What a Magical Place!

text and photos by Michael J.L. La Civita

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After steering my way through the crowded door of a New York subway, I squeezed into a seat. Undeterred, I opened my bag and pulled out a children’s book I had bought. As I flipped through its beautifully illustrated pages, a Hispanic man to my left exclaimed in broken English, “What a magical place!”

I agreed and mumbled (strangers do not talk to one another in the subway) that I had just returned from there. The man stared at me with doubt and confusion.

“Hundred-spired, golden Prague,” the capital of the Czech Republic and the subject of Peter Sis’s fairy tale, “The Three Golden Keys,” impresses its magic on many a visitor.

However this magic is deceptive. Located in the heart of Europe, this city – whose glory will one day reach to the stars” has for centuries been subjected to religious, ethnic and political strife. And although the churches, palaces, mansions and theaters create a fairy-tale environment, these structures have been the silent chorus for the many bloody dramas played on the Prague stage.

For the modern visitor, old Prague is easily manageable. Its five distinct neighborhoods (which were separate townships until 1784) are a feast for the senses: the castle and cathedral shrouded by fog on Hradcany; the tenor of a Mozart sonata in Mala Strana; the taste of dumplings and beer in Stare Mesto; the weathered tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in the Josefov; and the stench of burning brown coal, which seems concentrated in Nove Mesto.

Nove Mesto, or New Town, is not exactly new. It was founded in 1348 by Charles IV (1346-78), King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. The centerpiece of his district was to be a new coronation cathedral dedicated to Our Lady of the Snows.

Charles’s Gothic cathedral was never completed, but what remains – the choir – is overwhelming in its beauty. The interior, adorned with numerous Baroque altars and statuary, remains pure and fresh. The piers lead the eye to a spectacular wooden altar, crowned with a statue of St. Michael slaying the devil. At a height of 115 feet, Our Lady of the Snows is one of the tallest churches in the city. It is a pity that it was not completed because of a lack of funds.

The quiet that invites prayer in this lovely church belies its violent past. In the early 15th century, the Czech populace began to protest their domination by the Germans, many of whom held positions of ecclesial and secular authority.

The Hussites, a group of reform-minded priests and nobles determined to celebrate the liturgy in the vernacular and distribute the Eucharist under both species, were the leaders of most of the influential churches in the city. Jan Zelivsky, a chief Hussite leader, was pastor of Our Lady of the Snows. In 1419, he conducted his angry followers to the Nove Mesto Town Hall to demand the release of his fellow believers. The Catholic councilors, who refused their request, were thrown out the window. The result of this first defenestration, which seems to be unique to Prague, was 15 years of war.

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Tags: Communism/Communist Architecture Central Europe Czech Republic