Saint Wenceslas: A 'tail' of restoration

Statue of Saint Wenceslas under restoration, photo: CTK

If you've been to the Prague's Wenceslas Square recently, you might have noticed that something is missing, namely, the statue of Saint Wenceslas himself, for whom the square is named. Well don't worry, it hasn't really disappeared, it is only hidden behind a mass of scaffolding for some time. The statue is just undergoing a crucial restoration to be able to survive the wiles of the freaky weather as well as the hustle of the busy square, in the very core of Prague.

Statue of Saint Wenceslas under restoration, photo: CTK
If you want to meet someone in the centre of Prague, the most common place would be at the Saint Wenceslas statue - pod ocasem - under the horse's tail, as the Czechs like to say.

The Saint Wenceslas statue in Prague is indeed a true symbol, not only of the square, but in some sense of the whole city as well. Saint Wenceslas was a Bohemian prince in the 10th century, who was killed by his power-mad younger brother and subsequently became a martyr. Throughout the course of history, the Czechs have adopted Wenceslas as the nation's patron saint. Indeed, the inscription in Old Czech on the sculpture implores, "Saint Wenceslas, never let us perish, nor those who come after".

The piece was made by the well-known sculptor Josef Vaclav Myslbek in 1913. It was placed at the top of the square, right below the National Museum. The bronze statue stands 7.5 metres tall, but together with its massive base it measures about twice as high. It depicts the Bohemian prince on his trusty steed. On the lower part of the base stand four other Czech saints.

As the scaffolding now reaches to the very top of the statue, it was a unique occasion for me to climb to Wenceslas's head and see the whole piece from above. I was of course accompanied by one of the restorers, Alex Sumbera, who also told me more about the statue's maintenance in the past.

"The statue has probably been cleaned several times during its existence. The most important was a restoration operation in 1966, when cracks were discovered on one of the horse's legs. What is quite interesting is that the big statue of the horse stands only on two legs, which is from the static view quite a difficult thing. Therefore, that ill leg had to be demounted, the interior spindle mended, and a new leg cast and then reinstalled on that steel spindle. They also tried to check the other interior joints. So, a 13-year- old son of one of the restorers crept through a little hole into the horse and revised those joints."

The main target of the current restoration is to stop the corrosion process. As Alex Sumbera points out, the material suffers especially in today's aggressive air full of chlorides and sulphates.

"When you look into folds and crevices of the statue, you will see different corrosion crusts. So, our task is to clean these crusts, but leave the green patina in tact. After that, we wash the statue with hot, compressive steam and, in the end, we preserve the surface with a conservation wax. Of course, apart from that we will also have to check the statue's static state."

The statue's renovation has two steps; first is the renovation of the horse and rider, which is underway right now and should be finished by mid October. Then, the scaffolding will be removed and the second step will follow next summer when the other four saints will have their turn.

The whole renovation is due to be finished by next autumn when Prague visitors will have a chance to admire Saint Wenceslas in his fully restored glory and Prague locals will have their favorite meeting place "under the tail" back..