"The Art of the Bohemian Reformation" turns spotlight on lesser-known period of art

Photo: CTK

Often thought of as a historical period in which art was destroyed rather than created, the Reformation is rarely examined in terms of the artwork it produced. An exhibition that will open at the Prague Castle this Friday takes a look at Bohemian art from that very period.

While Catholic art tends to be well preserved, religious art created for the use of non-Catholic denominations remains essentially unknown to the public. “The Art of the Bohemian Reformation” takes a look at such pieces of art. It was organized by Kateřina Horníčková and Michal Šroněk, both employees of the Czech Academy of Sciences. I asked Kateřina Horníčková what the motivation was behind creating an exhibit that turns the spotlight on such a little explored area of art.

The depiction of John Hus being burned at stake,  photo: CTK
“Well, the general idea here in the Czech Republic, as well as in Europe, is that the reformation was quite hostile to art in general. Especially in Bohemia, the re-catholization after the Battle of White Mountain basically erased Protestant culture, which had been here for about 200 years. We knew of course that this idea was quite wrong, but we wanted to really prove it and show the objects of art that were created in that period.”

Among the exhibits are altar doors depicting Master John Hus, a Czech reformer priest and rector at Prague’s Charles University, who was burned at the stake for what the Catholic Church considered to be his heretical views. What meaning does Master John Hus have for the Czech nation? Kateřina Horníčková again:

“Master John Hus was the main figure behind the formation of the Bohemian reformation. He was burned at the stake in 1415 in Konstanz. He was basically a catholic priest and university teacher and rector, who was criticizing, as many others at the time, the situation in the Catholic church of the period, most especially he was against the sale of indulgences. When he was burned at the stake, the Hussite movement developed, bearing his name. With this heritage, Bohemia is the first nation in Europe which actually became protestant 100 years before Luther.”

Aside from rare exhibits depicting Master John Hus, the exhibit brings us further pieces of protestant art that have survived religious plundering throughout the centuries.

The Klaudian map of Bohemia,  photo: CTK
“We are in a specific situation because after the Battle of White Mountain- objects that were recognizably non-Catholic, either because of their imagery or because people remembered them to be, were destroyed. The Catholic side was of course aware that they [those artifacts] could bring people back to Protestant ideas, so these objects were very often damaged, destroyed or changed. That’s the best case scenario; some of the Protestant art of Bohemia survived because it was somehow appropriated by the Catholics and was taken to a Catholic environment and survived there.”

Among those objects, one of the most interesting ones would be the Klaudian map of Bohemia of 1518, which was basically created by the Czech brethren Mikuláš Klaudian, but survived, in the Litoměřice chapel archive as the only print of this type that we know of. It shows the division of Bohemia between Protestant and Catholic towns in Bohemia, and also the political system in the early 16th century. Another example would be the Roudníky altar piece, which shows Master John Hus being burned at stake in 1415. It is a 15th century altar which has been reused as a door to the altar precinct and therefore, it was painted over. In the 20th century, the painting was rediscovered, and thus we have the only monumental depiction of John Hus being burned at stake.

The Goettingen codex,  photo: CTK
Among one of the most interesting exhibits is the Goettingen codex, a theological tractate depicted in images, it shows pictures of the current church, revealing its images and flaws as compared to the images of the pure, original church of Christ. From the later period, we have beautiful codices, which are large pieces that were used by the literary brotherhoods for musical performances, some of them weighed about 60 kg each and they were hand illustrated.

One of the last exhibits here, which is very interesting, is a large monstrance for Corpus Christi. It is made of silver and weighs about 60 kilograms. It shows a life-size monstrance, which was made out of the cilices and objects of art of the protestant treasures of Hrudín. So basically in 1630, the council of Hrudín was forced by the re-catholization to take treasures of its church, melt it down and make this large Catholic monstrance out of it.”

Even though the focus of the exhibition is on religious art- and the Czech Republic is said to be Europe’s most atheist country with only roughly a third of the population belonging to any denomination- Mrs. Horníčková believes that visitors of all creeds will find an interest in this exhibit.

Photo: CTK
“There certainly is an interest in religious art, but the art was presented mostly as Catholic heritage, the difference here is the angle from which we look at the art. In the 15th and 16th century, the majority of the population of Bohemia was actually Protestant; mostly Calvinist or Utraquist, and this amounted to about 80 percent of the population. After the Battle of White Mountain, the population was re-catholicized because the Catholics won. This may be one of the reasons why the religious feelings are not so strong here, but that does not concern art, no matter what confession created them, we value them now as beautiful works of art.”

The exhibition “The Art of the Bohemian Reformation” is on display at Prague Castle’s Imperial Stables until April 2010.