"Genius loci" or the Guardian of Wenceslas Square

10 2005 Dějiny English
obálka čísla

J.V. Myslbek had created more than 20 models of the statue of St. Wenceslas, before he was truly satisfied with the results. According to art historians, equestrian statues are among the most difficult to make. There are only a few of these perfect works in the world and St. Wenceslas is one of them. The monument was put up at the beginning of the 20th century, which during its first 14 years seemed very hopeful. The statue is truly remarkable. The saint sits straight in the saddle with the horse ready to step forward. He is fully dressed in armor of a medieval warrior, on his head he wears a helmet, allegedly modeled according to the real helmet, which had been preserved for centuries. In his hand he holds a spear, with the original crest of the Czech lands, the St. Wenceslas eagle. He does not stand alone, but is surrounded by four figures of Czech saints. What is really surprising is, that women are equally represented.

St. Ludmila who was murdered is pictured dressed in the scarf that she was strangled with, on her head, a princely crown. The second one, at that time merely proclaimed blessed, but since 1989 canonized a saint is Anezka (Agnes), a royal daughter who had left the luxuries of a life at Court to devote all her energy to serving the sick and the destitute. The next figures are St. Vojtech (Adalbert) who left his office as Prague Bishop, the comfort of papal Rome, powerful friends and went on a mission to, at that time, pagan Prussia. What he found there was a martyr’s death. Not too long ago he received the title of the "First European". We recognize him by his Bishop’s miter and pastoral staff. The fourth figure, which keeps St. Wenceslas Company, is St. Procopius, the legendary founder and abbot of the Sazava Monastery a place where divine services had been held until the 11th century in the old Slavonic language. According to a legend, he was to have made the devil plough his field for him. It had occurred to me that, that might have been the time when the tradition of Czech rather funny and tired-out devils started. We recognize St. Procopius by his monastic robe and cape.

Most of us know that almost all may be either misused or discredited. The same applies to the case of our first patron saint. The main source of doubt is a passage in the chronicle, which deals with a payment of some sort of tax to a neighboring Saxon ruler, Henry I. Ptacnik. No one knows how much it really was. Frantisek Palacky estimated it to be about 120 oxen and 300 bars of silver, quite a nice sum. If the monarch paid it, he must have been well off. Actually the Czech lands must have been wealthy; otherwise their neighbors would not have been so interested in them. To pay or to fight? It seems that St. Wenceslas was a good diplomat and knew the value of human life. Moreover, his brother Boleslav I, shortly after he took over power after his brother’s death, went to war against Henry’s successor Otto, which lasted 14 years. From our scanty sources we find that the long lasting conflict finally ended. "Proudly, he surrendered so he would not have to ask for mercy if conquered."

Five years after the reconciliation with Otto I, at the time already the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, we find Boleslav I at the head of the Czech troops in one of the most important battles of the 10th century by the Lech river where the Hungarians were finally conquered. After this defeat, they drew back into the Panonian lowlands where eventually the state of Hungary was born. If we read more carefully the description of events and the behavior of the two brothers, we might realize that this is where the possibility of a double standard evaluation and simplification of both brothers comes from. In my opinion, or I feel quite sure that this has harmed both of them. Legends logically attributed the best and the most beautiful characteristics such as kindness, peacefulness and dedication to the service of God and the poor, to King Wenceslas who became a saint. From the point of view of an ordinary life, he was an ideal not many could even come up close to. Remarks about his payment of the vaguely specified taxes were misused in rather a rude manner. First his reluctance rather than inability to fight in case of emergency was emphasized, which made it seem like a weakness. Later on, this argument was used by neighboring German rulers, as vindication of their right to rule the Czech lands.

He blatancy if that affirmation and cynical exploitation of St. Wenceslas came to a head in the 20th century during the German Protectorate. At that time, the highest state award was called the St. Wenceslas Eagle and was bestowed upon collaborators and traitors working for the Nazis. But, that was not all. After 1948, the communist leaders would have welcomed if the Czechs forgot about St. Wenceslas. However, that did not happen. It was not possible to stick the long-dead saint into a prison. Neither did they dare remove the bronze statue with the other four patron saints. So, to disturb the peaceful scene, they at least built an expressway right above the square. Not even that helped because people gathered there all through the 20th century because the "genius loci", guardian of the place and historical memory though stifled, are more constant than steel. On October 18, 1918, a proclamation of the Austro-Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs was posted on St. Wenceslas Square, stating that the conditions of peace had been accepted. The inhabitants of Prague spontaneously started to tear down any state emblems of monarchy, flying red and white flags and proclaiming the state a republic. Then came moments of bitterness and grief when the citizens of Prague with tears in their eyes and clenched fists watched the incoming occupational forces of Germany. That was on March 15, 1939. That same year on October 28 there were mass demonstrations on the Square against the occupants. There was an impressive funeral procession accompanying Jan Opletal a student of medicine who was mortally wounded during the demonstration. It was also there that that people in 1945 excitedly welcomed the Red Army, later on soldiers from the foreign legion. Unfortunately, not many were able to foresee what fate the Communist regime would bring. It was interesting that the gathering in February 1948 took place at the Old Town Square where 27 Czech noblemen had been executed more than three hundred years ago, and not at Wenceslas Square. Instead, in the summer of the same year, there marched a mighty procession of members of the Sokol organization who had the courage to pass the tribunal where sat the communist leaders headed by Gottwald, with their heads ostentatiously turned sideways. They paid for it dearly. Their more than a hundred- year- old athletic and cultural organization was abolished and its motto "In a healthy body a healthy soul!" was replaced by "Proletarians of all states unite!" Then came the year 1968. First there was joy, then quickly came tears, clenched fists and also the end of non- critical Russophilism and Pan Slavism. And then came January 1969 and on St. Wenceslas Square a human torch is set aflame. Jan Palach, a student of philosophy is dying in this century full of cynicism, and anonymous killings, to arouse the lethargic population. Most hold their breath, unfortunately not for long. Traffic is at a standstill while the funeral procession passes. The Square is filled with hundreds of people. Grief clutches at the hearts of all. August 1969 means the end of all, death and despair.

During a favorable international situation came the events of November 17,1989. The violent attack against students aroused even the indifferent that again found their way to Wenceslas Square. A lot had changed since that time. St Wenceslas still stands surrounded by the four patron saints and looks down at the bustling life of the metropolis.

When I started studying the character and fate of St. Wenceslas, it became necessary to take a look at even his brother Boleslav. At first the situation seemed simple enough since from the first written reports to historical literature, the roles of the brothers are divided as in an ancient drama. One has all the good characteristics of a holy man to be followed, while the other is guilty of fratricide and history had added the surname "the Cruel" to his name. I don’t favor simplification since it often is unjust. It was the personalities, fate and actions of the two brothers that had given me, although not complete, an answer to an often- asked question, " What are we Czechs like?" Why and how do we behave in different historical situations which at the time are confusing. Well, depending on the circumstances, the model may be St. Wenceslas and then we open up our hearts, lend a helping hand, may choose some kind of an agreement because at times the situation may be so bad that even to survive may be considered as courage. Sometimes we have to pay for it. At other times we act without compromise, willing even to fight, even though we’d rather choose peace. Somewhere in us there lurks Boleslav I.

What strongly has influenced the history of our country is the fact that it does not lie on an island or somewhere in space, but in an extremely exposed area, often called the "Restless Heart of Prague". Its history is turbulent so it’s no wonder that at times we seek the kind arms of Wenceslas, at other times, the firm arms of Boleslav. Let us hope that in the future the Wenceslas Square becomes more of a place where lovers meet, than a place where demonstrations take place.

Jana Volfová,
Translated by Paula Schultz

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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