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What a Magical Place!

A glimpse of history-heavy Prague.

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.

Behind the church is the heart of modern Nove Mesto – Wenceslas Square. Elegant art nouveau and neo-classical hotels, shops and restaurants line the streets. An early 20th-century statue of “good King Wenceslas,” the 10th-century patron saint of Bohemia, dominates the square. This area was the site of the mass demonstrations against the communists in 1989, which ultimately led to the collapse of the communist regime in the Velvet Revolution.

In front of the monument, candles burn and flowers lie scattered around the photograph of a Czech student who, in the Spring of 1968, set himself afire in protest against the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring, the Czech experiment of “socialism with a human face.”

A golden Madonna faces the town square of Stare Mesto, or Old Town, from the gable of the Gothic church of Our Lady of Tyn. This relief replaced a gilded chalice, the symbol of the Hussites, following the defeat of the Protestants at the battle of Bila Hora in 1620. The Jesuits, leaders of the Catholic Reformation, melted down the chalice to fashion the Madonna.

Near the west front of the church stands the remarkable monument to Jan Hus, the leader of Bohemia’s reform movement. The massive monument was erected in 1915 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the priest’s death at the stake.

The Hapsburgs, who since the 16th century controlled the Bohemian crown and the Holy Roman Empire, objected to the erection of this revolutionary monument. It was the Hapsburgs who directed the efforts of the Jesuits to re-Catholicize Bohemia.

In order to bring the Czechs back to the faith, the Jesuits employed art, architecture, folklore, literature and music. These practices, although perhaps unintentional, still echo today. One night, as I strolled by the Jesuit church of St. Savior, I heard the faint chords of the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem. After paying a nominal fee, I entered the white and gold interior of the dimly lit church. It was the perfect setting for Mozart’s haunting music.

Erected prior to the final victory of the German Catholic forces in 1620, the early Baroque structure, which in Prague is referred to as the “Jesuit style,” is a supreme example of theology in stone.

The worn tombstones stacked in the old Jewish Cemetery in the former Jewish ghetto, the Josefov, are an unforgettable sight. More than 12,000 graves, dating from the early 15th century until 1787, when a Hapsburg ban on burials in residential areas was enforced, clutter this small tract of land. The actual number of corpses interred there is unknown; bodies were buried on top of one another.

In the Middle Ages, Prague’s Jewish quarter was Europe’s largest. The Old-New Synagogue, a Gothic edifice resembling a German town house, dates to the 13th century, making it the oldest surviving synagogue building on the continent.

Prague’s Jewish community, like her sister communities throughout Europe, experienced varying degrees of prosperity and persecution, its precarious existence based on the whims of the monarch.

Only 2,100 Jews, out of a prewar total of more than 35,000, survived the Nazis’ systematic extermination of the Jews.

Children’s drawings from the concentration camp of Terezin near Prague are displayed in the cemetery’s gate house, a reminder of humanity’s potential for hate.

Today, the Josefov district is lined with 19th century revival architecture, now sad symbols of what was once a dynamic and flourishing Jewish community.

The Gothic and Baroque styles dominate the architecture of old Prague. Aesthetically, these two architectural styles are antithetical: Gothic is functional, perpendicular, the precursor of the skyscraper. Baroque eliminates form and celebrates color, texture and the irrational. However in Prague, the marriage of the Gothic and Baroque is successful. And nowhere is this unity better illustrated than the Charles Bridge.

This exquisite bridge, which spans the Vltava River, connects Stare Mesto with the aristocratic Mala Strana, or Lesser Town. The Gothic structure was commissioned by Charles IV in 1357 on the site of an earlier stone bridge that was washed away by a flood.

On the piers of the bridge, Baroque images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and a multitude of saints welcome the visitor. The finest sculptural group depicts the crucified Jesus reaching out to caress the face of Luitgard, a Cistercian nun. It is a moving testimony of the power of art as a vehicle of faith.

By far the most popular statue depicts the 13th-century patron saint of Bohemia, St. John Nepomuk. According to legend, John, the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Prague, was the queen’s confessor. Her jealous husband ordered the priest to break the seal of the confessional, but he refused. The king ordered John to be thrown in the river. After his martyrdom, the sound of John’s voice exposed the monarch’s crime.

At the foot of the sandstone statue, a blackened bronze relief depicts John’s martyrdom. However, the image of his body gleams, polished by the touch of devout believers. According to a local legend, when this likeness is rubbed, a pain will develop. The only cure is to return to Prague and rub the burnished image.

Mala Strana, with its palaces and churches, is a riot of Renaissance and Baroque architecture. The dominant structure of this quarter is another Jesuit church, St. Nicholas. This mid-18th-century monument commemorates the Jesuit leadership of the triumphant Catholic Reformation. Ironically a few years after the church’s completion, the Jesuits were suppressed by a papal bull.

St. Nicholas’s massive dome floats over an interior of pink and white marble, gorgeous frescoes and gilded statues. Presently, the church is undergoing restoration – the structure, like most ecclesial monuments, was neglected during the communist regime.

Above Mala Strana hovers the Hradcany, the castle district.

A castle has stood on this bluff since the late 9th century. According to an ancient Czech saga, the Princess Libuse prophesied that she saw “a mighty city” sprout from the mount. Her father, the head of the House of Premysl, ordered the area fortified. The present castle is a collection of structures, dating from the late 15th century until the mid-18th century. Since 1993, the somber neo-classical palace has been home to the playwright-president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.

Within the castle’s baroque gates lies the heart and soul of the Czech state: St. Vitus Cathedral and its chapel of St. Wenceslas. The cathedral was begun in the mid-14th century by none other than Charles IV. This great and devout monarch commissioned Matthias of Arras and then later Peter Parler (the architect of the Charles Bridge) to complete the structure in the Gothic manner.

Work on the cathedral ceased during the ethnic and religious controversies of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The imposing west facade, with its twin spires, was completed in the neo-Gothic style in 1929.

On Sundays, Miroslav Cardinal Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague, celebrates Mass at 9:15 A.M. I left my hotel early one cloudy, cold morning to climb the steep Hradcany incline at a leisurely pace and assure myself a seat. When I arrived, 10 minutes early, the cathedral was packed. I wandered into the choir of the cathedral to admire the chapel of St. Wenceslas. This chapel is one of the finest Gothic shrines anywhere: its walls are encrusted with gold and semiprecious stones of Bohemian provenance. The emblems of the Bohemian state – crown, orb and scepter – are stored in this holy of holies, a unique symbol of the marriage of church and state. A medieval statue of the saint, martyred by a jealous brother, guards these ancient emblems of statehood.

The Mass began with a magnificent organ prelude, followed by a Gregorian Introit. The Cardinal addressed his congregation, first in Czech and then in German. For all the strife between the Czech and German peoples, this Mass seemed to reconcile the injustices of the past – ethnic, linguistic and religious.

History has not been kind to Prague. It has suffered ethnic cleansing, religious strife and political repression. But somehow Prague has managed to survive. Perhaps this is the real magic of Prague.

Michael La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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