Národní galerie v Praze – Klášter sv. Anežky České — 1: The Wood Carvings

National Gallery Prague’s mediæval collection in the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia destroyed me. It’s not a massive collection of the scale of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, though it’s substantial enough for me to be half-way through and realise I’m only half-way and brace myself for endurance mode. It is exceptional. Most of the works—around half paintings and half wood carvings, the latter divided between sculptures and altarpieces—are superb, really genuinely superb; there’s very little average at all, and then mostly to demonstrate the difference between the unique and mass produced pieces. Which meant I poured over each having emotions and marvelling at the artistry and craft until I was exhausted, and then wandered the vast, empty abby alone.

Most of the works also date from mid-1300s to mid-/late-1400s, with a couple of works from the 12th century and a few more from early 1500s. This means there’s 300 or so pieces from a hundred-year period and a single geographic location, which gives a profound documentation of the development, influences, styles, everything. To see carved statues of Mary go from hard, blocky, abstract lines and folds to the soft and curved of mid-14th century International style, and then back again to a late Gothic style makes glorious sense, and to see the faces wax and wane with Italian influence—and even what looks to me like Sino-Indian Buddhist influence in the half-closed, beatific eyes—I went crazy. After, it took seven hours just to sort the images and make a pragmatic selection, which ended up being the 87 split between here and The Paintings post (and Madonna of Březnice gets her own post).

There were also a few Pietàs, Jesus doing his excessive bleeding, and this also in paintings where the blood sprang and sprayed, or clotted like flowers, or dripped like honey, or ran into the earth like worms. Less than a century later the wounds were all but bloodless, the spear wound in his side becoming almost a small mouth.

Many works of St Catherine, she of her wheel, also Madonna Protectress, for a time with a cloak thrown over small figures to give asylum.

Plenty of Middle East, Arabic, North African and Levantine figures also, especially the Magi, all with varied and diverse headwear. As well, a diversity of skin colour. At first I thought there was a noticeable lack of the usual multiculturalism I’ve become accustomed to seeing in mediæval art. Then I realised I’d missed the subtleties, from pale northern skin to mediterranean, browns and reds, different noses, cheekbones, chins, hair, beards. When everything takes time and costs money, nothing—present or absent—is without meaning, is deliberate, conscious, intended. There is so much symbolism and language in these works, which would be comprehensible to viewers of that time, that I simply can’t doubt the difference in two figure’s skin tone denotes a specific meaning.

There was one crucified Jesus, minus head and one hand, whose legs were those of a dancer, leaping, arms allongé, legs together in soubresaut, the shawl around his hips too is caught levitated.

To exit, you must walk back through the entire exhibition. There’s far too much here, I had no hope of reducing it to make sense. I wanted to put every work here, along with all the closeups of details and notes from the captions.