Artwork of the Month, August 2019: Prague Cathedral by Josef Sudek (1926–27)

This highly atmospheric photograph is an image of the nave of Prague’s St. Vitus cathedral, framed by an arch on the north aisle, the vantage point of the viewer. Bathed in the streaming sunlight is the south aisle, partially occluded by the nave columns. The photograph, taken some time in 1926 or 1927, is part of a portfolio of images of the cathedral which Josef Sudek persuaded the design and publishing co-operative Družstevní práce (Co-operative Works) to publish.

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Josef Sudek: Prague Cathedral, 1926-27, from the portfolio St. Vitus Cathedral, 1926-29 – photo: Viktor Torst

Many of the images are well known and have been regularly republished, since.[1] In addition to these shots of the general interior, Sudek took images of the exterior setting – the castle complex –, panoramic views of Prague taken from the top of the cathedral, and numerous close ups on architectural details and sculptures, from tomb effigies to the ornamental carvings. These have since become some of the best-known images of the cathedral. In his photograph of the nave Sudek enhances the atmosphere of the interior space, the light streaming into the nave of the cathedral takes on an auratic presence – the spiritual connotations are hard to miss. Moreover, light is not merely a medium for facilitating the visibility of the architecture, light itself, and the way it transforms our perception of objects, becomes the subject matter of these photographs.


Josef Sudek: Image from the portfolio St. Vitus Cathedral, 1926-29 – photo: archive of the Moravian Gallery in Brno

These are photographs of the cathedral at a very particular moment – the final months of its construction. For, with the exception of a few stained-glass windows that were executed in the 1930s, it was completed by September 1929. Thus, in this image we can see a pair of builders at work by a trestle; in the side chapel off the aisle, sculptural figures are stacked unceremoniously, waiting to be installed. Like a number of other famous monuments of medieval architecture, the most notable, perhaps, being Cologne Cathedral, St. Vitus was a fragment for many centuries.


Josef Sudek: Image from the portfolio St. Vitus Cathedral, 1926-29 – photo: archive of the Moravian Gallery in Brno

Work first started on it in the 1340s, but construction was interrupted by the Hussite wars of the early fifteenth century, and while there were some important additions later, including the completion of the main spire, the bulk of the nave and the west end remained incomplete. Various proposals were put forward in the mid-1800s to bring it to completion, but it was not for another 20 years, in the 1870s, that the project commenced, supervised by Joseph Kanner. Sudek’s photographs are a document of that work as it had come to fruition. Indeed, several of the images of the portfolio focus on the signs of construction: wooden planks and masonry strewn across the floor, tools left haphazardly at various places in the building.


Josef Sudek: Ancient Staircase, 1925 – photo: archive of the Moravian Gallery in Brno

These are some of Sudek’s best known works, but their place in his oeuvre is not straightforward. In purely visual terms, they might be seen as typifying the modernist formalism most commonly associated with his name. Much of his work from the 1920s was characterised by an attention to purely formal values to an extent that the recognisability of objects is toyed with. Ancient Staircase, for example, is not concerned with the legibility of the architectural structure – where do the stairs lead? – but rather with the visual rhythm of the steps and the visual interplay between the curvature of the fountain in the foreground and the oblique angular forms of the steps. Sudek’s cathedral album is an extension of this formalist work. The stone block in his photograph of part of a window-frame waiting to be installed becomes an abstract form in which the focus of attention is no longer its recognisability but rather the interplay of shades and texture. Landscape by Žebrák – a small town to the west of Prague – turns the agricultural landscape into a play of interlocking lines and shades.


Josef Sudek: Window frame, from the portfolio St. Vitus Cathedral, 1926-29 – photo: archive of the Moravian Gallery in Brno


Josef Sudek: Landscape by Žebrák, 1929 – photo: archive of the Moravian Gallery in Brno

Yet while certain formal and compositional strategies persist, the photographs of the cathedral also constitute a departure; for during the 1920s Sudek’s reputation had been built up primarily for the commercial output he had developed in collaboration with Ladislav Sutnar. Responsible for significant proportion of the photographs in the magazines Žijeme (We are alive) and Panorama, published by the Co-operative, Sudek had become interested in advertising photography. In these commercial images, attention to aesthetic qualities is put to the service of commodity fetishism. Indeed, in 1933 he would persuade the Czechoslovak Ministry of Education to launch a course on the subject at the State Graphic School (Statní grafičká škola) in Prague, where he had himself originally trained.

For all the formal similarities, therefore, Sudek’s cathedral portfolio represented a considerable departure from his earlier immersion in the world of advertising. Yet, we could easily explain his project in terms of his engagement with the wider political symbolism of the cathedral. The portfolio includes exterior views of St. Vitus that mark out its place in the city. Completion of the cathedral was seen as a patriotic task, for it was, and remains, one of the most recognisable buildings in Prague, and it was a symbol of the wider European importance of Prague and Czech culture. In the late nineteenth century the cathedral had become the focus of furious debates between German and Czech-speaking scholars in the city over its national character, over whether, artistically, it was a product of the (German) Holy Roman Empire or whether it embodied the specifically Czech genius loci of the city. By the 1920s its identity as a Czech monument was no longer in doubt, and many prominent artists in Czechoslovakia became involved in the final phase of construction; this was particularly evident in the stained glass windows, designed by artists such as Alfons Mucha, Max Švabinský and František Kysela.

As such, Sudek’s photographs can be seen as part of a broader patriotic celebration of Czech heritage and culture that accompanied the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovakia. In this regard it is worth noting that a number of images from the portfolio were displayed at the Exhibition of Contemporary Culture staged in 1928 in Brno to enhance the new state’s international image.

So far, therefore, we might conclude that there was nothing particularly remarkable about the fact of the publication of the portfolio, even though the images themselves are highly arresting and have, rightly, assumed a prominent place in the history of interwar photography. However, the images exhibited in Brno were accompanied with essay by Jaroslav Durych (1886-1962), one of the foremost Catholic writers and cultural commentators in interwar Czechoslovakia.[2] It is often noted that the independence of Czechoslovakia entailed not only a break from Habsburg rule, but also a fracturing of the authority of the Catholic church. Its founding president, Tomáš G. Masaryk, shaped by his experiences of religious non-conformism in the United States, was a relentless critic of Catholicism and clerical involvement in politics, which he regarded as a primitive relic of past times. In its place he envisaged a humanistic, non-denominational state religion that would be more ‘rational’ in its outlook.[3] Durych was the most prominent representative of an assertive Catholic intelligentsia that resisted Masaryk’s anti-clerical attitudes; this was not only in order to defend the Catholic church but more generally to promote ‘Christian’ values. Durych’s activities took on various forms, from acerbic critical essays and reviews to novels that explored the Catholic moral universe. His best known, a historical trilogy titled Bloudění (Wandering), published in 1929, was set in the Thirty Years’ War, the period that in the Czech national historical imagination was associated with the imposition of Habsburg Catholic culture and the suppression of (Bohemian) Hussite beliefs.[4] The title connotes the spiritual confusion of the time, but it could equally be read as an allegory of the disorientations of modernity. The trilogy tracks the spiritual odyssey of the main protagonist, Jiří, who begins as an opponent of Habsburg rule and, by the end, has come to accept it and also embrace Catholic faith due to his love for the pious Catalan woman Andělka.

Durych’s essay on Sudek’s photographs makes no explicit reference to the Catholic faith, but it emphasises the sense of mystery and sublimity of the cathedral, and its identity as ‘a thousand-year-old work of art that has achieved supreme heights as well as the greatest breadth and richest diversity in its sacred sublime harmony.’ In other words it is an essay in the construction of a certain poetic myth about the cathedral that matches, too, Durych’s view of photography which, he argues, ‘is not just the inanimate eye of the lens … but rather a living eye, a living spirit and a love that lurks in wait for those moments when a form or a thing shines in its intimate grace.’ This poetic rendering is most apt, perhaps, as a description of Sudek’s photographs and of their aesthetic transfiguration of the cathedral, but it is worth comparing it with the approximately contemporary view of the architectural theorist Karel Teige, that ‘The Gothic cathedral is more of a construction record than an expression of religious fervour.’[5] Teige’s statement was a powerful assertion of a constructivist aesthetic that took issue with aesthetic idealism of the kind evident in Durych’s essay.

Placing Teige alongside Durych highlights one of the polarities of interwar Czechoslovakia, and it makes us consider the meaning of Sudek’s photographs in a different light. For to involve Durych in a project concerned with Prague’s most important sacred structure was perhaps logical, but his religious fervour and commitment to Catholicism means that his essay sits uneasily alongside the work of Sudek, given the latter’s status as a prominent representative of Czechoslovak modernism. The fact that the editors of Družstevní práce and Sudek saw fit to invite Durych to contribute to the portfolio is testament to his significance, but it also reminds us of the ambiguities and ambivalences of the interwar art world, in which figures with such diverse interests and values could work together, and in which a reactionary thinker could collaborate with a photographer of the avant-garde.

Matthew Rampley

[1] The most recent edition is Josef Sudek Svatý Vít (Prague: Torst, 2010).

[2] Jaroslav Durych, ‘Svatý Vít,’ in Josef Sudek Svatý Vít, pp. 11-13.

[3] Masaryk’s views on religion have been explored in some depth by Bruce Berglund, Castle and Cathedral in Modern Prague: Longing for the Sacred in a Skeptical Age (Budapest: CEU Press, 2017).

[4] Jaroslav Durych, Bloudění (Prague: Kunciř, 1929). It was soon translated, first into German, as Friedland: Ein Wallenstein-Roman, trans. Marius Hartmann-Wagner (Munich: Piper, 1933) and then into English as Descent of the Idol, trans. Lynton Alfred Hutton (New York: Dutton, 1936). It has continued to be published to the present day.

[5] Karel Teige, ‘Karel Teige, ‘Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia’ (1930) in Teige,  Modern Architecture in Czechoslovakia and Other Writings, trans. Irena Žantovská Murray and David Britt (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2000) p. 289.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/YB25R

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