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The first room in which the group gathered featured medallions of Zdislava holding a model of the church she had founded and renditions of Dominican monks. There were 24 pictures about the life of Zdislava from 1660. A Baroque standard of a craft guild also adorned the space.

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Then we saw the courtyard and went into the hallway where I saw some remarkable contemporary paintings with political symbolism. I liked the one showing families seated in front of the television while the Communist hammer and sickle emblems were displayed on the screens. The painting served as a warning about how tempting it had been under Communism to normalize propaganda and platitudes. The family members in the painting looked resigned to their fates. They were as if in a trance and had adjusted to the rules and regulations of totalitarian society. It also showed the importance of family, which played a major role in the lives of Czechoslovak citizens during that era.

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Now to the interior of the minor basilica: Because much of the interior was destroyed during the 1788 fire, most of the furnishings dated from the last two centuries. Newer sections even hailed from this century. The frescoes in the vaulted cupola featured the life of Zdislava. The baptismal font was Rococo, dating from 1764, one of the few pieces that survived the fire. I liked the Late Gothic statue of the Madonna, which hailed from before 1510, decorating the Rococo Marian-Zdislava altar. The pulpit was Classicist from the late 18th century and included a bust of Saint Peter. The altars of Saint Anna and the Virgin Mary were both Rococo in style, hailing from the 18th century. The altar of Our Lady of the Rosary, on the contrary, flaunted Baroque features with intriguing statuary.

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The main altar, though, was younger, built in 1898 in pseudo-Baroque style. Paintings of Saint Lawrence and Saint Zdislava adorned the altar. The choir benches were Rococo and featured intarsia. I love stained glass windows, and the ones in this basilica lived up to my expectations. I took note of the designs portraying Saint Stephan and Saint Philip.

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We also visited the tomb of Saint Zdislava, viewing the marble sarcophagus. Tombs are not really my cup of tea, but it was intriguing to think that in that sarcophagus were the remains of someone who had lived in the 13th century, someone who did much good for humankind. I vowed to get to Lemberk Castle, the residence of Saint Zdislava and her husband so many centuries ago, the following season. I had visited it once, many years earlier. I remember it was romantically situated in a forest, and the interiors had been intriguing, to say the least.

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I loved visiting small towns, especially those in the mountains because I have always loved mountains. I felt at peace with the world, standing on the main square. There is nothing like discovering a gem that earlier had been a mere name on a map.

Soon we said goodbye to north Bohemia and returned to Prague. It had been a good day.

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

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Rococo baptismal font

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