Prague’s Old Town Square may be famous for its grandeur and architectural beauty, but it is, in fact, a shadow of its former self. A great chunk of the Old Town Hall building was decimated by the Nazis at the end of the war, and has never been rebuilt. To this day, a rather bare park stands where most of the building once did. And across from the famous Jan Hus sculpture used to be a towering Marian column, built in 1650 and felled in 1918, by Czechs who felt it symbolized the country’s Habsburg past.
Ever since the column was brought down, there have been those campaigning for its return. One such individual is sculptor Petr Váňa, who, over the past 15 years, has been making a faithful reproduction of the monument. At a new exhibition about both the original column and Mr Váňa’s reconstruction, I asked the sculptor why he had undertaken such a task, when there was no clear sign from Prague City Hall that the column would ever make a comeback:
“I’m doing this because, I believe that, in the story of this sculpture there lies a great hope that people can come to an agreement and this column can be returned. And when you spend such a long time working on any sculpture, of course you hope that it will end up in the place it should be situated. I’ve made this exhibition to publicise this idea, and to support the idea of, one day, rebuilding the Marian column on Old Town Square.”
Prague City Hall has previously turned down plans to return the column, and the idea is not one which often stirs much public debate. But chief curator at the Charles Bridge Museum, where this exhibition is currently being held, Miroslav Kindl, says he hopes this new show will bring about discussion:
“This exhibition is about the Marian Column. This Marian Column, it was one of the most famous such columns in the Czech Republic and it was actually the fourth Marian Column in Europe. It was built in the year 1650 by the sculptor Jan Jiří Bendl, and it survived centuries only to be destroyed at the end of the First World War and on the first day of a new Czechoslovak Republic. Because it was felt to be a symbol of Habsburg oppression, but this was not exactly true. The column was built at the end of the Thirty-Years War, only two years after the end of the Thirty-Years War, and it was something like to say thanks for surviving the war. And the symbol is the Virgin Mary, who is not there to be victorious, winning over heresy or something else, she is there as the Immaculata. It is really only to say thanks that the war ended.”
Now am I right in thinking that this was taken down in 1918 by an anarchist called František Sauer and a group of fireman, all of whom were reported to have met horrible ends – is there any truth in this legend?
“Horrible ends… Ok, Frantisek Sauer was a bohemian, he was crazy, drinking heavily, living in this way, and at the end of his life he saw everything, he felt everything. He was dying in a monastery where he apologized to everyone that he did this horrible thing and that he destroyed the column.”
Why do you think that, today, a lot of the people who want to put the column back up are Catholic? Why has it become such a religious issue and why do you think it doesn’t interest Czechs who are less religiously engaged?
“One side of this is religious of course. It is to do with religion etc. etc. and the Czech Republic is not so religious, it is mostly an atheistic state. But there is another reason, there is another view. And that is that this was a monument, it was a monument which was there for hundreds and hundreds of years. And I’m not saying we have the right to reconstruct it there, but we do have the right to think about it, to think about all of the aspects of the column, of the artistry, of the baroque art. We should try to call for some debate or some kind of discussion about this thing. If this provokes discussion, this is a good thing.”
Are you yourself a Catholic?
“No, I’m not.”
And you’re for the re-erection of the Marian column on Old Town Square?
What do you say to claims that there is not enough documentation, especially of the base of the statue, to make a good recreation of it, and that the worst possible scenario would be a bad recreation of the Marian column going up on Old Town Square?
“It is a very interesting thing, because we can reconstruct the column with the statue of the Virgin Mary, because we have documentation for this. But, there were four angels down on the base, and we will not reconstruct the angels. And this could be a call for young sculptors, maybe in future years, to cooperate in some way and try to create, not copies, but new works of art with a 21st-century feel. And this could work together greatly, the baroque part and the new part.”
There is an argument that this Marian column provided a counterpoint to the monument of Jan Hus which is still found today on Old Town Square. So I have heard people say that returning the Marian column would mean giving the square back its old set of proportions. But what do you say to the idea of putting something totally new there instead?
“It is a very interesting idea, but I believe that Old Town Square is very old, and we can think about places where to connect contemporary architecture with old parts of the city, but I really don’t think that this is the situation or that this could be done on Old Town Square. I think that the best thing to do is build a copy of the column and, on this column, place four angels designed in a new way.”
And what do you think of Mr Váňa’s 15-year project to recreate the column when Prague City Hall hasn’t even said that they want to renew the monument. Isn’t what he is doing a little bit in vain?
“It is a very complicated question. I know Prague Magistrate’s reasons, and I think that the magistrate needs someone to put pressure on them and make them think about it more deeply.”
And so you believe this project is a good way of making them think about it more?
“Yes, I believe so.”
The ‘Story of the Marian Column’ exhibition runs at Prague’s Charles Bridge Museum until November 4. After that, who knows, the Marian column may next go on display on Old Town Square itself.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 17, 2009.
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