The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 1/Fine Arts in Bohemia (1)

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3078601The Bohemian Review, volume 1, no. 9 — Fine Arts in Bohemia (1)1917Jaroslav Egon Salaba-Vojan

Fine Arts in Bohemia.

By Dr. J. E. S. Vojan.

The earliest examples of Bohemian art that were preserved to our times are miniatures (colored drawings) in old manuscripts. Monks, who in their cloisters copied books, embellished the initial letters of chapters by figures of saints, kings, or even by group pictures; these drawings have frequently a high historical value as authentic sources of our knowledge of contemporary costumes, customs and weapons.

During the administration of Abbot Božetěch who was himself an artist of many talents, being an excellent painter, sculptor and architect, the Sázava monastery enjoyed the fame of a great art center. This monastery was built for the priest Procopius by Prince Oldřich in 1024; the story of it was told in verse by Jaroslav Vrchlický in his beautiful St. “Procopius Legend”. This monastery was the last refuge of the Slavic ritual which the apostles of Moravia, Cyril and Methodius, introduced into the Czech lands. But even the Sázava monks used Latin in their writings. At any rate, it is a well-authenticated historical fact that Božetěch upon some holy day in 1091 placed the royal crown upon the head of King Vratislav and thereby broke the laws of the church. Coronation was the function of the bishop, and the bishop of Prague intended to punish in an exemplary manner the presumptuous abbot. But upon the intercession of the great nobles Bishop Cosmas relented and imposed upon Božetěch, who was a master woodcarver, this penalty: to make a life-size crucifix and carry it on his own shoulders all the way from Bohemia to St. Peter’s church in Rome. In the Sázava monastery was made among other things the famous “Vyšehrad Codex”, still preserved in the library of the Vyšehrad chapter and known also as “Vratislav’s Coronation Gospels”, having been made for the coronation of King Vratislav. It is one of the gems of medieval manuscript art. Even if judged by modern standards it is a gorgeous work. Every page displays a splendor of colors, the writing of each page is enclosed in a border with an appropriate ornamentation, the initial leters are fashioned in a masterly manner and intertwined with drawings.

For a long time these miniatures were the principal means by which the painter gave expression to his art. Of sculpture, very little has been preserved. But let no one imagine that Bohemia around the year 1100 was in a darkness void of all strivings after higher things. At this time, more than 800 years ago, our chronicler Cosmas, later a learned canon and prior of St. Vitus, spent a number of years in Liege with the celebrated Master Frank; young noblemen visited for the same purpose France and the Netherlands, the Bohemian king’s ambassadors were sent to Italy, Hungary, Poland and Germany, and all these relations with foreign lands helped to make the culture of Europe at home in Bohemia.

Monks of the monastery of Podlažice wrote about the year 1240 the well-known Codex Giganteus or Liber Pergrandis, which is still one of the biggest books of the world in size. It has over 300 heavy parchment sheets, and each sheet is three feet long and two feet wide. The codex was frequently lent to others, sometimes placed as security for loans, but finally the Swedes in the Thirty Years’ War took it away with them to Stockholm, where it is found today in the royal library.

When Charles IV. was king, Prague was the heart of Europe, for Charles was also emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. His reign is a time of rapid growth of Bohemian art; and for the first time now the Czech individuality leaves its distinct impress up on the arts of Bohemia.

When Charles ascended the throne in 1346, Bohemia’s intellectual relations with Western Europe became very close, all the spiritual currents that moved men’s souls in France, England, and Italy, were felt here, and the Czech lands began to breathe the air of Europe. Charles gave art an important place in his court, and only two years after his accession a brotherhood of painters was founded in Prague. John of Dražice, bishop of Prague, who returned in 1329 from Avignon, the luxurious seat of the popes, built for his episcopal residence on the Little Side of Prague a new palace ornamented with paintings; the prior’s church in Roudhice on the Elbe was also famous for its paintings. At the court of Charles there dwelt artists from all lands. Among them were Germans, Theodorich and Nicholas Wurmser from Strassburg, the Italian painter Thomas of Modena—these three co-operated upon the interior decorations of the castle Karlštejn; two Frenchmen, Matthew of Arras and Peter Parleur, built the St. Vitus cathedral, while the pride of the Hradčany castle square, the statue of St. George overcoming the dragon, was cast in 1373 by two brothers, Martin and George of Klausenburg, in Transylvania. By the way, the British Museum at one time offered $80,000 for this rare work of art.

The presence of the foremost masters of the contemporary world of art was necessarily a tremendous encouragement to the home talent. And the art of Bohemia, while conforming to the general medieval atmosphere, soon manifested a distinct form and acquired at the same time a progressive trait advancing beyond the generally accepted norms. “Paintings enclosed in the walls of the Karlštejn castle, colored illustrations on the pages of our books, brought into the medieval art the first wave of living realism growing out of domestic concepts. In them appeared truth as the Czech people saw it,” says Mádl in his striking characterization of the Bohemian art of the fourteenth century.

Further development was held up by the Hussite wars. Fine arts need today, and needed even more in former days, domestic peace and tranquility, if they are to flourish. As the Romans expressed it, “inter arma silent Musae”. But even the stormy years of the fifteenth century could not destroy the roots of the independent Bohemian art. Up to the beginning of the sixteenth century there are traces of this vigorous art not merely in Bohemia, but also in the neighboring lands. The contemporary works of art of Nuremberg and Augsburg display clearly the influence of Bohemian models.

When under King George Poděbrad peace ruled again in the Czech lands, a new period opened in the history of fine arts; and during the reign of his successor Vladislav of the Polish Jagielo dynasty the outburst was so splendid that we speak of the Vladislav style, especially in sculpture and architecture. The gifted Master Beneš of Louny supervised at that time the construction of the splendid church of St. Barbara in Kutná Hora, while in Prague he carried out the alterations of the royal castle of Hradčany, for which purpose Vladislav devoted great sums. The new castle hall alone, known as Vladislav’s room, completed by Beneš of Louny in 1502, cost 40,000 “three-scores” of Bohemian groschen, about $120,000 of our money. It is so magnificent that it has few equals in later Gothic. Powder Tower, adjoining the present Public Reception Hall of the City of Prague, dates also from the reign of Vladislav. It was built by Matouš Rejsek of Prostějov.

The second quarter of the 16th century is the period, when the Italian renaissance flourished in Bohemia. Two of its finest monuments are the Pleasure House of Queen Anne, also called the Belvidere on the Letná Hill in Prague, and the villa Hvězda (Star) at Liboce near Prague. The former was built upon the order of Emperor Ferdinand I. for his wife Anna Jagielo, “the last Bohemian queen”, whose love for the Czech people is the theme of Zeyer’s poem “Olgerd Gejštor.” It is one of the finest memorials of Italian remaissance north of the Alps. It was built from 1535 to 1563 by Giovanni de Spatio, Pietro Ferrabosco di Lugano and Juan Maria de Speciecasa; sculptor’s work was done by Paolo dela Stella. Emperor Rudolf II. made it the residence of his astronomers and held long discourses here with the great Tycho de Brahe. The other monument of renaissance architecture, the “Hvězda”, was built by Ferdinand’s son, Archduke Ferdinand, for the beautiful Philippa Welser whom he had met at the Diet of Augsburg in 1550 and later married clandestinely. This structure in the shape of a six cornered star was put up in 1556–1563 and excels all architecture of the period both in plan and in execution. Today only insignificant remains are left, principally stucco ceilings with a wealth of mythological figures, reliefs of incomparable lightness and facility. The artists were again Spatio, Ferrabosco, Stella and in addition Hans Tiroll and Boniface Wolgemut.

A new artistic period blossoms out in the years 1576 to 1612 under Emperor Rudolf Il.who oncemore made Prague the center of Europe, having fixed his residence there permanently. Again sculptors and painters and architects from all the world gathered there. How Prague appeared then and what a truly “Bohemian” life coursed through it we learn from the beautiful engravings of the then court engraver Jilji Sadeler. Rudolf did not spare money. The royal tomb in the St. Vitus church, erected in 1556–1560 by Master Alexander Collinus of Malines in the Netherlands, cost 32,000 ducats. It is built of the Salzburg white marble, and on its square top are life size figures of Ferdinand I., his wife Anne and Maximilian II; along the sides are busts of Charles IV., his four wives Blanche, Anne of Svidnice, Anne of Pfalz and Eliška, Václav IV., Ladislav Posthumous and George Podebrad. The so-called singing fountain in the royal gardens received its strange name, because streams of water hurled to a great height fell back on a wide metal rim and called out ringing tones; it was the work of Master Thomas Jaroš of Brno who cast it from the model of Lawrence Kříž. He used eighty hundredweights of copper and four hundredweights of tin. The work was completed in five years.

Rudolf gathered in the Prague castle great collections of objects of art, paintings, statues and gems of artistic industry partly made in Prague, partly received as presents from rulers, provinces and cities, partly bought at great expense in all lands. After the battle of the White Mountain, during the vicissitudes of the long war, enemies and “friends” alike robbed the magnificent collections. The former took them as booty of war, the latter as “souvenirs”. The Bavarians carried away 1500 wagon loads, of artistic treasures. The Saxons carried them off by wagons and by boat down the Elbe, later came the Swedes, then the imperialists, and what was left over was sold by the Austrian government as recently as one hundred years ago. Prague had nothing left; only the royal tomb and the singing fountain could not be carried away. He who wants to admire these wonders today must buy a ticket taking in all the capitals of Europe and must visit public, royal and imperial museums and galleries of Vienna, Dresden, Munich and elsewhere in Germany, Stockholm and other spots in Sweden etc. Fifteen years ago work was commenced on the compilation of a photographic catalog of Rudolf’s collections with detailed description of each object and a note stating its present whereabouts. There will be a good many folios.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1929.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1944, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 79 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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