Brno to honour „father of genetics“ Johann Gregor Mendel with sculpture of pea shoots

Visualisation of the sculpture by Jaromír Gargulák

One name resounds in the city of Brno more than any other this year –that of the Augustinian monk, mathematician and biologist Johann Gregor Mendel, born 200 years ago. The Moravian metropolis is paying tribute to the father of genetics with numerous events – among them a concert by internationally renowned artists, the reconstruction of Mendel’s greenhouse at St. Thomas’ Abbey where he conducted his genetic research on pea plants and an international Mendel Genetics Conference at the university that bears his name.

For the city of Brno 2022 is the year of Johann Gregor Mendel. The celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of his birth –on July 20, 2022 –will culminate in the month of July, but events have been planned throughout the year to honour the scientist whom Brno proudly calls its “most famous citizen”. In Mendel’s honour, Brno’s astronomical clock on the town’s main square is issuing token glass balls in his memory – decorated with a red circle and the letter “M” in green.

The town’s deputy mayor Petr Hladík says Brno wants to celebrate the anniversary in a big way.

“Mendel is Brno’s greatest citizen. The global context of his legacy is unique. This is why we believe that the eyes of the world will be on Brno in July 2022.”

Johann Gregor Mendel | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Gregor Johann Mendel was born in a German-speaking family in the Silesian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is today the Czech Republic, on July 20, 1822. After becoming a monk, Mendel spent most of his life in the Augustinian abbey of St Thomas in Brno. He used the abbey’s 2 hectares of land to conduct hybridization experiments on plants and eventually published the results of his work in 1866. While not appreciated at first, Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900 and his experiments involving the crossbreeding of pea plants, through which he discovered the role of dominant and recessive genes, formed the core of genetics.

In order to celebrate his work the town has commissioned the construction of a monument to Mendel on the square that bears his name and which is also being reconstructed in time for the anniversary.

The monument depicts sprouting peas and will stand not far from the Augustinian abbey where Mendel conducted his experiments. The author of the bronze sculpture –which is still in the making - is Brno artist Jaromír Gargulák. He says that he found inspiration by doing exactly what Mendel did – planting peas and watching them grow.

"I looked up Mendel's Laws of Heredity on the Internet and portrayed them in graphic form. I watched the peas germinate, grow, and thrive, until there was a forest of peas."

Jaromír Gargulák | Photo: archive of Jaromír Gargulák

The bronze sculpture will be 4.6 meters high and is being made by a 15-member team in a Brno foundry. It will weigh 12 tons and thanks to its size it will also be possible to walk between the pea shoots and see the work from all sides.

The cost has been estimated at 20 million crowns. Half will come from the city’s coffers, the rest from private sponsors, the biggest of whom will gain an unusual privilege for their generosity –the chance to store their DNA directly in the statue, according to Jakub Carda, director of the NGO Společně, which has long been popularizing Mendel's legacy.

Brno City Hall is hoping that in addition to being a tribute to Mendel the sculpture will become a significant tourist attraction.

"The selected work is completely different from other sculptures in Brno. What is special is that people will be able to approach it from all sides, touch it and walk through it. We do not have anything like it in the city " Brno Deputy Mayor Petr Hladík told reporters.

However not everyone is cheering and given the attention the anniversary of Mendel’s birth has attracted there are already vocal critics of the work –even before it has been finished.

Hrachovina | Source: Společně o.p.s.

In an open letter, a group of artists, academics and art critics slammed the work as “simple and uninspiring”, saying it did not deserve to be selected for the honour of representing Mendel in the Moravian metropolis.

The jury which selected it from nine entries altogether, insists that it best reflected Mendel's contribution to humanity. The other artists chose less obvious symbols and one even resembled a DNA model, which came much later.

The mayor of Brno, Markéta Vaňková, has dismissed the criticism, saying that the panel of experts had made a selection and the sculpture was already in the making. Jakub Carda from the NGO Společně said that pictures of the sculpture had been made public and received a positive response from the locals.

Whether people like the city hall’s plans or not – they are very much in the spotlight –and the local authorities may now be doubly glad to have secured a blessing of the highest order for their undertaking. Last year Mayor Markéta Vaňková and members of the Order of St. Augustine were received by Pope Francis in the Vatican and informed him about the upcoming celebrations. The Pope blessed three stones from the foundations of the abbey on Mendel Square, where Mendel lived and served which are now embedded in the reconstructed Mendel Square, the restored Mendel greenhouse and the monument to Mendel that is to be unveiled in July.