Vox Populi in the Age of Motorways and Graffiti: The Marian column in Prague today

It is August and the family gathers in the summer house located in south Moravia. We start discussing current affairs in the evening and the obvious topics of Czech and British politics dominate as usual. This is followed by the inevitable complaints about the state of the motorway between Prague and Brno which has been in constant repairs for years and the end is not in sight. Someone suggests that perhaps a crew of guerrilla builders should finish the repairs on the motorway overnight. This is a reference to a guerrilla cleaner who recently, of his own accord, removed an illegal graffiti from the Charles Bridge in Prague. The National Heritage Institute had put together a several week long plan for the removal work which for them required a careful and laborious work under close supervision. Instead, one morning the graffiti is simply gone, cleaned by high pressure steam by a Mr Černý, an independent contractor.

This story has an existentialist flavour not uncommon to the great Central European literature tradition of the 20th century: an institution plans an elaborate action which an individual, questioning the institutional purpose, disrupts. This story is also amusing and as such it is a popular topic in the otherwise silly season amongst friends and at family gatherings like ours. We all laugh at it but then, following the same theme, someone else mentions the reinstallation of the Marian column in Prague. This story is not that amusing. It raises many serious issues, yet it shares several aspects with the graffiti removal anecdote. It puts an individual, or a group of people against an institution, whether it is the National Heritage Institute, local council or the Catholic church.

Fig 1

Jindřich Eckert, The Marian column photographed in 1900 public domain; Wikimedia Commons

The Marian column has a rich history and even richer afterlife. The Baroque monument of 14 meters was put up in the Old Town Square in 1652 to commemorate the successful defence of Prague from the Swedish attack in the Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648. Topped with a statue of Virgin Mary, the column also became a symbol of the Habsburg takeover of the Czech lands mainly in political and religious terms. One of the War’s main battles was the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, in which the Bohemian Protestant revolt was defeated by Catholic armies. This event has been ingrained in the popular consciousness as one of the most traumatic events in the national history and the beginning of hundreds of years of suffering and “enslavement of the people.”[1] Such understanding was promoted especially during the 19th century revival by historians such as František Palacký or writers like Alois Jirásek who named the post-White Mountain era the Dark Ages. T. G. Masaryk also subscribed to this interpretation of Czech history. The installation of the column in the 18th century therefore became a metaphor for the harsh recatholicization of the country, for the dominance by the Habsburgs and their mistreatment of the Czech nation.

A few days after the new state of Czechoslovakia was declared in October 1918, a procession to the site of the White Mountain battle commemorated the event. A crowd of animated participants gathered in the Old Town square and “in a wave of patriotic excitement” pulled the column down. The square was left dominated exclusively by Ladislav Šaloun‘s Jan Hus monument, a symbol of the Protestant faith. This was a symbolic gesture which was most probably premeditated and not as spontaneous as it seemed. Even though criticised already at the time, it was nevertheless seen as an expression of the will of the people, instigated by an individual, the anarchist Franta Sauer-Kysela.[2]

Fig 2

The destroyed Marian column on 3 October 1918 – public domain; Wikimedia Commons

Very quickly after it was toppled down, however, calls started appearing for a reinstatement of the monument which temporarily died out with the Communist takeover in 1948. The renewed attempts to put up a “true copy” of the column may surprise. Yet today, they are also lead by an individual, the sculptor Petr Váňa, who already recreated the monument and had parts of it installed in the square. Currently there’s a heated public discussion about the extent to which it is necessary, appropriate and even possible to recover such an ideologically loaded monument. These are supplemented with more technical questions about monumental protection of the historic centre and construction laws in inner Prague. Recently, nearly thirty art historians and experts from various fields expressed their disagreement with the reinstallation in a letter (in Czech) to the Prague mayor. They emphasised the complex ideological meanings that the column has carried with its Habsburg legacy and they pointed to the impossibility to reconstruct the column accurately. A few counter-voices from a couple of art historians and especially Catholics dismissed their concerns, stressing other reconstructions and revisions of historic spaces in Prague.

Fig 3

The Old Town Hall, Prague, photographed in 1940 – public domain; Wikimedia Commons

The question whether the monument will be erected is therefore still open; and if it is, it may also provide an important precedent for how we think about and work with ideologically burdened works of art, design or architecture. And perhaps, we will see rebuilding of the Old Town Hall next, part of which was destroyed during the WWII bombings. For many it may be a blessing because, as a member of my family pointed out in relation to the Marian column, at least it would get rid of those horrible stalls with kitsch trinkets in Prague’s major square. On a more serious note, this discussion also indicates that the past is very much alive.

Marta Filipova

[1] 28. říjen a první dny svobody Když zlomeny okovy : Dějiny naší revoluce slovem i obrazem (Prague: E. Šolc, 1919), 32.

[2] Franta Sauer, Naše luza jesuité a diplomaté. historický doklad svržení mariánského sloupu na Staroměstském náměstí v Praze (Prague: v.n., 1923). Cf. Cynthia J. Paces, ‘”The Czech nation must be Catholic!”: An alternative version of Czech nationalism during the first republic,’ Nationalities Papers 27.3 (1999) pp. 407-428.

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