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Czech myths in the National Museum in Prague

 

Jan Bažant

 

 

 

In the National Museum in Prague the visitors are still welcomed, curiously enough, by the couple of Premysl the plowman and princess Libussa. They are known as the founders of the Czech royal dynasty of Premyslids the last male member of which died in 1306. But the first historically attested member of this dynasty, Borivoj, ascended the Prague throne in 868, several generations after our Premyslid couple, which belongs entirely to the realm of myths. The statues of mythical ancestors of Czech kings are in its present prominent location, by the sidewalls of the vestibule, since 1900 and this fact must make us pause. By that time, the decoration of European public spaces as a rule pertained to allegory or history and cultural history was generally considered as the most appropriate theme for decoration of a museum building. Neither Libussa nor Premysl the Plowman could be considered as cultural heroes and their mythical character is stressed by their supernatural powers and miracles they performed. In the decoration of European administrative centres built around 1900, it is true, one finds allusions to national myhology, such as, for instance, the statue of a heroic Gaul warrior crowning the town hall of Sens, France. But in museums, which were ostentatiously scientific institutions, figures from national mythology appear only rarely.  

 

1. Premysl the Plowman, National Museum, Prague (Ludwig von Schwanthaler 1851).

 

 

2. Gaul, Anatole Guillot (1865-1911), plaster cast for the statue from the town hall, Sens, municipal museum.

 

 

A quick review of the decoration of 19th century museum buildings in central European capital cities may be useful in this respect. The decoration of the “Old Museum” (Altes Museum) in Berlin is still entirely in the spirit of Neo-classicism[1]. The monumental paintings, which were designed by Schinkel in 1828-1834 and realised after 1841, use classical mythology to illustrate the evolution of world history. In the decoration of German museums of the second half of the 19th century, however, classical mythology appears only exceptionally and Germanic mythology not at all. In 1864-1871, Theodor Grosse painted the “Creation of the world” in the hall on the first floor of the museum in Leipzig[2], and in 1899, Hermann Prell painted in the staircase of the Dresden Albertinum classical themes, the ancient Greek deities on the walls and Titanomachy on the ceiling. In the later case, however, the choice of the theme was dictated by the content of the museum, which was destined to exhibit the collection of classical antiquities[3]. 

 

3. The upper hall in the Old Museum, Berlin, C.H.Thiele after K.F.Schinkel.

 

4. Albertinum, Dresden (before 1945)

 

 

The decoration of the “New Museum” (Neues Museum) in Berlin from 1847-1865 inaugurated a new approach, which determined the character of museum decoration in the second half of the 19th century. In this museum the monumental frescoes of Wilhelm Kaulbach trace the course of the history of mankind in a direct way, which by that time was perceived as much more effective than mythology or allegory. These frescoes visualised the crucial historical events, beginning with the fall of the Babylon tower and ending with the Reformation era, which were thought to determine the course of history. Next step represent the decoration of the National Gallery in Berlin of 1870-1875, in which national history with a special stress on cultural achievements, replaced general history of mankind[4]. The 35-meter long stucco frieze by Otto Geyer, which dominated the staircase of the National gallery, began by the Armin receiving Roman trophies after the battle at the Tuetoburg forest and the christianisation of Saxony under Charles the Great. In subsequent scenes, however, rulers, politics and religion reappear only rarely. In these scenes, the foundation of the German state is clearly presented as the goal of historical evolution, but this process is illustrated by events of cultural history, with few exceptions restricted to the territory of Prussia.

 

5. The New Museum, Berlin.

 

6. Wilhelm Kaulbach, fresco of the Babylon tower in the New Museum, Berlin, 1847-1865.

 

 

The way museum buildings were decorated in the time of the opening of the National museum in Prague, which took place in 1891, is best exemplified by the “Art Historical Museum” (Kunsthistorisches Museum) in Vienna, not only because it was opened in exactly the same year, but also because it was one of the architectural models of the museum building in Prague[5]. In the main staircase of the Vienna museum the history of art from ancient Egypt to the Baroque period is summed up with a special stress on Italian Renaissance presented as the absolute peak of artistic creativity and the model for modern art. In the dome of the rotunda we find medallions of the Habsburg emperors accompanied with stucco relief sculptures illustrating their contribution to arts and sciences. In this museum, cultural history clearly replaces general history, but national theme is absent altogether, as is to be expected in the capital of the multinational Austrian-Hungarian empire.

In this context, the eccentricity of the decoration of the vestibule of the Prague National Museum stands out clearly. It is as if effigies of, say, Arthur and his knightly fellowship of the Round Table welcomed the visitors of the British museum, the stories about whom the English chronicler Geoffrey from Monmouth put down at the same time when Czech chronicler Kosmas fabricated his account of Premysl the Plowman. Not only the time but also motivation of these two pseudo historical accounts was identical. Geoffrey wanted to celebrate English people by recalling heroic conquests of their past on which their splendid future ought to firmly rest. The aim of Kosmas (c. 1045-1125) was to establish similarly glorious and no less unique historical destiny for the Czechs, but to prove this he needed a unique beginning.

The first Bohemian royal house was, according to Kosmas’ chronicle, founded by certain Premysl who was a peasant of Stadice near Prague, but attracted notice of a princess called Libussa. She was a daughter of Krok, who ruled over a large part of Bohemia, and after his death she ruled the country because of her prophetic gift. The local men, however, protested and she therefore sent a delegation to Premysl to install him as the new duke. This pseudo-historical narrative found an enthusiastic echo in the 19th century Bohemia and the statues in the vestibule of the National Museum in Prague, as a matter of fact, closely follow the text of Kosmas’ “Chronica Bohemorum”. Libussa, called Cumaean Sibyl by Kosmas (1,4), is represented as an ancient soothsayer, a matron-like figure in an elaborate long dress, with loosened hair and flower wreath on her head. In her left hand she holds a roll with a quotation of her famous prophesy concerning the foundation of Prague and its glorious destiny: “Urbem conspicio fama quae sidera tanget” (Cosmas 1,9) accompanied with a plan of Vyšehrad (“Wyšehrad”). The plan was evidently inspired by the outline of Baroque fortress which later replaced the medieval castle at the Vyšehrad hill, and Schwanthaler added also the name of the nearby river (“Wltawa”) with an arrow indicating correctly the direction of its flow.

 

7. Libussa, National Museum, Prague (Ludwig von Schwanthaler 1848).

 

8. Libussa (detail with the plan of Vysehrad), National Museum, Prague.

 

Premysl the Plowman’s appearance roughly corresponds to depictions in the early mediaeval manuscripts. In his left hand he still holds the hazel plough staff mentioned by Kosmas (1,5), when he finished ploughing, he thrust it into the ground and in this moment, it miraculously shot forth three branches together with nuts. In his right hand Premysl the Plowman holds the royal crown symbolising the Premyslid dynasty, but next to his left leg there are again direct allusions to Kosmas’s narrative. There is a tree stump or rock with engraved letters “Stadis” in what ought to be old Czech “runic” script, a reference to the village Stadice to which Libussa sent the delegation of Czech men. Next to this there is an upturned plough on which a slice of mouldy bread is resting, mentioned also by Kosmas, with which Premysl entertained the delegation. The Libuse’s prophesy concerning the “iron table” is not to be found in Kosmas, but it appears in fifth chapter of the chronicle of Dalimil written in Czech language at the beginning of the 14th century.

       

9. Premysl the Plowman (detail with the “runic” script, upturned plough and bread), National Museum, Prague.

 

The statues in the vestibule of the National Museum were not made for this building and their story is as intriguing as their mythical inspiration. They were made by Ludwig von Schwanthaler to order of Antonín Veith who wanted to decorate his Czech Pantheon in Tupadly with twenty first bronze statues of famous Czechs, but his project was not realised[6]. Only eight statues were completed between 1847 and 1867, Libussa being made in 1848, in the year when Schwanthaler died, and Premysl in 1851. Veith himself died in 1853 and in his testament he bequeathed the sculpture to the National Museum in the case his project will fail. Thus, in the Pantheon of the newly built National Museum of Prague all eight statues were duly exhibited, but they remained at this ceremonial hall only nine years. Already around 1900 they were removed to their present location in the vestibule and by the main staircase. To make clear the reasons of this abrupt change of mind, it is necessary to recall briefly the evolution of national attitudes in the central Europe[7]. This will explain why by the end of the 19th century, Czech nationalists could not allow these statues to remain in the Pantheon of the National museum in Prague.

 

10. Veith’s “Slavín” (Hall of Fame), Tupadly.

 

11. Ludwig von Schwanthaler, Queen Eliška Premyslovna, king Otakar II, king Georg of Pedebrady, National Museum od Prague.

 

        The inspiration for the Veith’s pantheon was clearly Walhala near Regensburg, the project of Ludwig I of Bayern with which he wanted to celebrate Germany, his “great homeland”[8]. The building was opened in 1842 and its sculptural decoration was entrusted to the court sculptor of the Bavarian king, Ludwig von Schwanthaler[9]. As it was said above, this sculptor made also statues for Veith’s pantheon, but it is in no way surprising, because at the forties of the 19th century, German and Czech patriots cooperated. The German confederation of 1815 was based, it is true, on a un-political conception of nation centred around the concept of the “Volk” (people), the language and folklore traditions unspoiled by civilisation and liberalism. But around 1840 the situation changed and Germans adopted the French conception, according to which the nation is indivisible, in spite of all barriers, those of blood and language included. From now on, language was secondary and the main goal was the united German state. It was generally assumed that the Czech lands will be also part of it and the language was not obstacle. Basques, Bretons or Alsasians also did not speak French and it did not make them less French than any other citizens of France.

 

12. Walhala near Regensburg, opened 1842.

 

        This Czech-German courtship ended in 1848, when Czechs resolutely refused to became part of the unified Germany. From the 60ties on, Czechs also started to relate their idea of state to history and the constitutional law - they proclaimed that Czech nation („Böhmen“) is bilingual. In this country Czech and German is spoken, it is not lingustically, but politically defined nation. Thanks to this program, the Czech patriots get on well with the conservative Czech aristocracy and the result of this close cooperation was, among otherthings, the Museum of the Bohemian kingdom. The National Museum bears on the architrave above its entrance the inscription “Museum Regni Bohemiae”, originally it was not a counterpart to the “Germanisches Nationalmuseum” in Nuremberg. In 1852 the Nuremberg museum was founded as a private institution, but when the German empire was established in 1871, it officially became the National Museum of German culture. The museum is, according to its statutes: “dedicated to the whole of the German people and its function is to widen and deepen knowledge of German history. For this purpose it has duty to research, collect, preserve and make accessible to the public historical evidence relating to the culture, art and literature of the German-speaking world.”

        Unlike the museum in Nuremberg, the National Museum in Prague was founded as “Bohemian”, not “Czech Museum”. Around the middle of the 19th century, “Bohemians” (in German “Böhmen”) were generally considered heirs of the historical Bohemian kingdom, political components of which were estates – clergy, nobility and commoners. These “Bohemians” were differentiated from “Czechs” (in German “Czechen”), the term denoting Slav ethnic group in the historical Czech lands, which created its standard language and literature only in the first half of the 19th century.  It is true that the critics of Czech nationalists considered Czechs a nation without history, but the ideologists of Czech national movement opposed them by stressing, that Czech language is historical national language in Bohemia (“historische Nationalsprache”) and that it is a language of the majority in this country (“Sprache der grösseren Volksmasse”)[10].  

        By the end of the 19th century, however, the situation was polarised and attitudes of both parties suddenly became totally incompatible. In Czech political scene the radical party, so called Young Czechs, got the upper hand and at the other end of the political spectrum, the Germans adamantly refused to acquiesce with the new status of a national minority. The National Museum was at the centre of this battle and Schwanthaler’s statues of Libussa and Premysl started to be heavily criticised by Czech nationalists, but the conservative museum society did nothing because it felt obliged to honour Veith’s testament. As is to be expected, the shift in Schwanthaler’s reception in Bohemia found its expression also in encyclopaedic works. In Rieger’s encyclopedia of 1870, the sculptor is extolled and his statues for Czech Pantheon are said to be “extraordinary interesting for Czech homeland”[11]. In almost three times more extensive Otto’s encyclopaedia of 1905, František Xaver Harlas is much more concise and markedly less enthusiastic. As regards the statues for the Czech Pantheon he dryly remarks that “the statues are very well cast, polished and engraved” and holds their style in open scorn: “their conception is obviously antiquated and their costumes are conceived in a naively theatrical way”[12]. Evidently, Harlas is not comparing these statues with the than contemporary German production but with the way, how the Czech past was visualised in the Czech art around 1900.

 

13. Pantheon with Schwanthaler’s statues and the bust of Franz Josef II. (the opening ceremony of the National museum in Prague, May 18th, 1891)

 

        The statues of German artist installed in the Czech national shrine became a hotly discussed issue in which top political authorities engaged themselves. In 1897 the Pantheon of the National museum only started to be slowly filled with busts and statues of men and women which contributed in outstanding way to the advancement of the Czech culture and sciences[13]. Nevertheless, already on July 19th, 1898, the commission of the Czech Regional government and the director of the building construction addressed jointly to the museum society the official demand to remove Schwanthaler’s statues from this hall. Even though it was almost empty, the demand was substantiated by the lack of space and, strangely enough, also by aesthetic arguments. In the official demand it was stressed that the style of these statues would be unattractively different from the “modern” busts and statues of the famous Czechs and that it would eventually spoil the overall impression[14].  The commission of the museum society reluctantly agreed. It was only at the end of the 1900 that it ordered to remove the unfortunate statues from the Pantheon. They were not, however, relegated to the little visited gallery of the second story, as suggested by the Czech regional government, but they were relocated to a much more honourable location along the main staircase, where they can be seen today.

 

14. Pantheon of the National Museum in the 90ties of the 19th century with Schwanthaler’s statues.

 

 

        Evidently, the reason why statues of Libussa and Premysl the Plowman were ordered out of the Czech Pantheon was that they were created by German artist. It is symptomatic for the atmosphere of this time, that already from the 80ties of the 19th century, Czech nationalists strongly pleaded for commissions pertaining to the decoration of the National museum to be given exclusively to Czechs[15]. In this new context, Schwanthaler’s statues were disqualified for serving Czech national interests. Once relegated to a duly isolation they became mere souvenirs of the definitely gone era in which Czechs and Germans fought together for their national recognition[16]. In Czech Prague, it was unanimously assumed that a German artist could never be capable to visualise Libussa or Premysl the Plowman, because this task requires emotional identification with the Czech national past. Even though Schwanthaler tried hard, the statues he produced are indistinguishable from those representing figures of German past, Czech patriots argued[17]. What was required from the truly national visual art was not only national theme, but also national style expressing specific and unique “character of Czech people”.

        It is to be stressed that in the turbulent fate of Schwanthaler’s statues, the fact that Libussa and Premysl the Plowman were mythical characters with eminently political message played absolutely no role. In the exactly the same time when the German representations of the Czech mythical ancestors had to leave the Pantheon of the National museum, decisions were made concerning the painting of this hall, in which precisely this mythical couple reappeared, but this time introduced by Czech artists, which made the difference. The main paintings of the Pantheon are in the four lunettes, which pretend to be frescoes but in fact they are oil paintings on canvas. When looking from the entrance one finds on the left the painting “Premysl the Plowman is called to rule” and on the right “St Methodius completes the translation of the scriptures”, both by František Ženíšek who finished them in 1903. Over the entrance is the painting “Charles IV founds the university of Prague” and over the window “Comenius presents his pedagogical works to the town council of Amsterdam”, both by Václav Brožík and painted in 1898.

 

15. Pantheon of the National Museum today, in the lunette “Premysl the Plowman is called to rule”.

 

 

        In 1894, the decoration of the Pantheon was approved by the Regional assembly of the Czech Kingdom in general terms and as concerns the paintings in four lunettes it was decided that they must illustrate cardinal events of the Czech cultural history, the choice of concrete theme was, however, left to artists who were asked to take part in the contest for these paintings, it goes without saying that they all were guaranteed Czech patriots[18]. At January 15th, 1896, contracts were signed with the winners, Ženíšek and Brožík, and in this contract the lunette themes were already specified[19]. Since this definitive programme forms a coherent whole, there is no doubt that it was laid out by one man, and this man was Josef Emler, the secretary of the Museum society, professor at the Czech university and the archivist of the City of Prague. Emler decided not only about the decorative programme of the Pantheon, but also about decoration of the entire building[20]. Therefore, it was not an artist, but a prominent historian who included national myths in the decoration of the National museum in Prague[21].

         In the National Museum in Prague, the intertwining of myth and historical reality was in no way restricted to the Pantheon. The decisions of 1894 concerning the decoration of the Pantheon were part of general instructions concerning the entire interior of the museum building, in which it was stated that the historical paintings in the Pantheon will be complemented by paintings on the wall of galleries on the first and second floor, in which historical Czech landscapes will be depicted[22]. In 1896 a contract was signed with Julius Mařák concerning these murals, which was modified in 1897, and according to this programme, which was also put down by Josef Emler, the cycle should also include landscapes evoking Czech mythical history.  These paintings are placed in the staircase to the second floor and they represent Tetín, Říp and Libušín, the last mentioned being directly connected with Libussa, as the name implies.

 

16. Julius Mařák, “Říp”, National Museum, Prague.

 

 

        The painting of the mythical mountain of Říp by Mařák’s was included also in the decoration of the royal box of the National theatre in Prague which was in 1883 reopened after it burned down two years earlier. On the attic gable of the side façade of the theatre building we find the sculptural group “Drama” of by Antonín Wagner depicting actually the court of Libussa and in the royal box there is the painting by Václav Brožík depicting Libussa’s reception of the delegation with the Premysl the Plowmen. It is to be noted that on 11 June 1881, the theatre was opened, as was to be expected, by the performance of the opera “Libussa” by Bedřich Smetana and the national myths inspired numerous other opera pieces staged there. The fact that in the sculptural and painterly decoration of the National theatre Czech myths played such a great role is in no way no way surprising, but it is not at all self evident in the National Museum in Prague, because this institution was expected to inspire patriotic feelings not by artistic pieces, but by promoting strictly scientific knowledge of Czech lands and their history.

The surprisingly massive incursion of the Czech mythical past in the Czech present of the late 19th century is characteristic not only for the National museum, but also for the national renaissance in this country in general. The choice of the story of Libussa and Premysl the Plowman as the key myth of the Czech national renaissance might be instructive in this respect. The Schwanthaler’s statue of Premysl the Plowman represent him as a duke and his peasant past is only hinted at by the plough staff and upturned plough with the slice of bread on the top of it. In the Ženíšek’s painting created 52 years later, the peasant origin of the Premyslid dynasty is much more stressed. Premysl is in full peasant dress and he is represented in the moment he stopped working the field with his plough, the plough staff in his hand being still mere plowman’s instrument. In this painting, the ducal dress and luxuriously harnessed horse are still waiting to make the new duke of the Czech people out of a mere peasant.

 

17. František Ženíšek, Premysl the Plowman (detail), 1903, Pantheon of the National Museum, Prague.

 

        The myth of Libussa acquired such importance because it glorified Czech past and, at the same time, it established a direct link between Czech peasantry and, consequently, the main political issue of the day. As already stressed, in the second half of the 19th century the decisive importance was accorded to the fact that Czech was the language of the majority, the predominantly Czech speaking peasantry thus became a political devise of cardinal importance. On ideological level, the Czech national renaissance took over from the Enlightenment of the 18th century the obsession with the common folk, which in its role of guardian of the national language was hailed as a guarantee of the national identity. Another heritage from the Enlightment was the fascination with the beginnings and Czech nationalists tended to identify their heritage not with history, but with mythical past. Both these components were included in the myth of princess Libussa and Premysl the Plowman.

The representation of peasants as a fount of genuine Czech-ness are to be found everywhere in late 19th century Czech Prague, even in such unexpected places as banks, which authentic peasants of that time never visited. The Municipal Savings Bank of 1892-1894 is typical example, it was built by ostentatiously Czech architect, Antonín Wiehl, exclusively from Czech building material and decorated exclusively by Czech artists[23]. The façade of this neoclassical building decorate statues of economic virtues styled either as contemporary peasants, or as Czechs from the mythical past, which clearly demonstrate their interchangeability. It is to be noted that the allegory of “Richness” over the main entrance by Gustav Zoula evokes Czech prehistory, the circle is thus complete – the late 19th century prosperity is presented as mere revival of the believed prosperity of the “first Czechs”.

 

18. The Municipal Savings Bank, Prague (Antonín Wiehl 1892-1894)

 

19. Statue of “Thriftiness”, Stanislav Sucharda, after 1894 (The Municipal Savings Bank, Prague).

 

20. Statue of “Richness”, Gustav Zoula, after 1894 (The Municipal Savings Bank, Prague).

 

 

In the lunettes of the main hall of this bank there is a cycle illustrating the life in the Czech village of that time after designs of Mikoláš Aleš and this artist was also the author of lunettes under the main staircase, where we find a couple from the Czech prehistory, husband points to the boar which he killed and his wife is provided with attributes of agriculture, plough, sickle and sheaf. The message of the painting is again the allusion to original prosperity of Czechs, who were impoverished only under the Habsburg rule. It is to be remarked, that the genuineness of mythical Czechs is guaranteed by their dress reconstructed with the help of archaeological finds, the young man wears on his neck a variation on the famous Halstatt style fastener with pendants from Želenice. It appears also on numerous other depictions of “old Czechs”, for instance in the warrior of the allegory grouping of the “Enthusiasm” by Bohuslav Schnirch on the right pylon of the central part of the museum building (1887-1890). This group demonstrated the enthusiasm with which the National Museum was constructed, the origin of which was thus situated in mythical past.

 

21. Painting of the Czech prehistoric couple, Mikoláš Aleš, after 1894 (hall of the Municipal Savings Bank, Prague).

22. Late Hallstatt bronze jewlery from Želenice district Kladno, after: Památky archeologické a místopisné n. 1, 1855.

 

 

        In the case of the Provincial Bank of the Bohemia Kingdom the integration of representations of Czech peasants into cosmopolitan classicizing architecture is even more striking[24]. It was a luxurious palace designed in the style of the Czech Renaissance by Osvald Polívka and built in 1894-1896. The building was destined for high-level financial settings, but the hall is peopled by brightly coloured statues of peasants representing the regions of Bohemia by R. Hergesel, Bohuslav Schnirch, F. Procházka, and Stanislav Sucharda. In the decoration of Czech banks of that time, one does not find straightforward allusions to industry which we find for instance in the “Darmstädter Bank”, one of the leading bank houses in Berlin. The allegorical painting by Hugo Vogel shows “Industry” on throne receiving the delegation of industrial workers; she is protected by a personification of the German army holding in ancient Greek style, which holds over the head of the “Industry” the imperial crown[25].

 

 

23. Statues of peasants in the Provincial Bank of the Bohemia Kingdom, Prague, 1894-1896.

 

24. Hugo Vogel, “The industry protected by the imperial crown”, wall painting in the “Darmstädter Bank”, Berlin, 1895, destroyed.

 

 

        In this connection we may note that in the early stage of the the National  Museum of Prague, Czech peasants were  much more visible in its interior. In 1891, in the same year in which this building was completed, the ambitious exposition entitled “Czech cottage” was on view in the Prague “General jubilee exhibition”. When the exhibition ended, the collection of ethnographical material was incorporated into the National museum and between 1892 and 1894 the “Czech cottage” was installed in its new building. The spacious room right opposite the Pantheon was reserved for it and in this way the Czech national renaissance glorified in the Pantheon was demonstratively confronted with its peasant roots. It was only in 1922 that the entire ethnographic collection was moved from the main building to the summer palace of Kinský in Prague-Smíchov[26].

 

25. The original disposition of collections in the National museum of Prague, after Průvodce sbírkami musea království českého v Praze, Praha 1905.

 

        As it was stressed above, in the second half of the 19th century state museums all over Europe were embellished, if at all, by pictures or statues pertaining to cultural history, but there had been few exceptions to this rule. The presence of the historical myths with strong political implications in the decoration of the Prague museum has perhaps closest analogy in Budapest, in the building of the Hungarian National Museum. It was constructed already in 1837-1847, but after 1867, when Hungary received full internal autonomy, the museum received appropriate interior decoration. In 1875, the staircase was decorated with frescoes evoking national history by Than and Lotz and in the main hall was placed an oil painting by Munkácsi „Taking of the land by Arpád in 896“. This event is a direct counterpart of the Premysl’s call to rule, because Arpád also established local dynasty and thus founded the new national state. Moreover, functionally the hall of the National museum in Budapest is a direct counterpart of the Pantheon of the National museum, because it was also an explicitly political space. Until the 1949 the Pantheon in the Prague museum was property of the Regional assembly which used it for state ceremonies, similarly from 1870 until 1902 the Upper House of the Hungarian government the held its sessions in the museum hall of the Budapest museum.

 

26. Mihály Munkácsy, The Magyar conquest of Hungary (detail), 1893, The House of Parliament, originally in the hall of the National Museum, Budapest.

 

        The role of myth in 19th century is as a rule ignored, but in studying this culture we may greatly profit from the analysis performed by ethnologist Jan Vansina. He has demonstrated, that non-written recollections can be divided into two groups - there are either experiences belonging to personal biographies or events pertaining to absolute past[27]. Historic consciousness of any society without written culture knows only these two levels and between the recent past and the era of origin there is a gap, which gets wider as the given society moves away from its absolute past. The given society could be totally unaware of this inserted no-time, from which no recollections (or only isolated ones) are preserved, or it may consider the existence of this gap between two historic times as unimportant. In these societies, two levels of historic consciousness follow right one after another, in spite of the fact that they may be divided by centuries.

The historical memory of Czech nineteenth century society differed, of course, enormously from that of illiterate societies. Neverthless, the important threshold remained the same, namely the span of forty years backward, when the last eye witnesses of some important event died out, the next forty years or so being filled with information by hearsay and than living memory ended[28]. From the early 12th century on, of course, that is from the time when Cosmas wrote his chronicle mentioned above, Czechs did not continue backward with myths but with chronicles and much later on, with historical treatises. But even in 19th century, when historical genres enormously flourished, painters, sculptors or writers were never interested in history as such. The visual art of the 19th century did not draw inspiration from the past indiscriminately, unlike historical science it almost totally ignored whole historical epochs and concentrated on few selected themes – above all mythical history, early Christian period or the formation of modern Europe. What all of these themes which served as a source of inspiration for historical art works had in common was that they pertained to eras of the absolute beginning. It did not matter at all whether this degree zero was real or imaginary past.

        In the Czech historical painting of the 19th century, for instance, we find either pictures of pan-European significance, such as “Columbus discovering America” by Christian Ruben of 1846 or paintings of exclusively national importance, such as “Saint Wenceslas educated at Tetín” by Josef Vojtěch Hellich of 1840. Both these paintings, evidently pertain to a foundation era, what Columbus signifies for the identity of Western civilisation, Wenceslas means for the Czech national identity. Columbus’ discovery of the New World widened enormously the intellectual horizon of the Western man and enabled him to assume the dominant position in the world. Prince Wenceslas’ grandparents did something similar on Czech national scale - by unveiling to Wenceslas the truly Christian faith they made it possible that he later became exemplary Christian ruler and, after his death, the patron of Czech nation and their eternal ruler. Both these paintings are therefore firmly anchored in the epoch of the absolute beginning which is separated from the present time by centuries.

 

27. Christian Ruben, Columbus discovering America, 1846, National gallery, Prague.

 

28. Josef Vojtěch Hellich, Saint Wenceslas educated at Tetín, 1840, National gallery, Prague.

 

 

In the so called primitive societies, the interval between the present and the epoch of the absolute beginning is called “dark age”, in which nothing important happened. The literate societies also use this term to characterise the epochs of their past which did not correspond to their present ambitions. In the Czech historiography, for instance, the “dark age” begun after the battle on the White mountain, that is October 8th, 1620, when Czech protestant patriots were definitively defeated by catholic Habsburgs. This “dark age” lasted until the 19th century, in which the decisive battle for national existence was situated. The paintings in the Pantheon of the National museum in Prague, it is to be noted, ignore totally not only this “dark age”, but also the present time.

Not only the Premysl the Plowmen, who founded Premyslid dynasty and thus prepared way for the appearance of the Czech state, but also all other painting in the lunettes of the Pantheon pertain to the era of beginnings. The painting “St. Methodius completes the translation of the scriptures” celebrates the beginning not only of Czech, but also Slave literature, and the painting “Charles IV found the University of Prague” celebrates the first Central European university, which was also the very first university in Slave lands. The third painting, “Comenius presents his pedagogical works to the town council of Amsterdam”, has a universal message, because it honours the founder of the pedagogic science, but at the same time and even more importantly, it implicitly comments on the Czech “dark age”, because after the battle at the White mountain, the prominent protestant Jan Amos Comenius had to leave his homeland forever. He thus symbolises heavy losses the Czech culture suffered after the final victory of the Habsburgs.

 

29. F. Ženíšek, St. Methodius completes the translation of the scriptures, 1903, Pantheon of the National Museum, Prague.

 

30. V. Brožík, Charles IV found the University of Prague, 1898, Pantheon of the National Museum, Prague.

 

31. V. Brožík, Comenius presents his pedagogical works to the town council of Amsterdam, 1898, Pantheon of the National Museum, Prague.

 

 

It the Czech historical paintings of the 19th century the millennium between the mythical period of the beginnings and the present is only rarely visited. When some scene from these obscure centuries appears it is in some way connected either with the glorious time of the absolute beginnings or with its opposite member, the time of absolute decay of the “dark age”. As an example we may recall “Escaping farmers. An episode from the Thirty years war” by Peter Maixner of 1860. The painter did not want to represent 17th century farmers or to evoke the Thirty years war, but to stress that with this war the Czech “dark age” begun, in which the Czech national renaissance rooted. Czech farmers had to leave their destroyed villages, but they succeeded to settle down again and they succeeded to preserve their mother tongue, which in the cities yielded to German. Chronologically, the painting is situated in the early modern era, but as regards its message it glorify the Czech peasants who, in defiance of immense hardships, provided the direct and extremely precious link between the absolute Czech past and the present, in which Czech was slowly but steadily revived. Seen from this angle, we may say that Maixner’s painting, in spite of its historic theme, pertains more to Czech national myth than to Czech history. Because they refused to betray the religion and language of their ancestors, Czech farmers became foreigners in their own country. But the heroic way with which they faced their hardship points to distant future, the time of Peter Maixner, when the Czech nation reborn itself.

       

32. Peter Maixner , Escaping farmers. An episode from the Thirty years war, 1860, National gallery, Prague.

 

 

In the decoration of the National Museum in Prague allusions to Czech history prevail, as is to be expected in the institution of this kind, but important place is accorded also to myth, especially that of  Libussa and Premysl the Plowman, who are still welcoming visitors in the museum’s vestibule. In this myth Czech prehistory and contemporary Czech peasantry amalgamate and the function of its depiction in the National museum was evidently to provide a clue on how to interpret correctly the artefacts assembled and exhibited in this building. The importance of Libussa and Premysl the Plowman derived from the fact that they fully belong to the realm of the absolute past, from which Czechs derived their origin and on which they based their future.

Generally speaking, the main quality of myth is its continuous actuality and in his book “Culture and Memory” Jan Assman aptly wrote: “myth is past, which was condensed in founding history”[29]. That, which happened, fixed not only the present, but also future, that is why myth from distant past can easily penetrate the present and its validity is not endangered by the fact, that mythical past and present situation, as a rule, irreconcilably contradict each other. While in the mythical past, the Czech lands were peopled exclusively by Czechs who were deciding themselves who will rule them, as the story of Premysl the Plowmen demonstrated, in the 19th century Czechs had to share this country with Germans and politically they were dependant on Vienna. That is perhaps why in Prague myth played so important role in museum, where we would rightly expects nothing but strictly historical facts and scientifically approved statements.



[1] For Berlin cf. Monika Wagner, Alegorie und Geschichte. Austattungsprogramme öffentlicher Gebäude des 19. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland. Von der Cornelius-Schule zur Malerei der Wilhelminischen Ära, Tübingen 1989, 103-164.

[2] Cf. Max Jordan, “Die Wandmalereien der Leipziger Museumhalle”, Im Neuen Reich 1, 1872, 841-858.

[3] Cf. Johannes Kleinpaul, „Das neue Treppenhaus im Albertinum zu Dresden“ Die Kunst 9, 1904 337-381.

[4] Peter Bloch, Waldemar Grzimek, Die Berlinek Bildhauerschule im neunzehnten Jahrhundert. Das klassische Berlin, Berlin 1994, 296-299.

[5] Cf. B. Kriller and G. Kugler, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Architektur und Ausstattung, 1991.

[6] In 1802 the entrepreneur František Zachariáš Rtimisch bought the Vranov domain and near the castle he founded a Czech pantheon in which also Lubuse was remembered. In 1826 the project was finished by a construction of a pseudo Gothic chapel. On Veith cf. „Antonín Veith a jeho Český Slavín“, Světozor 42, Praha 1908, 782-784.

[7] Jiří Kořalka, Tschechen im Habsburgerreich und in Europa 1815-1914, Munchen, 1991 (Jiří Kořalka, Češi v habsburské říši a v Evropě 1815-1914, Praha 1996); Ungleiche Nachbarn. Demokratische und nationale Emanzipation bei Deutschen, Tschechen und Slowaken (1815-1914). Hrsg. von Hans Mommsen und Jiří Kořalka. Essen 1993 (= Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Kultur und Geschichte der Deutschen im östlichen Europa 1); Jiří Kořalka, Tschechen und Deutsche im Alten Reich und in der Habsburgermonarchie. In: Tschechen, Slowaken und Deutsche. Nachbarn in Europa. Hg. v. Detlef Brandes, Christoph Boyer und u.a..- Hannover 1995, S. 13-29; Jiří Kořalka, Zoltan Todt, Michael John, Multikulturalität in Mitteleuropa, Wien 1998; Jiří Kořalka in: Jörg K. Hoensch / Hans Lemberg (Hg.): Begegnung und Konflikt. Schlaglichter auf das Verhältnis von Tschechen, Slowaken und Deutschen 1815-1989 (= Veröffentlichungen der Deutsch-Tschechischen und Deutsch-Slowakischen Historikerkommission; Bd. 12), Essen 2001.

 

[8] Cf. Walhala. Amtlicher Führer, Regensburg 1992; Jörg Traeger, Walhalla oder die Republik des Ruhmes : 150 Jahre Nationaldenkmal, Regensburg 1993.

[9] F. Otten, Ludwig Michael Schwanthaler, 1802–1848: Ein Bildhauer unter König Ludwig I von Bayern, Munich 1970.

[10] František  Palacký, Gedenkblätter, Prag 1874, 49.

[11] František Ladislav Rieger, ed., Slovník naučný, 8, Praha 1870, 380.

[12] Ottův slovník naučný, 23, Praha 1905, 77.

[13] According to the agreement between the Czech Regional government and the museum society the Pantheon was the property of the government, this arrangement lasted until 1949.

[14] Cf. Denkstein p. 78.

[15] Karel Adámek „Umělecká výzdoba“, Časopis Musea království Českého 87, 1913, 1-20; Denkstein 82-83.

[16] František Xaver Halas, České umění. Sochařství, stavitelství, Praha 1911, 38: „památky na dobu vřelého vlstnečení, ve kterém svorni byli Němci i Češi“.

[17] Halas, op. Cit., 38: „Přece však lze pod každou sochu také napsati nějaké historické jméno německé, nebo ještě lépe jméno ze seznamu některé tragedie poschillerovské doby.“

[18] Karel Adámek, „Umělecká výzdoba Musea království českého“, Časopis Musea království českého 87, 1913, 10.

[19] Ibid., 17.

[20] Denkstein, op. cit., 74-75. Emmler was also member of the committee which filed the motion approved in the above mentioned session of the Regional assembly in 1894: Adámek, op. cit., 9.

[21] At the end of the 19th century, it is true, there were many Czechs who still believed in the authenticity of hoax manuscripts in Czech language, purported to be from the early Middle Ages but actually written by Václav Hanka. In one of these manuscripts the story of Libussa is included, which would prove its historicity, but it is to ben noted that Emler considered the manuscript mentioning Libussa as originating from the 14th century and  between 1888 and 1899 its falsity was definitively demonstrated.

[22] Ididem, 11.

[23] „Spořitelna královského hl. města Prahy“, Zprávy SIA 26, 1895, 11-13; Nová budova Městské spořitelny pražské, Praha 1894; Taťána Petrasová in: Pavel Vlček, ed., Umělecké památky Prahy. Staré město, Josefov, Praha 1996, 352-354.

[24] Vladislava Valchářová in: Růžena Baťková, ed., Umělecké památky Prahy. Nové Město, Vyšehrad, Praha 1998, 480-481.

[25] Monika Wagner, Alegorie und Geschichte. Ausstattungsprogramme öffentlicher Gebäude des 19. Jahtrhunderts in Deutschland, Tübingen 1989, 267.

[26] Drahomíra Stránská, „Národopisné oddělení“, Národní Museum 1818-1948, Praha 1949, 119-136.

[27] Jan Vansina, De la tradition orale, 1961 (Oral Tradition and History, London 1965).

[28] Lutz Niethammer, ed., Lebenserfahrung und Kollektives Gedächtnis. Die Praxis der Oral History, Frankfurt/Main 1980.

[29] Cf. Jan Assman, Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1997.