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Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347–1437

September 20, 2005–January 3, 2006

Wenceslas IV

At the death of Charles in 1378, Wenceslas IV succeeded to the throne of Bohemia, but found himself increasingly embroiled in civil, national, and religious turmoil. Yet despite Wenceslas's weakness as a ruler, Bohemian art reached its apogee in the period of his reign. The disparate artistic traditions that Charles had brought to Prague from all parts of Europe coalesced, under Wenceslas, into a recognizable Bohemian aesthetic. Characterized by an elegant figural style in all media and a particularly vivid palette, it was known even at that time as "The Beautiful Style."

Wenceslas—who sponsored the translation of the Bible into German from Latin—was particularly fond of luxury illuminated manuscripts. Several works known to have belonged to the library he amassed are shown. Particularly noteworthy are his Book of Hours (Pembroke College, Oxford University), and his Psalter, written in German and Latin, whose pages are ornamented with a number of his personal devices, such as his coat of arms, a diminutive image of the king himself entwined in the letter W, a love knot, a bath maiden, and the kingfisher bird (Salzburg University Library).

Manuscripts also found favor among the members of his immediate circle. A large grouping of sumptuously illuminated leaves from a Bohemian choral manuscript that was dispersed during the Depression preceding World War II is brought together for the first time in seven decades (Cleveland Museum of Art; National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Morgan Library, New York; Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington; Stockholm National Museum; the J. Paul Getty Museum). A fancifully ornamented two-volume Bible once owned by Konrad of Vechta, the extremely wealthy archbishop of Prague and Master of the Mint at Kutna Hora (noted for its silver mines), constitutes an exceptional loan (Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp).

Works in other media include a stunning icon of the Black Madonna that was made for Wenceslas (Parish Church of Brežnice) and elaborate gold embroideries made for George of Lichtenstein, whom Wenceslas named prince-archbishop of Trent in northern Italy (Diocesan Museum, Trento). Also on view is a subtle and realistic painted sculpture of the Virgin and Child that shows her fingers pressing the soft skin of her baby (Parish Church of Šternberk), and a poignant limestone image of Jesus in prayer on the Mount of Olives that was created under the patronage of the Teutonic Knights (Malbork Castle).

Works relating to the Hussite Revolution are also shown. The conflict involved a religious struggle between the followers of the celebrated preacher Jan Hus and the Catholic Church, presaging many of the issues that Martin Luther would embrace a century later. Wenceslas supported Hus, but—after he was found guilty of heresy—Sigismund signed his death warrant. The exhibition includes an early image of Hus being burned at the stake (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic).