Walking to the old city center (evading the communist exhibition) was a similar experience to that in any historical European town: at first, one passes modern soulless apartment blocks with their desperate attempts at vivacity: gyms, spas, bleak pubs, and more sordid places with dimmed lights; then the number of 19th century buildings and the density of tourists increases. The prices and the number of beggars make a similar upturn, and the mass of Western men in shorts and women in varieties of revealing unclothing is only broken up by groups of disciplined Chinese and Indian senior citizens. All are consuming the remnants of premodern architecture and (mostly the men) relieved by large quantities of excellent Czech beer.
Maybe, this is as it should be. The natural order of the universe.
Still, the spirit of communism was there, I could sense it, and maybe, after all, it was not that of red ideology only. Maybe it was older, more versatile, and undying. It enveloped and drained the signs of Christian civilization of their vitality and their power to form the lives of the men and women thronging on the Old Town Square gazing for a few seconds at the medieval astronomical clock and being entertained by someone dressed up as a giant polar bear.
To me, the fact that Czechs are even less religious than my fellow Swedes was far more intriguing than most of the sights. The Czechs are in fact at the very bottom of the list of secularized European peoples, but as it says in an article from 2010 in The Guardian, there is still a sense of the spiritual here, which is best described as “a belief in magic” evidenced in the Czech trust in fortunetellers and astrology. Corroborating this was the sight in front of me of a young man holding up an IPad for two tourists to look at, trying to convince them that he had contact with the dead.
There is thus a museum of Alchemy in Prague; and on its webpage, you learn that this craft was not just part of medieval and renaissance history, but that you should “taste with us the secret of the Eternal Youth Elixir and bring a small piece of its magical energy into your life.” Obviously, this was not like communism, and not like the silent and grave churches looking down at the boisterous summer street life — this was explicitly meant to transform you.
Prague's Museum of Alchemy
Nevertheless, it was not the potion of eternal youth on the alchemical website that caught my interest, nor the elixir of Eros, but that of “Memos,” which according to the description, unsurprisingly, would increase my memory and concentration.
Unwittingly, this reflected the main palpating message of the old town, with its memories and traces of history, both ancient and near. But to this anamnesis must also be added eternal youth, that is, those things that never go away and never lose their power (with other words: the world of the spirit) and that of Amor, of passion in the sense of desire elevating you above the weight of animal life (food, sex, and status). These three elixirs (tradition, eternity, and love) must be mixed to give the visitors, the sincere tourists, and pilgrims, their true experience of what once was, what still lives, and what never will die, both good and evil. That is, the real drama of human life.
For most of the people consuming sights and gastronomical experiences on the large square, the need for combining Memoria with Amor and Immortalitas was far from their minds, or at least so I presumed; but still, they were prepared to be amazed. Such admiration of things mirabilis, however, easily deteriorates into cheap sensualism packaged in safe one-hour tours and trinkets to take home.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the city of Prague also houses a museum of the senses where you can “live an unimaginable experience in a world of sensations and mind-blowing optical illusions.”And, sadly, a museum of sex machines which will “guide the visitor in an ironic and intelligent manner, permitting them to move through the curiosity, history and perversion of human sexuality.”
What then about the Christian culture animating many of the buildings drawing all these people here?
After squeezing myself onto the karluv most, it was at first sight only a normal tourist experience. A beautiful bridge over the Vltava river connecting West with East, full of people taking selfies, street musicians, of whom one played the theme of the Pirates of the Caribbean on tin drums, and then, of course, scores of caricature painters.
Standing there thinking of what we had lost, I turned around and inside the tower of the bridgehead I glimpsed a painting of two angels holding up the veil of Veronica with its miraculously imprinted image of the face of the suffering Christ. This was so solidly Christian that it gave me a jolt and the tin drum music vanished from my attention. This was a Christian bridge. It was a monument to Christendom, and I walked forward eager to explore the details, which had escaped me, or which I had forgotten since my last two trips.
To my right was a large statue and to my joy it was of Thomas Aquinas, and proceeding I found the bridge teaming with crucifix scenes, disciples, saints, and Madonnas sculptured during the 18th and 19th centuries after Prague had become Catholic again following the battle of the White Mountain in 1630; and after an imperial army had repelled the Swedes that came looting during the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. The Swedes captured the castle, but were denied access to the Charles Bridge and thus entry to the old city.
The bridge was in that sense a monument of “you shall not pass”; of a triumphant Catholicism, but now this was easy to miss. It was as if the Swedes had won after all. There was no evidence that the message was important to anyone walking with towering symbols of holiness to both the right and the left.
How then are these memories cut into stone to be revived, understood as mirroring eternal verities, which had to be defended with passion, denying the enemies of the truth access to the old town, that is, to the heart of tradition? They might take the castle, that is political power, but then a stand had to be made.
COMING SOON. . .
A crucial key to answering this question in Prague is the small wax statue of the Child Jesus whom the protestant armies (maybe my Swedish ancestors once again) threw on a heap of rubbish where he lay for seven years with both his hands broken off. According to the priest who rediscovered the statue and who claimed to have received visions of the child Jesus, the divine message was, “Give me back my hands and I will give you peace.” The church of the statue significantly bore the name Church of the Virgin Mary the Victorious. I wondered: could this small wax child hold the key to revive the oversized stone sculptures on the Charles Bridge? Was victory gained by returning the hands to the child Jesus while the later monuments merely celebrated this victory?
When attending mass in the church of the Divine Infant, I found the atmosphere not very encouraging. Walking up to the altar was an Indian looking priest in green vestments, another older priest in a white alb and green stole, and a woman with short grey hair likewise dressed in a white alb. The old priest seemed almost asleep during the liturgy while the woman helped the officiating priest with everything, even going to the tabernacle with the consecrated hosts. Along the left side of the church was a row of paintings on easels displaying photoshopped Czech landscapes seemingly completely secular. I could not understand why they were there.
Both the liturgy, which exuded a kind of tired absentmindedness, and the out of place artworks were challenged by the lavish golden decorations surrounding the statue of the Divine Infant, who was so embedded in glittering metal that he was hardly visible. And then there was the devotion evident in many of the faces directed toward the Child.
Then it struck me that the statues on the broad bridge not far away were already to some degree secularized when they were created. Yes, they were public signs of Christian meaning: the crucifixion, well-known saints, and apostles. But they lacked a ritual dimension. They were not the foci of devotion. They were grand gestures but did not touch the heart. The little wax child was their very opposite: small and endearing, intimate and affectionate; without great artistic pretensions but incased in an explosion of golden decorations.
Coming back to the theme of memory, we can note that the frail Child Jesus had been forgotten, left to waste with his hands destroyed, in other words his ability to act had been suppressed. He had to be revived with human help. A priest had to give him his hands back so that he could help us. And this was not, as on the bridge, an act of renovation in which one restores the original outlook of a piece of art to enable the viewer to see what the artist saw when he had finished his artwork.
Complicating our reflection is the fact that all the statues on the bridge have been replaced by replicas as the conditions on the karluv most are corroding the stone. Most of the people visiting do not know this I think.
In the same way, the Prague statue of the child Jesus is the source of endless replicas. In fact, we have one at home made of wax probably in Bavaria in the 19th century, with real clothes and human hair, and in the shops surrounding the church of the Virgin Mary the Victorious you can choose from endless plaster and plastic copies painted in strong colors. The idea of copy here is different compared with the monuments of the bridge. The original is not in a deeper sense the wax figure in a Prague church but the Divine Child himself. All statuettes are copies, that is, symbolical representations enabling devotion and prayer. So endless reproductions are not diminishing the power of the original. It is similar to buying mini replicas of the Eiffel tower or Michelangelo’s David, which you take home to anchor your memory and to bring something of the wondrous cultural power of the original into your home. The replicas of the monumental sculptures on the bridge, however, were made to replace the original and are not to be taken home.
The more I thought about it the more I understood that from the grand public gestures of Christian meaning, the step is not long to the gaze of tourist admiration. As with the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel or enormous statues of popes in swirling robes.
A wax doll without hands, on the other hand, restored and receiving devotion, prayers, and thanksgiving is something else. Probably frowned upon as an expression of folk religiosity and lacking in high cultural value. But he holds the key to spiritual life, which restores our memory of things eternal, heals the broken links of tradition, and brings us to our knees. So different from the consuming gaze of the tourist who also happens to wander into the church of the divine Child and his mother. The visitor with a camera in his hands looks around and evaluates whether there is anything worth documenting. His gaze consumes cultural value and his machine records.
But what can bring him to his knees saying mea culpa, mea maxima culpa?
The divine Child can, but only if our tourist understands that he has to provide the child with new hands. That he was meant to be those hands. Only then will the visitor bend his knees and mere memory becomes tradition.
And he receives peace.