Exhibition maps art and culture in the time of the Luxembourgs

In today's Czechs in History we look at one of the most illustrious periods of the kingdom of Bohemia - the rule of the Luxembourgs - reflected in an important exhibition now underway at Prague Castle: Charles IV - Emperor by the Grace of God. The exhibit, which had an immensely successful run last autumn at New York's Metropolitan Museum opened in Prague mid-February to great expectations. Opening the exhibit curator Jiri Fajt explained the period of the Luxembourgs, between 1347 and 1437, was among the most artistically important the kingdom of Bohemia had ever seen. And he said the exhibition, which features works from more than 90 museums, galleries, and private collections, would allow Czechs to rediscover one of Bohemia's most famous eras.

"The exhibition follows several generations of the Luxembourg family, from King John of Luxembourg, his son Charles IV and Charles' sons Wenceslas and Sigismund, who made Bohemia - and Prague specifically - a centre of major political, artistic, and cultural importance."

According to the curator, Prague was never so closely wed to the rest of Europe as then. There were other periods similar in significance: the 1600s, and later, the national revival in the 19th century, but the era of the Luxembourgs was truly unique. It was the curator's aim to show it was so culturally mixed. That too, Jiri Fajt notes, is what this exhibition is about.

On its autumn run the exhibit attracted a great deal of attention in New York - the Metropolitan seeing more than 170,000 visitors. But, of course for Czechs the exhibit bears a special resonance. It is hardly surprising the show has attracted a great deal of attention here:

"It's very important. I would like to see the famous Czech Emperor Charles IV."

"Certainly it's one of most important periods in the history of the Czech crown - I'm very excited to see it. I've seen other exhibitions at Prague Castle before but this is really supposed to be something."

"I have a great interest in history especially Czech history including Charles IV. Of course he was important and Prague is where he belongs!"

"I won't forget. I won't forget all the golden things! It was surprising - really!"

RP: Do you think - having seen the show - that it lives up to its reputation?

"Yeah! Maybe I was a little bit surprised that it was smaller than I expected but on the other hand the things there were great. Wonderful. Yeah."

So how imposing is the actual exhibit? The short answer is "very". the exhibition takes visitors through two large halls at Prague Castle and this is a space like no other: high ceilings, and rooms that are very low-lit for conservation reasons. The exhibition space itself is framed by enormous black panels evocative of true Gothic interiors, and against such a backdrop medieval paintings as well as religious relics like a golden arm, a hand, a face, dramatically stand out.

Other pieces on display include original 14th century jewellery, famous Czech Madonnas with the baby Jesus, and statues from the stone works of Charles IV's most famous architect Peter Parler, the most illustrious of builders of Prague's St Vitus' Cathedral. Naturally, the iconography in the exhibition is mostly religious, statutes of saints and the pious and scenes from the life of Christ. These include the Annunciation, the child with the Madonna, the Crucifixion, and the Last Judgement, as well as the death of the Virgin Mary, always chilling. But, there are other items that are secular: royal edicts, statues of the royal lions, jewellery, glass decanters and bowls, decorations, all used by the Luxembourg's to spread their glory and fame.

Speaking with Jiri Fajt on the eve of the show's opening, he told me which items he was proud had been included in the exhibition, deserving viewers' full attention:

"I think, for example, the Pierpont Morgan diptych can be counted as one of these objects. A court painter to Charles IV executed this work of art and we had a chance to expose it to other objects probably made by the same hand. Like one manuscript from the National Museum and small panel with the Virgin Mary we were able to borrow from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts."

Tell me this: it must be very exciting for you as a curator to compare the experience of setting up an exhibition in both in Prague and New York City:

"Yeah, it's of course very interesting and we have to admit that we did face several problems regarding the different cultural background of the public in the States and here. That's we decided for different titles. In New York: The Crown of Bohemia. Here: Charles IV Emperor by the Grace of God. Here in Prague we could concentrate more on the thematic division of the topic, which we hope will bring people here."

What pieces are do you regard as among the most important?

"I have of course 'more' favourites. As the first, I would mention Kaufman's 'Crucifixion', coming from the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, which was painted probably in Prague in around the year 1340. Then I would underline the whole section on St Vitus' Cathedral, such fabulous statues made by Peter Parler himself. Then, discussing the later period which we cover, I would point to 'Christ from the Mount of Olives' from Malburg, which is a stone statue. Just fabulous and one of the most precious sculptures one can ever see."

Kaufman's 'Crucifixion' is truly stunning - perhaps worth the price of admission alone, a most exquisite painting. Christ is mourned by saints and taunted by sinners on Golgotha, but unusually captivating are the thieves on his left and right twisted almost impossibly in death.

Other items well worth noting include paintings by Charles IV's court painter Master Theodoric or one work done in the so-called Beautiful Style showing Christ carrying the Cross. The painting features the Christ in misery. The soldiers. The leering crowd. And grave diggers in the distance.

Emperor by the Grace of God has already been described as a major success. Certainly the exhibition is a must for anyone interested in art from the late medieval period. For Czechs, Charles IV is still regarded as one of the most enlightened rulers, whose interest in the arts reflect what we see today. He left a most tangible legacy: redesigning the centre of Prague, founding the country's most famous university; and commissioning the construction of the famous stone bridge that still bears his name. In addition the exhibition Emperor by the Grace of God reveals many items Prague has not seen for centuries and will not soon see again. For that reason and for the show's overall beauty it should definitely not be missed.