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Exhibitions/ Prague

Prague: The Crown of Bohemia, 1347–1437

September 20, 2005–January 3, 2006

Exhibition Overview

Crowned King of Bohemia in 1347, Charles IV (1316–1378) sought to make his capital city—Prague—the cultural rival of Paris and Rome. The remarkable flowering of art that transformed the city into Bohemia's Gothic jewel is celebrated in this exhibition, a landmark presentation of some 160 stunning examples, including panel paintings, goldsmiths' work, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, silk embroideries, and stained glass. These little-known masterpieces attest to the wide-ranging achievements of the hundreds of artists affiliated with Prague and the Bohemian crown during the reign of Charles IV and his two sons, Wenceslas IV (1361–1419) and Sigismund (1368–1437). The exhibition draws on numerous collections in the Czech Republic as well as other European and American collections, and includes many works that have never been publicly shown.

Organized both chronologically and thematically, the presentation begins with the reign of Charles IV and focuses on several of the great artistic campaigns through which his capital city was transformed into a cultural showplace.

The exhibition is made possible in part by Carl B. and Ludmila Schwarzenberg Hess; Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro; and the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

Additional support has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Transportation assistance has been provided by Czech Airlines.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation, Inc.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Prague Castle Administration.

The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

As the son of the king of Bohemia and the grandson of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV was well educated, well traveled, and—through bonds of kinship—well connected with many of the courts of Europe. He ascended to the throne of Bohemia in 1347 after the death of his father. Determined to transform Prague into a suitable center of power, he built churches and bridges, founded a university, and brought in artists from across Europe. These projects redoubled when Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, and—despite political and religious turmoil—were carried forward by his sons Wenceslas IV (his successor as King of Bohemia) and Sigismund (who ruled as King of Hungary, Holy Roman Emperor, and also—after the death of Wenceslas—King of Bohemia).

From the laying of the foundation stone for St. Vitus Cathedral in 1344, three years before Charles became king, he took great interest in the project and significantly expanded the original plan. One of the great cathedrals of Europe, St. Vitus was built to serve many functions: it was the spiritual center of Prague and the kingdom of Bohemia, the coronation church and the final resting place of kings and queens, and the repository of the crown jewels of Bohemia.

Because of strictly limited access to the cathedral's treasury since World War II, the works on loan to the exhibition are virtually unknown. Of particular interest are the Ara Coeli Virgin, an icon that Charles brought to Prague after he visited Pope Urban V in Rome, a gem-encrusted rock crystal ewer reliquary for a fragment of the tablecloth from the Last Supper, and a gilded silver tabernacle—a superbly detailed miniature Gothic cathedral—that is associated with the Parler family, the cathedral's architects (Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague). Renowned across Central Europe, the same family of master builders also oversaw the construction of Cologne Cathedral, from which two sculptures attributable to the Parlers are shown.

The sacred imperial residence was Karlštejn Castle, an imposing stronghold located outside Prague. Of the several chapels Charles created there, the most important is the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a precious repository for his personal collection of holy relics and the jewels used for his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. The chapel was sumptuously decorated with more than one hundred panel paintings by the imperial painter Master Theodoric. Because of an unprecedented loan, the exhibition includes two of these magnificent works (National Institute of Historical Monuments Care, Prague).

Panels of Bohemian jasper—a distinctive deep red stone noted for its large inclusions of rock crystal and amethyst—used to sheathe the walls are a remarkable decorative element shared by St. Vitus Cathedral and Karlštejn Castle. To suggest the Bohemian predilection for this material, a group of rare jasper vessels is shown, including two that were once part of the Medici family collection (Museum degli Argenti, Florence), some that still retain their original fifteenth-century mounts (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art), and one in which the rock crystal is particularly prominent (Swedish Royal Collection).

Another of Charles's important projects was the establishment, in 1348, of the first university in Central Europe. A gilded silver scepter believed to have been an original emblem of authority of Charles University is shown (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin).

The exhibition also includes important works representing Prague's prominent Jewish community. Because of anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval and later times, hardly any works of this nature have survived to the present day. Of special interest are a three-volume Hebrew Bible, featuring gold calligraphy against a brilliant colored field embellished with floral ornament (Yeshiva University, New York), and a set of five hexagonal nesting silver beakers, bearing an inscription in Hebrew characters (Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg).

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).

Following the death of Wenceslas in 1419, Sigismund succeeded to the throne but, because of the unrest that continued in Bohemia, maintained his court in Buda and then in Bratislava for several decades. Recently unearthed sculpture from Sigismund's castle in Buda is shown (Municipal Museum, Budapest), as is his gilded silver and enamel drinking horn (Esztergom Cathedral Treasury).

In 1436–37, the final year of Sigismund's life, Prague at last came under his control. On view is one panel from a cycle of paintings commissioned for the church of St. James—of which he was the patron—that has newly been attributed to Sigismund's patronage (Moravian Gallery, Brno).