When first described by an envoy of the caliph of Córdoba in the tenth century, Prague was already a town at a crossroads, bustling with international merchants trading tin, fur, currency, and slaves. But it was the arrival in 1333 of Charles of Luxembourg, the Bohemian prince raised at the court of France, that triggered Prague’s emergence as one of Europe’s great capitals and cultural centers. First as king of Bohemia and then as Holy Roman Emperor, Charles set out to make his city on the banks of the Vltava the rival of Paris, and of Rome. In the panorama of the city created in the seventeenth century (53.601.10(72–83)), and still today, it is Charles’ city that defines and dominates the fairy tale skyline (1990.328.2). He ordered renovations to his castle, wanting to “demonstrate the magnificence of the glory of his kingdom of Bohemia, since princes, administrators and nobles were pouring in to visit him from all parts of the world.” According to his chronicler Beneš Krabice of Weitmile, Charles gilded the royal towers “so that they might powerfully shine and gleam at a far distance in fair weather.”
Son of the king of Bohemia and grandson of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles was an erudite and devout prince, educated in Paris and bound by kinship to the courts of Europe (69.86). After he assumed his father’s throne in 1347, he transformed Prague into a royal capital, with a distinctively Bohemian character (2013.272). Within a year of his coronation as king of Bohemia, the painters of Prague established the Brotherhood of Saint Luke, with members coming from France, Italy, and Germany, as well as Czech lands. Painters, “because of their art,” were exempt from military service! The confraternity’s ranks included specialists in other media, including manuscript illuminators, stained-glass painters (among whom three women are named in this period), sculptors, and mirror makers. The names of Prague’s goldsmiths similarly attest to the international character of artists at work in the city, including natives of Czech lands, Germany, and Greece.
Charles founded the first university in central Europe, and initiated a massive building campaign to glorify Saint Vitus Cathedral. When Charles was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, court and church commissions redoubled in Prague, his beloved castle at nearby Karlstejn, and throughout his vast empire (2003.29; 17.190.610, 2000.504). When Charles IV died, artists lined the bridge of the city to honor him as the funeral procession passed.
Charles’ son Wenceslas IV assumed the throne in 1378, but found himself increasingly embroiled in political and religious turmoil. Notwithstanding these circumstances, and Wenceslas’ weaknesses as a ruler, art in Bohemia reached its apogee during his reign. The monumental commissions of his father’s reign continued at the cathedral under the direction of the cathedral chapter, and at the university, with Wenceslas’ personal support, and in the king’s own castles. In Prague, the disparate artistic traditions Charles had brought from across Europe coalesced into a distinctive aesthetic known as “The Beautiful Style” (2005.393; 2013.38) that informed works of art across a wide swath of central Europe and in a variety of materials (2011.503; 61.16a-c; 2001.78), informed, in part, by artists’ use of model books and drawings (such as 2010.119, and this Vienna model book).
Wenceslas’ half brother Sigismund, king of Hungary and later Holy Roman Emperor, succeeded to the throne of Bohemia in 1419. Because of the unrest that continued there, however, he maintained his court in Buda. Like his father and brother before him, Sigismund lavishly decorated his residences and commissioned sumptuous works of art. Only in 1436–37, the final year of his life, did he at last gain control of Prague (1988.170; 29.158.595).