Decoding the Guardians of Prague streets


Much of the most interesting historic art in Prague is on view every day of the year, all hours of the day. But you'll have to be prepared to crane your neck a bit to see the house emblems that adorn many of Prague's ancient buildings.

There is an impressive baroque house in Kozna Street in Prague, just steps from Old Town Square. It has vivid ochre walls and an imposing entranceway made of stone. And if you cast your eyes upwards, you will see carved into the top of the stonework, the figures of two bears and two men.

Writer Alena Jezkova says the scene represents more than just a chance meeting of quadripeds and bipeds in the forest. At the time this portal was built, alchemy was all the rage in Prague, and the carvings have a mystical significance.

"It's said that the two bears, in the way they are depicted, symbolize the great bear and little bear constellations, or ursa major and ursa minor. And the knights which each sit opposite a bear holding a branch in what looks like a symmetric formation. In fact, one if you take a closer look you'll see that one of them is older and one is younger. The older one has a dried out branch, and the younger one's is still green. Clearly this is saying something about the cycle of life. It's also long been said since the time of the alchemists that there are passageways leading from this building's basement to sites all over Prague. But that has never been proven."

In 1885, centuries after the last alchemists disappeared from the Prague scene, the House of the Two Golden Bears became the birthplace of the journalist Egon Erwin Kisch, who was known for his vivid descriptions of life among the city's prostitutes and thieves. As the story goes, the Bears that adorn the house he was born in were always in his heart, even when the tides of history carried him far from Prague.

"He had to leave the country during the german occupation because he was jewish. When he returned to Ruzyne airport after the war, so the story goes, his first words were, what are my two bears up to?"

Two bears and two knights errant. A blue fox. A hive of honeybees. A golden melon. Three violins. A crayfish. These are the kinds of house emblems that appear above doorways all over the historic center of Prague. They may be hewn from granite, carved out of wood, or painted onto plaster. The Czech capital has an amazingly high concentration of such house emblems, 300 to 400, by some guesses. And Alena Jezkova, whose new book is The Guardians of Prague Streets, may know them all better than anyone else.

"We're standing in front of the Golden Tiger which is very well known. It's a stone relief showing a tiger walking, it's from the 18th century. The pub at the Golden Tiger is celebrated because the well known Czech author Bohumil Hrabal picked this historic place for his dinners. Aside from Hrabal, celebrated visitors included Czech President Vaclav Havel and American President Bill Clinton. When Clinton visited Prague President Havel took him here and they sat at Hrabal's table. I remember the Tiger from my youth. Back then, the the tiger was simply of stone, he never had stripes, he wasn't golden either."

As Alena Jezkova and I stood outside the Golden Tiger, Praguers hurried up and down Husova Street, tourists mulled about, patrons of the pub came and went, but hardly anyone paid the humongous stone feline overhead much attention. Jezkova says she saw things very differently when she was a girl.

"I was lucky enough to be born and grow up in Prague, in a house right by Old Town square, and I still live there today. You could say I grew up in the streets of Prague. It was the 1970s and Prague looked totally different to toay.Most stores were closed, and there were hardly any restaurants. All Prague was grey, there were no colors. But what was really wonderful was that history spoke, every step you'd come across some authentic bit of history, What interested me at the time was the details. And I often magined they are my guardians and the pictures watch our every step. And of course they're very mysterious and know much more than we do. I used that in writing the book...That's where the idea came from - Strazci Prazskych Ulic, or 'The Guardians of Prague streets'".

In fact, these "guardians" had a very practical function quite apart from their ability to inspire daydreams: call it a forerunner of a global positioning system.

"House emblems originated in the 14th century for truly practical reasons. At the time, when someone was sending a letter he or she had to describe exactly where it was to be delivered - often they got lost. It became a fashion to put a symbol on your home to help letters and deliveries find their way. The symbolic language of the Middle Ages was apparent to anyone who lived then. You might even think of it as similar to today's traffic signs, logos, and pictograms, which tell us something today. If it was an apple, maybe it suggested the story of Adam of Eve, or it might mean they grew or sold apples. And that function as a way to orient yourself stayed until 1770, when Prague houses started to get number addresses, but the symbols stayed as a form of nostalgia.

House of the Black Madonna
To judge purely by the number of remaining house emblems, it would seem fair to conclude that Praguers are, well, big nostalgics. As late as the 20th century, when radical new architectural doctrines took hold, someone saw fit to attach an ancient black and gold ornament of Maria holding the baby Jesus to the side of Josef Gocar's cubist masterwork, the House of the Black Madonna.

Again, Alena Jezkova: "What's interesting is that this old sculpture of Black Madonna with a black face, holding the baby Jesus, whose face is also black, was originally a part of a much older building that stood on this site until the 20th century. Interestingly, and here we get into some mystical areas, the Black Madonna is associated with the Knights Templar, a mysterious and very rich order which has by now completely disappeared from Europe. We do know that about 20 meters from here the Templars had their center, although not even a stone remains today. But to come back to the cubist house that now stands on the site of the original House of the Black Madonna, which was built in 1912 - there are many cubist houses in Prague, but this is unquestionably the finest. And consider this - even a century ago when they were erecting the new building, people still believed strongly enough in the symbolic value of the statue to keep it. It's simply a symbol of life."