23-12-2001

St. Catherine's church - a Baroque building dating back to the 18th century - has long been abandoned, a forgotten landmark hidden away in Prague 2. A civic association calling itself "Prague 2 for Itself" came up with a bold plan to revitalise the whole area - the church and the adjacent garden - and open it to the public. At first, everything went smoothly, but last month the plan to revitalise the area was suddenly turned down by the Prague City Hall. By Alena Skodova.

St. Catherine's church is surrounded by a huge garden, and is situated near a psychiatric clinic. The whole area is rarely used, and if so, mostly by the clinic's patients getting some fresh air. The church was de-consecrated some 150 years ago and the interior is in a sorry state. The "Prague 2 for Itself" organisation had came up with a plan not only to renovate the church and make the area accessible to the public, but also to use the building for a whole range of cultural and social activities. The organisation's Doctor Pavel Kalina explained:

Prague 2 activists claim the deal was struck without a single thought for the needs of local people, and that the Order of German Knights is an insignificant religious community in the Czech Republic. But Dr. Kalina says they are not going to give up:

A typical Christmas-time exhibition is underway in the Municipal Museum near Prague's Florenc metro station, displaying Czech-made nativity scenes. The museum prepared the exhibition in cooperation with the Czech Association of Nativity-Scene Makers, which is a member of the international organization, based in Rome.

The tradition of nativity scenes making dates back to the 13th century, when Francis of Assisi built a nativity scene near the village of Creccio and served a mass there to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The first nativity scene in Bohemia was made in Prague's Klementinum in 1560 by the Jesuits, but unfortunately no records about what it looked like have been preserved. Till the 18th century, nativity scenes in Bohemia and Moravia were to be found exclusively in monasteries and churches, but gradually, the tradition of nativity scenes making spread also to noble families, especially those whose sons were studying at Jesuit colleges. Later on portable nativity scenes came into fashion with which monks used to travel from place to place to acquaint people with the life of Jesus Christ. And at the end of the 17th century, lavish nativity scenes were a status symbol for rich families.

One of the exhibition's organizers is Frantisek Valena, chairman of the Czech association of nativity scenes friends. Mr. Valena told me an interesting fact about the fate of nativity scenes at the time of the reign of emperor Josef II in the 18th century, who abolished many churches and monasteries. Nativity scenes were removed from those that remained - they were seen as a valueless and undignified toy:

"Josef II removed nativity scenes from churches and monasteries, but the tradition was so popular by then that people started to build nativity scenes in their homes - they first appeared in noble and later on in rich burghers' families. And so a paradoxical situation occurred: the prohibition of nativity scenes triggered their boom. Craftsmen, who originally made their living with building nativity scenes for churches now turned to secular customers and of course, began changing their products to their customers' taste."

Mr. Valena told me that he was originally a stage designer and nativity scenes making was in fact stage designing, that's why he was an old hand in renovating old, partly destroyed nativity scenes. He added that under the communist regime it was very difficult to have this hobby, because religion was constantly ridiculed and rejected as a bourgeois ideology. But now he has several really old figures at home made of rye flour and some of them are especially cherished:

"I own four nativity scene figures at home, which are made of rye flour and called accordingly: bread-men. They keep together only thanks to the surface garnish and are full of holes made by flour worms. And although they are very nice, you know how the saying goes: all of them are nice, but some of them are nicer... I cherish most a figure of a lazy-bones, who is so beautiful that I always carry him in my pocket as a talisman. His legs and arms are intertwined and I simply adore him."

Mr. Valena mentioned the figure of a lazy-bones - nativity scenes can feature many characters and people often add more characters over the years.

So what does the exhibition show and was it easy to put it together? Frantisek Valena again:

"The truth is, that it's not an easy task to organize such an exhibition. I am really sure that some very precious nativity scenes do exist, but there is no power to get them away from their owners. For instance we asked the National Gallery but they lent us only a single piece. So the exhibits here come mostly from private collections. The oldest pieces here are two reliefs from the late Gothic period, but we can mostly see here the most contemporary nativity scenes made of various materials."

Well, with Christmas just two weeks ahead, the nativity scene exhibition in the Municipal Museum is the right way to nurture the Christmas spirit, but for those who'll find no time now, it will remain open till the end of January. And once more on a Christmas note: visitors to a festival called Christmas Holidays in the town of Telc in South Bohemia will be treated to 10 different concerts, several exhibitions and trips . The venture starts on December 27th and its organizers has announced that although they extended the Holidays by afternoon programmes, everything is hopelessly sold out. People in Telc can also have a lot of fun when skating on local frozen ponds or go skiing around the highest local mountain called Javorice. Films will be screened about the towns social life in summer, and on the New Year's Day, a ride on horseback in the snowy landscape is prepared for all interested.

23-12-2001