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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Kladruby Monastery Diary

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I had visited Kladruby Monastery about 20 years before I participated in the arsviva tour of architect Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel’s creations in west Bohemia. I had wanted to pay the Benedictine Monastery another visit for a long time.

I already knew a bit about the fascinating history of the place. Kladruby Monastery was founded by Prince Vladislav I during 1115. It was established on the Nuremberg-Prague trade route. The monastery made quite a name for itself at the end of the 12th century and during the 13th century. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Saint Wolfgang and Saint Benedict was consecrated in 1233 with King Wenceslas I on hand for the ceremony. (King Wenceslas I was not the only royal to visit the monastery; King Přemysl Otakar I held negotiations there during the 13th century, too.)

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There was much looting later that century, but around 1370, a new abbot was appointed, and the situation improved. The Chapel of All Saints was added during that period. Then Hussite Wars brought devastation to Kladruby. The Hussites and then the army of the Emperor Sigismund took control of the monastery in the 15th century. The Benedictines returned in 1435, though it took about 70 years for things to shape up. The monastery flourished during the early 16th century, and more monks called Kladruby home. This was a glorious time of expansion. A school was set up; both Catholics and Protestants attended.

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Things took a turn for the worst with the onset of the Thirty Years’ War. The monastery was looted and pillaged. Because the Catholics won, Kladruby was once again in favor after the wartime turmoil. Expansion and reconstruction took place in the Catholized land.

Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel, a Czech architect of Italian origin, became associated with the monastery in the early 18th century, when he was in charge of doing a makeover of the church in Baroque Gothic style, which emphasized Gothic features in a distinctly Baroque style. Thanks to his efforts, the church interior is bewitchingly beautiful.

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In 1785 Emperor Joseph II dissolved the monastery. The Benedictines packed their bags, and the Windisch-Graetz clan moved in. During their tenure, they divided the monastery into apartments. One part of the complex was made into a brewery. The Windisch-Graetzes, however, did build a library that is rather impressive.

Kladruby was nationalized after World War II, and terrible times were to come. Sick cattle grazed on the monastery’s property while other parts were transformed into offices. Reconstruction did not begin until the middle of the 1960s.

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I was especially intrigued by the Dining Room, which showed off an 18th century pewter service. What I found most intriguing, however, was the portrait of Cardinal Schwarzenberg. No matter where I stood, his eyes were always staring at me. I gazed at the portrait of the red-drapery clad cardinal with a stern expression from several angles.

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In the ambulatory we saw many sandstone statues by Late Baroque sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun, one of my favorites. His works are so dynamic and powerful. It was evident that Braun’s sojourn in Italy had influenced his creations. Most of these statues were inspired by Greek and Roman historical themes while some stood for allegories of character traits. They were all original except for the statue of Count František Antonín Špork, who had been a prominent cultural figure and patron of the arts in the early 18th century. He had founded Kuks, a former hospital that had once been located across from a popular spa, and he commissioned Braun to make statues of vices and virtues for the Baroque exterior of Kuks.

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I had visited Kuks for the third time the previous year, and Braun’s statues were certainly a highlight. The newly restored Dance of Death paintings lining a hallway and the Baroque pharmacy there were also impressive. I had also examined the statuary carved from sandstone rocks in Braun’s Bethlehem, situated near Kuks. Those accomplishments are by no means the only ones on Braun’s résumé. He authored several statuaries on Prague’s Charles Bridge, such as The Vision of St. Luthgard, which was his first work. It brought him much acclaim. At Kladruby we also saw 12 woodcuts depicting scenes from Christ’s childhood. It astounded me how it had been possible to portray so much detail in the 16th century carvings.

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At the monastery there are about 500 sculptures, paintings and portraits of John of Nepomuk, the Czech patron saint of Bohemia who was drowned in the Vltava River on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the latter part of the 14th century. The king and archbishop were at odds over who should be the abbot of the prosperous and influential monastery. John of Nepomuk showed his support for the Pope by confirming the archbishop’s candidate, which infuriated the king. John of Nepomuk became a saint in 1729.

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Then came the Santini-designed Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Saint Benedict and Saint Wolfgang. Santini had been inspired by the Italian radical Baroque use of geometry and symbolism. I see Santini’s structures as rational yet radical. Santini elevates Gothic art to a new form, offering fresh perspectives and giving new insights. I fondly recalled last year’s arsviva tour of Santini’s structures in east Bohemia and Moravia. I had learned so much about Santini’s creations, and my appreciation of the architect had grown.

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Santini was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a stonemason, but palsy prevented him from doing so. As a student he was mentored by Prague-based architect Jan Baptiste Mathey. During a four-year sojourn in Italy, Santini became enamored with works by Italian architects Francesco Borromini and Guarino Guarnini and their radical Baroque style. Santini was commissioned to reconstruct many religious sites. Baroque art became the fashion during the era when the Catholic army triumphed in the Thirty Years’ War and remained so afterwards, when the Catholicism flourished in the Czech lands. During a mere 46 years, Santini cast his magic spell on about 80 buildings.

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It amazed me how the church at Kladruby – the third biggest church in the Czech lands – retained its Gothic charm while also celebrating the Baroque style. I loved the details, such as the slots for candles in the benches of the choir. The pulpit was shaped like a boat rocking on a stormy sea. The Baroque organ – which still worked – boasted 1,270 pedals. Santini designed the impressive organ case. At the bottom of the main altar, there was a small statue of Christ on the cross, and I noticed that the Christ figure was crooked. I wondered what that symbolized. Two devils appeared in paintings in the church as well. Directly below the gushingly Late Baroque dome decorated with a scene of the Assumption was a large eight-pointed star of many layers. It was just one of many eight-pointed stars symbolizing the Virgin Mary that appeared in the church. I also liked the Romanesque elements that Santini had retained. I loved the many frescoes on the walls as well as the church’s stucco ribs and helical vaults. The play of light was also dynamic. Light played such a major role in Santini’s designs.

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The high altar, one of Braun’s masterpieces, was perhaps the most intriguing as it featured both Gothic and Baroque elements. It showed scenes from the life and torment of Jesus Christ and scenes from the history of the Benedictine Order. The Assam brothers, who had been Late Baroque gurus, had also decorated sections of the church.  I recalled the church in Munich that they had decorated. The Late Baroque adornment there was so overwhelming that it had made me dizzy.

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We also visited the Windisch-Graetz Empire style library, which held 33,000 volumes and included a gallery. On display were weapons of various sorts and objects obtained during travels abroad.

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I was more than satisfied with my visit to Kladruby and would recommend it to everyone who has time to see sights in west Bohemia. What impressed me most about Kladruby’s history was that it reflected the history of the Czech lands going through eras of prosperity, destruction and rebirth. Visiting the monastery was like reading a 900-year old illustrated text. Santini’s geometric symbolism, his use of Gothic and Baroque elements and the play of light greatly impressed me. Braun’s statues were so lively. Each facial expression told a story – some of delight, some of anguish. It was as if it was possible to see into the soul of each character represented in the statues.

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

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Dance of Death Paintings at Kuks Diary

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NOTE: See my Kuks Diary for more information on Kuks hospital.

I visited the former Baroque hospital Kuks for the third time last year, soon after reconstruction. In the early 18th century, a spa had been situated across from the hospital, but it was destroyed by a flood in 1740. At Kuks visitors can admire 24 Late Baroque statues of vices and virtues by master sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun, a Baroque pharmacy, a pharmaceutical museum, a lapidarium, a chapel, a church and a crypt. Lining one hallways are 50 Dance of Death paintings that were beautifully restored during the recent reconstruction.

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The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre genre in art was revived during the Baroque age and not only at Kuks. It began during the Late Middle Ages in 15th century France. The artistic renderings show death personified summoning people from all walks of life to dance. No one – neither kings nor beggars – could escape death. During medieval days the plague had ravaged Europe, and this was one artistic way to try to come to terms with so many deaths riddling the continent. Dances of death also played roles in religious plays presented in churches. People looking at these paintings during the hospital’s Baroque heyday were supposed to dwell on the fragility of life. Thus, the Dance of Death emphasized a certain mentality, a specific outlook on both life and death.

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

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