The Medieval Review 10.02.06

Zoë Opačić, ed. Prague and Bohemia: Medieval Art, Architecture and Cultural Exchange in Central Europe. The British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 32. Leeds: Maney, 2009. Pp. 247. . $62 ISBN 978-1-906540-58-6.

Reviewed by:

Eric M. Ramírez-Weaver
University of Virginia

This volume supplies another record of growing interest worldwide in the history of Bohemian art and architecture. The international collection of participants in the anthology, who hail from Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, offer up-to-date synopses of current thinking on a variety of subjects reviewed individually below. As a result, each essay in the anthology provides an excellent summary of relevant material in English that would be accessible and appropriate for assignment in even undergraduate courses in Anglo-American universities. In addition, however, the effort made by each of the respective authors to reappraise the state-of-the-question under consideration makes this volume an important contribution to graduate and professional level research on Bohemian architectural history.

Prague and Bohemia provides the published proceedings for a historic conference, which took place 7-12 July 2006, under the aegis of the British Archaeological Association. This collection should be situated within a range of similar recent publications and public exhibitions, encouraging scholars to reassess the central rather than peripheral significance of Prague within late medieval culture. Of note in this context, would also be the recently released anthology, Kunst als Herrschaftsinstrument: Böhmen und das Heilige Römische Reich unter den Luxemburgern im europäischen Kontext, edited by Jiří Fajt and Andrea Langer (2009), which likewise resulted from a conference in 2006 convened in conjunction with the Prague venue of the exhibition, Karl IV., Kaiser von Gottes Gnaden, Kunst und Repräsentation des Hauses Luxemburg 1310-1437, which had originated in New York as, Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437 (2005). The simultaneous exhibition focused upon Sigismund should also be noted here, with a catalogue, Sigismundus Rex et Imperator: Kunst und Kultur zur Zeit Sigismunds von Luxemburg 1387-1437, edited by Imre Takács (2006). A related conference resulted in another volume of published proceedings, Sigismund von Luxemburg: ein Kaiser in Europa, Tagungsband des internationalen historischen und kunsthistorischen Kongresses in Luxemburg, 8.-10. Juni 2005, edited by Michel Pauly and François Reinert (2006).

In her "Introduction. Medieval Prague, Bohemia and their Neighbours: New Perspectives and Connections" (1-7), Zoë Opačić underscores the significance of fourteenth-century Prague, which moved from the periphery to the center of late-medieval European affairs. The courtly culture in Prague was linked first to Capetian, and then more significantly to Valois Paris through Charles IV (d. 1378) and his marriage to Blanche de Valois. Charles IV also maintained a special affinity for the land of his formation, cementing the Franco-Bohemian ties fostering cultural exchange in the anthology. Peter Parler arises at the center of this phenomenon, revealing the extent to which it is unfair to see in the relationship between Prague and Paris an example of Parisian cultural hegemony. On the contrary, Parler plied his trade as a Rhenish architect while working in a Rayonnant cultural tradition, translating French royal architecture into a definitively Germanic appropriation and translation of the Rayonnant idiom.

Marek Suchý undermines the outdated conceit of a peripheral Prague in "England and Bohemia in the Time of Anne of Luxembourg: Dynastic Marriage as a Precondition for Cultural Contact in the Late Middle Ages" (8-21). Anne of Bohemia married Richard II, King of England, in 1382. Although Charles IV, her father, had fostered ongoing connections between Prague and Paris, the dynastic union of Anne and Richard, according to Suchý, resulted in neither cooler Franco-Bohemian relations, nor did the wedding bind England and Bohemia with priority and permanence. Suchý is to be commended for nuancing this complicated political Realpolitik of Bohemian neutrality. A steady foot traffic of pilgrims, courtiers, and military men voyaged between London and Prague in the late fourteenth century, documented by period accounts. Suchý proposes a compelling model, arguing that the dynastic union of Anne and Richard did not cement a political entente, so much as the wedding provided a catalyst for intercultural exchange.

Eric Fernie reassesses the use of defensive architectural elements for sacred architecture in "The Church of St. Bartholomew at Kyje" (22-33). The small church of Kyje near Prague also importantly provided Fernie with the opportunity to identify key characteristics of a bishop's chapel. Detailed plans, axonometric drawings, and careful exegesis reveal that the bishop's chapel is a fundamentally eclectic building type, essentially related in its wall fabric to the medieval rhetorical mode of the compilatio. Fernie focuses on the juxtaposition of the western tower, the short longitudinal nave, and flat-ended chancel in the plan, which provides evidence for his belief that the bishop's chapel improvises upon the magnate church.

Zdeněk Dragoun begins his architectural survey, "Romanesque Prague and New Archaeological Discoveries" (34-47), with an overview of the buildings on either side of the Vltava River in Prague. The beginnings of Bohemian pre-Romanesque architecture coincide with the evangelization of Bohemia in the ninth and tenth centuries, and therefore most remaining structures from this period are ecclesiastic in nature. Dragoun's review is not intended to be polemical, but swiftly supplies an excellent intellectual tour of the Romanesque city, ideal for pedagogical purposes. Dragoun then updated a few findings in Architecture of the Romanesque (2001), published in conjunction with K. Benešovska, P. Chotěbor, and T. Durdík. Amongst the new discoveries is the St. Wenceslas rotunda, which provides further evidence that Bohemian architects had a predilection for central plan churches.

In one of the highlights of this volume, Klára Benešovská reviews the state of information concerning "The House at the Stone Bell: Royal Representation in Early-Fourteenth-Century Prague" (48-63). Located in the historic Old Town Square, the House at the Stone Bell contained an overall decorative program with imperial pretensions. Benešovská's detailed analyses of the architectural fabric draw upon the latest innovations in axonometric reconstruction, fully exploiting technology in the service of architectural research and revision. This is actually emblematic of the methodological bent of the anthology as a whole, which seeks to review and render up-to-date an accessible but scholarly appreciation of Bohemian architecture. The proximity of the great hall in the westerly tower to the oratory in the south wing of the House at the Stone Bell underscores the intersection of the sacred and secular in domestic Gothic architecture. Benešovská nicely buttresses her architectural analysis with historic considerations, arguing persuasively that the carved effigies of the imperial couple flanked formerly by men-at-arms on the façade of the house represented the first Luxembourgers, John (d. 1346) and Elizabeth Přemyslovna, who attained the Bohemian throne in 1310. In fact, the House at the Stone Bell or a precursor, argues Benešovská, can be identified with the historic property of Simeon Štuk before which John convened the Prague public court of law, effacing the influence and legacy of Henry of Carinthia, as well as, his supporters.

Paul Crossley argues cogently in "Our Lady in Nuremberg, All Saints Chapel in Prague, and the High Choir of Prague Cathedral" (64-80) that Peter Parler was more than a master architect--he was a sculptor of space, manipulating the fabric of Saint Vitus' triforium with attention to formal elements and principles of design. Through symmetry, the reticulation of the wall elevation, and the design of the high vault in the choir, Parler managed to integrate the interior and exterior space surrounding the cathedral. Looking as far afield as the English west country for influences upon Parlerian architectural innovation, Crossley argues persuasively that the diachronic development of Parlerian architectural vocabulary can be traced back to the Nuremberg Frauenkirche (founded 1355 by Charles IV), especially in the St. Michael's oratory. In addition to the aesthetic links between the oratory of St. Michael's "chapel-clerestory" and the integrated triforium plus clerestory of the Prague choir, Crossley concludes that the Frauenkirche in Nuremberg and Prague Cathedral participated in a proliferation of Marian devotion, promulgated by Charles IV and his retinue.

Milena Bartlová's essay, "The Choir Triforium of Prague Cathedral Revisited: The Inscriptions and Beyond" (81-100), reconsiders the role of the renowned triforium inscriptions from St. Vitus' Cathedral in the understanding of its architectural history. The lacunae, errors, and putative eighteenth-century insertions into the inscriptions accompanying the twenty-one busts of people who participated to varying degrees in the erection of Prague Cathedral, undermines the historic value of the epigraphs. Bartlová warns against exaggerating the direct creative influence of Charles IV upon St. Vitus. Instead, it is better to remember that the church was founded by John of Luxembourg in 1341, and the metropolitan chapter of St. Vitus would have played an integral role in the development and execution of the great church's construction.

Marc Carel Schurr compares St. Vitus' cathedral to the parish church in Kolín in his contribution "Peter Parler's Choir of St. Bartholomew in Kolín and the Art of 'Articulation'" (101-16). Schurr suggests sensibly that the style of a master mason like Peter Parler remains consistent, even if such an architect applies his stylistic preferences to discrete structures in different ways in keeping with the relative significance of the architectural commission. Parler simplified aspects of his visual vocabulary at Kolín, reminding the local aristocrats with connections to the silver mines of Kutna Horá that the parish church remained in submission to the crown.

Tim Juckes carefully scrutinizes the relationship between the vaults of parish churches and major cathedrals in "Prague - Vienna - Košice: The Church of St. Elizabeth in Košice and Vault Design in the Generation after Peter Parler" (117-32). The richness of the designs for complex bent-rib star vaults (so-called Knickrippensterne in the German literature) at Košice suggests that an experimental master mason plied his trade with aplomb in the parish church during the early fifteenth century. Of particular interest to specialists is the proposed chronology for the development of bent-rib star vaults in Central Europe. The vaults at Košice were finished in the 1440s, and suggest that the chantier in Vienna might have been experimenting with such designs during the entire period 1400-50. The upshot is that regional foundations with high aspirations like Košice could provide opportunities for architects to test the latest building fashions.

Andreas Puth contextualizes a genealogical and ideological cycle of fenestration formerly illuminating the Bartholomew Chapel of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna in his contribution, "'The Example of Prague in Europe'? The Case of the 'Habsburg Windows' from St. Stephen's in Vienna in the Context of Dynastic Rivalry in Late-Fourteenth-Century Central Europe" (133-54). Within architectural fantasies, the windows commemorate Habsburg rulers such as King Rudolf I of the Romans (Rudolf IV, d. 1291), and Puth argues for a link to Albrecht III (d. 1395), who exploited the turbulent reign of Wenceslas IV (d. 1419) in his attempts to reclaim the Roman-German crown for Austria. Stylistic comparisons permit a dating of the windows to the period of this activity (1380-90), when a "second ducal workshop" of glaziers fashioned this propagandistic display affirming Habsburg legitimacy.

Achim Timmermann's study, "Paysage moralisé: The Zderad Column in Brno and the Public Monument in the Later Middle Ages" (155-67), forms part of a larger project. Timmermann demonstrates that the enigmatic Zderad column was probably created ca. 1465, and served the function of a so-called "Poor Sinner's Cross" (referred to as Armsänderkreuze in German), designating sites of execution on the medieval landscape. As markers of judgment, they also supplied reminders of forgiveness in the hereafter for those condemned to death.

Milada Studničková argues in "Karlstein Castle as a Theological Metaphor" (168-82) that the stairwell linking physically and conceptually the Lesser Tower chapel of Our Lady to the Great Tower chapel of the Holy Cross manifests a metaphorical relationship with the spiritual elevation of a transcendent soul. The stairwell is decorated with wall paintings, depicting the hagiography of Bohemian patron St. Wenceslas. His sacrifice is linked via the stairwell as a type of Jacob's Heavenly Ladder to the Eucharist and the holy relics of Christ's Passion stored within the Holy Cross Chapel (1365), commonly associated with the Heavenly Jerusalem in art historical literature.

Supplying an important note concerning the short-lived period of Bohemian hegemony over Poland, Agnieszka Rożnowska-Sadraei argues in "Vying for Supremacy: The Cults of St. Wenceslas and St. Stanislas in Early-Fourteenth-Century Cracow" (183-98) that the Cult of St. Wenceslas experienced an efflorescence in Cracow during the kingship of Wenceslas II (d. 1305). The material concessions of Cracow Bishop Jan Muskata (d. 1320) to Bohemian influence included proposals for Cracow Cathedral (ca. 1300) and a missal (ca. 1320).

Evelin Wetter summarizes the various examples, sources, and reasons for the iconography of the cross as a Tree of Life and the broken body of Christ as Eucharistic host on Bohemian chasubles, ca. 1380-1450, in "Arbor vitae and Corpus Christi: An Example of Chasuble Iconography from Late-Medieval Central Europe in the Context of the Mass" (199-214). Wetter relies for her exegesis inter alia upon visionary literature associated with St. Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373) in which devotion to the Eucharistic host was combined with an interest in the beauty of the dying Savior.

Jan Chlíbec argues in "Some Remarks on the Aristocratic Patronage of Franciscan Observants in Jagiellonian Bohemia" (215-28) that the post-Hussite period likewise experienced a renewal in certain areas of artistic production. In particular, the patronage of monasteries linked to the Franciscan Observants during the Jagiellonian period (1471-1526) suggests a reactionary interest on the part of Bohemian aristocrats to cultivate an indigenous Catholic series of commissions. Diamond vaults and funerary monuments within Franciscan great churches document the aristocratic desire to memorialize late-fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century noble families while returning to a religious Catholic orthodoxy, undermined by the Hussite reformers and the Utraquists (who demanded consumption of both bread and wine at Communion). Of particular interest are the transi tombs such as the memorial for Jan Hasištejnský of Lobkovice (d. 1517) in the Kadaň Monastery, over which he had been granted founder's rights in 1481 by King Vladislav Jagiełło.

Taťána Petrasová critically appraises the nineteenth-century, neo-Gothic understanding of medieval Bohemian architecture through an examination of "Josef Mocker and Prague's Medieval Landscape (1872-1899)" (229-47), supplying a fitting conclusion to this encyclopedic anthology. Mocker was criticized even in his own day for his modifications to extant medieval structures or demolitions in the name of urbanization and municipal progress. Schooled in the techniques of Friedrich Schmidt (d. 1891) at the Viennese Akademie der bildende Känste, Mocker's regothicisation projects (1872-99) were recorded and accompanied by documentation of executed alterations. On the other hand, the appearance of Prague's historic monuments today must be evaluated with Mocker's transformations to the building fabric in mind, including notably Mocker's changes and construction at Prague Cathedral, where he was master builder beginning in 1872.

At the conclusion of the anthology, this final essay reminds the reader that art historical beliefs about Bohemian art and architectural history are ideologically embedded within archaeological strata of knowledge, consisting of outdated methodological assumptions which obscure scholarly appreciation of Bohemian art history. This collection does an excellent job of supplying a corrective. The essays in this volume offer a clearer lens through which future debate can be focused, and a critical model to follow.