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Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437
A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

About the show:

Some will find it unusual that Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437, a major special exhibition of medieval material opulence at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, begins in that fateful year. After all, 1347 was marked by the onset of the Black Death in Europe. Brought first to Italy on ships, the Black Death's virulent strains of plague, carried by flea-infested rodents bacterially infected, eliminated one-third of Europe's population in record time. During the Fourteenth and early Fifteenth Centuries, the course of Prague's vibrant artistic and cultural history in Central Europe was different, yet akin, to that of major cities in Western Europe, due largely to political circumstances and the regions' cross-cultural contacts.

Prague, The Crown of Bohemia... is displayed impeccably and explained expertly in 10 airy rooms of The Met's second-floor Tisch Galleries by Barbara Drake Boehm, Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. This stunning international loan exhibition of some 200 rarely seen paintings, sculptures (many in gilded silver), illuminated manuscripts, works of stained glass, textiles and more will make only one other stop, justifiably so, at Prague Castle, the Czech Republic, from February 16 to May 21, 2006.

The show, arranged chronologically, opens with the early years of Charles IV (1316-1378). Although born in Prague, young Wenceslas (later confirmed as Charles) was reared at the court of France. Immersed in French culture, he was tutored by the future Pope Clement VI (r. 1342-1352), whose luxurious court in Avignon was located in the south of France. Charles' father, John of Luxembourg (1296-1346), allowed the youth to travel with him to northern Italy, where Charles engaged in military campaigns and built a castle near Lucca while an adolescent.

At age seventeen, Charles returned to Prague, already exposed to foreign artistic ideas more progressive at the time than the sculptural High Gothic style to which he was accustomed in Bohemia. The fusion of native artistic traditions with those of masters from France, Italy, Germany and Byzantium resulted in the development of the Beautiful Style in Bohemian art. This is apparent in The Crucifixion (ca. 1340). The magnificent devotional painting in the exhibition's first room, probably one-half of a diptych (two-panel composition), was created in Charles' early adulthood. The flat gold background is distinctly Byzantine. And the figures in the lower half of the artwork are derived from an Italian type of religious composition called the crowded Crucifixion. It's plausible that the rich colors and grouping of the characters surrounding the Virgin Mary were inspired by the famous Maestà (Majesty) Altarpiece (1308-1311) of Duccio di Buoninsegna (active 1278-1318), the master of Sienese painting in Italy. The broken bodies of the two thieves on either side of the crucified Christ, their heads terribly twisted and hanging, display the anguish of their outcomes. Intriguing in the left foreground of the painting is a draped woman staring deliberately at the viewer. This innovative work of expressive emotion was obviously popular in Prague, having been copied numerous times by other artists.

The Crucifixion, ca. 1340
Paint and gold on canvas, transferred from panel
26 3/8 x 11 5/8 in. (67 x 29.5 cm)
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemaldegalerie

Charles succeeded his blind father as king of Bohemia in 1347. He was later elected Holy Roman Emperor and crowned in Rome in 1355. The new ruler sought to make his cosmopolitan capital of Prague the cultural rival of both Rome and Paris. To that end, he founded Central Europe's first university, rebuilt the royal Karlstejn Castle with golden towers and expanded the glorious Saint Vitus Cathedral. The aesthetic apogee of the castle's interior design rests in Charles' Chapel of the Holy Cross, his repository for the imperial treasure with its semiprecious Bohemian jasper-covered walls.

The king endowed the treasury of Saint Vitus Cathedral with sacred vessels and gem-encrusted reliquaries (containers that store the bodily remains of or religious objects associated with a saint). Some from there and other ecclesiastical locations, such as the gilded silver Reliquary Bust of Saint Ludmila (ca. 1350) in the show, are in the shape of a holy person's head. An earlier and more unusual one, also from the Benedictine Convent of Saint George, is the Arm Reliquary (1300-1325). A package presumably holding a venerated section of humerus bone from Saint George's right arm is visible through the simulated lacing of the reliquary's gleaming gilded vambrace or armor for the forearm. The four-sided miniature building on which the bejeweled limb rests features images of Saint George, Jesus Christ, the Virgin and Child and Saint Ludmila, thus adding an extra layer of Christian symbolism to the sculpture. Popular devotion to Saint George's relics in Prague was so intense during Charles' reign that it was believed the king possessed in Karlstejn Castle a relic of the dragon that George slew.

Arm Reliquary, 1300-1325
Gilded silver, gems, mostly replaced by
semiprecious stones and glass imitations
22 1/4 in. (56.4 cm)
Metropolitan Chapter of Saint Vitus, Prague

The upper sections of the walls in Charles IV's Holy Cross Chapel in Karlstejn Castle were adorned with 130 paintings and images of saints, revered clergymen and Christian rulers (some of whom he associated with his own ancestry for the sake of dynastic prestige). One of the most outstanding artworks from this collection is that of Saint Luke (1360-1364), attributed to Master Theodoric, Charles' court painter. This half-length depiction of the Evangelist, replete with a halo and open book against a gold ground background, is the only image from the chapel's entire collection to look directly into the viewer's space. His penetrating gaze has recently given rise to the theory that the painting is Theodoric's self-portrait. Hovering mystically above Luke's right shoulder is a miniature ox, the symbol traditionally associated with the saint. The bottom of the composition has a receptacle meant to contain a precious relic.

Attributed to Master Theodoric
Saint Luke, 1360-1364
Paint and gold on panel
45 1/4 x 37 x 3 15/16 in. (115 x 94 x 10 cm)
Narodni Pamatkovy Ustav, Uzemni Odborne
Pracoviste Strednich Cech, Prague

Due to the vicissitudes of the times and his dissolute lifestyle, Wenceslas IV (1361-1419) did not fare as well as his father Charles IV in the role of Bohemia's ruler. Wenceslas was crowned king at the age of two and elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1376 without the approval of the pope. Despite turbulent circumstances, the Beautiful Style of art still flourished in his realm. While weathering the political storms of his reign, Wenceslas continued to patronize the arts. Many of the fine examples of sculpture, drawing, manuscript illumination and decorative arts in the second third of the exhibition attest to this fact.

Head of a Lion (detail), 1410-1420
From a portable model book
Silverpoint and brush with white highlights
and touches of red on green ground paper
3 3/4 x 3 9/16 in. (9.5 x 9 cm)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer, Vienna

A small group of ornately decorated volumes, identified by their royal emblems and coats of arms as having belonged to Wenceslas, demonstrates his interest in illuminated manuscripts. Their topics describe to some extent the king's intellectual pursuits. Among these texts are a Bible, a medieval romance and astrological treatises. On view in the show, along with other delicate manuscripts, is the Psalter of Wenceslas IV (ca. 1395), an illuminated version of the Book of Psalms. The colorful foliate decoration of the psalter's frontispiece (title page) is accompanied in the folio's margins by devices or symbols associated with Wenceslas, such as bath maids and love knots. A pair of hirsute wild men from medieval mythology is inexplicably attired in heraldic tournament armor. The opening line of each psalm in the book is written in Latin while the subsequent verses are translated into German. Wenceslas enthusiastically encouraged the use of the vernacular in liturgical texts, a practice that his father disdained.

Psalter of Wenceslas IV (detail), ca. 1395
Tempera and gold on parchment
36.7 x 26 cm (14 1/2 x 10 1/4 in.)
Salzburg University Library (M III 20)

The exhibition concludes with artworks from the reign of Sigismund (1368-1437), Wenceslas IV's half-brother who succeeded to the throne in 1419 following his sibling's death. Continued unrest in Bohemia forced Sigismund, crowned the king of Hungary in 1386 as the result of a childhood betrothal, to maintain two consecutive courts outside of Prague. The Bohemian religious reformer Jan Hus (1369?-1415) advocated use of the vernacular in teaching people about their faith. Also he was disturbed by what he observed as the overly sensuous nature of some religious works of art. Sigismund, already Holy Roman Emperor since 1410, failed to guarantee Hus' safety at his trial for heresy at the Council of Constance (1414-1418). He was burned at the stake for his beliefs on July 6, 1415. The preacher's martyrdom provoked widespread discontent in Prague. And the Hussites prevented Sigismund from ruling in the imperial city until 1436. The Horn of Sigismund (before 1408), with its three griffin feet, elaborate design and miniature figure of Saint George slaying the dragon on its tip, reflects the sumptuousness of the emperor's court before his return to Prague in this last phase of Luxembourg imperial rule.

The brilliant artistic legacy of the Bohemian kings Charles IV, Wenceslas IV and Sigismund is splendidly evident throughout Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437. These magnificent artworks have been eclipsed far too long by the accomplishments of Western Europe during the same period covered by this show. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's display of these masterpieces is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the viewer. Indeed, seldom if ever are many of them seen in their own country of origin.

About the catalogue:

Boehm, Barbara Drake and Jiri Fajt (eds.).
Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437 (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.

The authoritative 384-page catalogue of this show includes well-written essays as well as color and black & white images. It's a masterpiece of modern scholarship in Art History. Anyone interested in the art and culture of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance will be served well by adding this volume to his or her library.

For further reading:

Husband, Timothy (ed.).
The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.

The imaginary hirsute wild man and other monstrous races were very real to Europeans in the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This catalogue of a special exhibition held at The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch of medieval art in New York City's Fort Tryon Park, explains their imagery and significance in numerous artworks of various media. 

The Secular Spirit: Life and Art
at the End of the Middle Ages
(exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975.

The catalogue to this show of secular artworks and everyday objects from the Late Middle Ages provides a good parallel to many of the religious masterpieces in Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437.

"Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437" is on view from September 20, 2005 through January 3, 2006 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, NY 10028 (Telephone: 212-535-7710; Website: www.metmuseum.org). The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. SUGGESTED admission is $15.00 for adults. Paid parking is available in The Museum Garage.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history. His interests include: the art and culture of Old and New Kingdom Egypt; the Italian and Northern Renaissances; Church history; and witchcraft, heresy and social dissent in late-medieval and early Modern Europe.

See all Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews from Stan Parchin.

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