Prague Castle opens special exhibition on Wenceslas IV in light of 600 anniversary of ruler’s death

Photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš

This Friday marks the 600 year anniversary since the death of King Wenceslas IV, who was simultaneously the king of Bohemia and of the Romans. His rule was marked by political miscalculation and excessive drinking. However, he was also an important patron of the arts. On the occasion of the anniversary, Prague Castle has opened an exhibition depicting some of the most accomplished gothic craftsmanship produced during his era.

Photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš

The rule of Charles IV., who was simultaneously King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor is often seen by Czechs as the golden age of their medieval kingdom, that of his son Wenceslas IV. less so.

Charles set his son up well. At the time that the 17-year-old Wenceslas assumed the throne, Bohemia was arguably the most powerful state in the Holy Roman Empire and Charles had used his political power to ensure that he was elected for the most esteemed title in medieval Catholic Europe, that of ruler of the Holy Roman Empire.

Photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš
Wenceslas was elected King of the Romans, but was never crowned as emperor, in part, because his rule was characterised by a major papal schism. Aside from the split papacy, his rule was also marked by many other challenges.

Towards the end of his reign, a new religious movement started sweeping across the country. This religious tension, in which Wenceslas played a role, would eventually culminate in the Hussite Wars.

Wenceslas is still generally perceived by historians as a weak ruler. Robert Novotný from the Centre for Medieval Studies says that the king lacked a crucial skill which his other relatives possessed.

“The reasons why Wenceslas failed as a ruler are many. However, I believe one stands out. He simply wasn’t a gifted politician unlike his father or brother Sigismund.

“Charles and Sigismund saw politics as a passion and managed to quickly recover from political defeats. For Wenceslas on the other hand such defeats were heavy blows and he soon started to avoid his kingly responsibilities.”

Despite being an administrative and diplomatic failure, there was one area of activity for which Wenceslas is generally praised, his patronage of the arts, particularly in the form of illuminated manuscripts which he is reported to have loved, says Robert Novotný.

“There was a large contribution during his reign. We cannot say for certain whether this was mainly a consequence of a general European trend, or through Wenceslas and his court. However, he was a very well educated and cultivated individual.”

Photo: ČTK/Roman Vondrouš
An exhibition at the Imperial Stables of Prague Castle, which opened on Friday, is paying tribute to that legacy.

Titled ‘Wenceslaus IV, King of Bohemia and of the Romans: The Beautiful Style around 1400’, it documents the life of the king and his court through the art of his contemporary Gothic style.

Aside from a wide range of manuscripts, reliquaries and other “small art”, the exhibit also features artistic objects borrowed from leading international arts centres.

For example, the Humboldt University’s mace, a drinking horn from Dresden or a unique saddle from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The exhibition is open to visitors until November 3rd.