Cultural Institutions launch campaign to save Prague's St. Michael's Church

16-12-2003

Every year, the Czech Republic, known as a country rich in history and culture, attracts millions of tourists. But many of the country's heritage sites have not been given the care and protection they deserve. All this week, concerts and seminars will be held at Prague's St. Michael's Church to raise awareness of heritage sites - mostly churches - and to find alternative ways of using them while preserving their historic and cultural value.

St. Michael's Church, which has until recently been home to a tourist attraction, is a prime example of a holy site that served a very different purpose than originally intended. Mojmir Horyna, from the Art History Institute at Charles University:

"The Saint Michael's Church in Prague's Old Town is a very important building. Historically, it is significant because - and many people don't know this - John Hus held sermons there before he began preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel. But it also has great artistic value. In order to suit a performance for tourists, the church underwent very inappropriate reconstruction. The show was supposed to give people a short history of the Czech Lands, but in my opinion it was a disgrace to the city as well as the nation. Some of the facts were wrong, and aesthetically it was nothing but kitsch. The idea the audience got about our history was almost primitive and without any artistic merit."

The Week for St. Michael's Church was organised by a number of respected institutions in Prague. They include the National Library, National Heritage Institute, Prague City Museum, Prague City Archives, Charles University's Art History Institute and the Collegium Marianum - a Cultural and Educational Centre for the Historical Arts in the former Servite Monastery of St. Michael's Church. The aim of the campaign is to prove that holy buildings can be used efficiently and in ways that preserve their historical and cultural importance. It is a public appeal for change and tries to bring attention to the fact that the future of consecrated heritage sites is threatened by insufficient use. Mojmir Horyna:

"There really are very few religious people in the Czech Republic and let's face it, priests don't really need our churches anymore to carry out their work. However, we need to stress that these buildings are of historic and cultural value. They're part of the culture of this country and this nation. So it's imperative that we find alternative ways to use them. We also have to face up to the fact that their cultural use alone will not bring in sufficient money to run and care for the buildings. So, we have to find other sources to help preserve them."

Unlike the numerous other holy buildings in the country, St. Michael's Church has not been Church property since the eighteenth century, when the Servite Monastery was closed down. The altars and interior decorations were removed and sold to other churches around the country. It was then privately owned for a while, with its main hall serving as a warehouse. In the end, the state took control of it and allowed the Prague Paper Mill to use it as a storeroom. But that came to an end after the 1989 revolution, after which the state decided to let the National Library take control of the building. However, this was more of a burden than an advantage for the National Library as it could not find good use for the church space. So how did it end up serving as a venue for a bad quality show?

"Primarily, it's the fault of the company that leased the church and came up with the idea to stage the performance there. But on the other hand, I dare say that the Czech system of monument protection failed because it all happened under the patronage of the Prague Heritage Centre as well as the national heritage department of Prague's City Hall. So, the institutions that were supposed to protect our valuable heritage sites failed in this case."

And for those of you in Prague this week and interested in attending some of the concerts or seminars. St. Michael's Church is located on Melantrichova 19 just a few metres from the Old Town Square. For more information, visit the website www.tynska.cuni.cz

16-12-2003