Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Touring Architecture, Historical Miracles and Secular Culture

by Gary Berg-Cross

I recently had a chance to visit Prague in the Czech Republic and joined a walking tour of its Old Town. I knew little of the Czech history that goes with this Bohemian city, so it was a good way to fill in cultural gaps while seeing the main sights. From the number of stunning churches visible, such the Baroque St. Nicholas, part of that history was obviously religious in nature. Actually the city area's history goes back to 880, when the Moravian Premyslid dynasty started Prague with their construction of Prague Castle on the overlooking hill. That dynasty also imported the idea of Christianity to the area and started the long development of Catholic culture and traditions by suppressing the older Celtic culture and traditions. This older culture was the Boii, a Celtic tribe that inhabited the region from around the 4th century BC and gave Bohemia its name. You can't see any remnants in Old Town, but could learn about them by visiting the main building of the secular National Museum complex. Together they house almost 14 million items. The original building from the late 19th century covers natural history and regional history in a magnificent setting like our Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. Other buildings cover culture, arts, music and librarianship. In contrast to older attractions in the city these are some great secular monuments.

My Old Town tour started in the large, central square whose own origin grows out of a late 12th century market. The next 200 odd years added surrounding buildings of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and styles. These now enclose a tourist active square which includes restaurants and galleries. Most tours include a standard set of stories explaining how wealthy merchants built some of the house around the Square. Private constructions were followed by bigger public or religious projects. These include the Town Hall Tower & Astronomical Clock, which gives the square its current name (Staromestske). The story is that the jealous town leaders blinded the clock's designer so he couldn't duplicate the clock in other towns. Sort of dumb like voting for people who have a narrow view of progress.

The religious history of the town and area is also evident from the prominent statue
of religious reformer Jan Hus on the Square. This was erected on the 6th July 1915 to mark the 500th anniversary of his execution as a heretic. Hus was a predecessor to the Protestant movement, a dangerous thing in a Catholic era. His death eventually led to many a long inconclusive struggles between his followers and Catholics in what were called the Hussite wars.

The tour guided us through narrow, medieval streets that take you back to a time when walking was a slower, curvy, cobblestoney activity. Half way through we stopped at a large Baroque church called St James. Like other churches it is filled with religious details and decorations. But there were a few special, religious stories that our Prague guide threw in. She started by pointing to what was described as a 400 year old mummified/desiccated forearm hanging just inside the entrance. The story is that it belonged to a thief who had tried to steel some jewels from a statue of Madonna sitting on the high altar. As the story goes, the Madonna grabbed his hand with a marble grip that he couldn't break. There he remained till morning when the monks came to Church. The story goes that they had to cut his arm off to release it from the statue's grip. To celebrate the miracle, and as a message to other thieves, the monks hung the arm by the door.

Our guide also added some analysis about the cultural messages evoked by unified architecture and art in the church. It was built over a long time but was being finished in the period we call Baroque. This is the period after Renaissance architecture when various architects got bored repeating 200 year old idea using simple symmetry and forms. The Baroque innovation was a more complex, radiating design form with odd additions. They began combining curving facades with large-scale ceiling frescoes, more dramatic light & opulent ornaments made of plaster or stucco, marble or faux finishing. All interesting features, but the guide's analysis went deeper. The analysis explained why Prague religious groups began adopting the architecture. The guide suggested that various churches starting using this to counter the humanist message of the Renaissance and reformers like Hus. The Renaissance had placed religion on the defensive but the church fought back with art, and displaced some of the focus on the natural world. The extravagant and mystical style we call Baroque was also part of the Catholic revolt against the realism of the Reformation painters.

As an example, St. James church was designed to impress, dwarf and overwhelm the populace in a space that pulls attention upward and away from the everyday world. This was accomplished through the massive size of the structures, all of them reaching towards the heavens. I'd seen great stained glass windows before with pictures depicted biblical figures and stories. Now I heard how their changing pallet of color through the day was designed to connect viewers to the "light of God." The idea was that: "every feature in the construction helped to remind the viewer that all life was connected by the mystery of God."

There was perhaps another message behind the dynamic architecture. Lines of sight lead from a center to different, surprising and sometimes upsetting images - so the severed hand fit right in. The disharmony in Baroque architecture and art was another tool. It could be used to make people a bit uncomfortable. This is enhanced by church images that suggest the idea of struggle in a hostile world. One speculation is that this was an effective subliminal message to remind people of the Hussite invasion which had earlier destroyed the city and damaged nearby Prague Castle.

On thing that this architectural-historical analysis did make me think of is more modern architecture and the ideas they express. I love the architecture of some of our progressive era, public institutions. A great local example is the unified architecture painting, sculpture, and glass of the Jefferson Building of Library of Congress, which I've blogged about before In Praise of Libraries. It, and other decorative buildings of that era, celebrate a high-minded idea of culture that contrasts with a purely religious one. They express a secular mix of optimism and humanism. There's no miracle arm on display, and it's full of more comforting and down to earth cultural wonders. And at the Jefferson Building you can be you own guide and find wonderful messages about access to knowledge, creativity, celebrating achievement, government and of course the evolution of the book. See See also a Guide to the culture in the LoC's Jefferson Building.

Alas, the Progressive Era is long over and grand public structures seem a thing of a more daring past. Consider the difference in vision between the Jefferson Building and the more recent, vanilla LoC additions, such as the Madison Building. We are not likely to see such unified, cultural celebrations as the Jefferson building again. This side of Las Vegas I worry that our grandchildren (and their grandchildren) will have fewer public, secular monuments representing the current decades to inspire and grab their imagination in their time. Still in DC we may have more than in other places. We do have some Smithsonian additions and the MLK monument as representatives of the decades around he turn of our century.


lucette said...

Thanks for the very enjoyable and informative post, Gary. I hope you will keep traveling.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Thanks for Lucette. I'm back home, but will be at the Library of Congress Friday and Saturday so I will be in a good enviornment.