Národní galerie v Praze — Valdštejnská jízdárna: Otevři zahradu rajskou. Benediktini v srdci Evropy 800-1300

Last day in Prague, so last museum. Yesterday while on my public transport tram tour, I passed the Valdštejnská jízdárna, Wallenstein Riding School and saw The Benedictines in the Heart of Europe 800-1300 “Open the Gates of Paradise”, which despite the cloudless sky, sun and 15º day, I took myself along to, hoping to educate myself a little about the six hundred years between 600 and 1200CE, or as I think of it, between Hild and Caroline Walker Bynum.

Many manuscripts, some with funny marginalia, jewellery and decorations of all types, stonework, sculpture, masonry, wooden eating utensils, vast embroideries, a reliquary with pieces of the True Cross, pilgrims badges, illuminations, architectural models and drawings, astronomical and medicinal herb guides. Many of the items were of a similar age to what I’ve so far been looking at in Prague, but seemed much older. Some of them—the reliquaries and badges—referred directly to Bynum’s work, Wonderful Blood; others—the chalices (not shown here)—reminded me of the one Hild carried to King Edwin, though around a hundred years younger than that story. Slowly though I am discovering those periods, and the six centuries between.

Tomorrow, to Budapest. More museums. More other things,


Prague Trams 22 & 17

Opted for the all-day public transport tram tour today, plonking my arse on the 22 and 17 trams in both directions. I almost ended up in a museum, but it’s Monday so they’re closed. Tomorrow then. And now some photos of Prague that aren’t in museums.


Národní galerie v Praze – Šternberský palác

Intending to stay well clear of museums today, I walked around for a couple of hours before giving in and going to the Národní galerie v Praze Šternberský palác (I thought it was one of the others, three of them being jammed together in various palaces) to look at more stuff from the 14th to 16th centuries.

Well, I was spoilt yesterday, well and truly. I looked at some of the Dutch Masters, Italian stuff, felt like I’d seen it all before, so loitered in the collection of (mostly) religious art of the 15th and 16th centuries. There was a greater Italian influence, and me being so committed to Central European mediæval stuff, I couldn’t quite get into it. By comparison also much of it wasn’t so fine, possibly being mass-produced. From a distance they would often look attractive, but close-up, the brushwork, forms, details, everything really was blurry and approximate.

A few charmers though: two saints giving each other the side-eye in Jacopo di Cione’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints; the blood running from Jesus’ feet in Piero di Giovanno’s The Lamentation falling onto the halos of the group below and causing them to glow; the woodcut block print style of the Madonna’s clothes in The Virgin Enthroned with Saints Peter and Paul, something I don’t recall seeing before; Lovro Dobričevič’s Pseudopolyptych of Twelve Saints, with possibly Saint Justina holding the palm frond of martyrdom. Three different works of the Adoration of the Magi by various Netherland artists.

The Epitaph of Jan Cleemenssoen with the Well of Life I was kindly reminded to stay more than 10cm away because I kept setting off alarms. It has Jesus, with what looks like a table on his back squatting in a fountain topped with flying buttresses. He is bleeding, nay gushing for all he’s worth from his spear wound. As fast as he fills the well, angels are drawing his blood off into golden chalices and giving it to the faithful to drink. Faithful or wealthy. Jesus is up to his ankles in blood; he looks like he hopes it’ll end soon.

The Šternberský palác museum is mostly not these kind of works. It’s plenty of 17th to 19th century art of the kind National Museums are known for: big expressive semi-realist works from the big names of Netherlands, Germany, Italy. I love seeing this in context, say in Antwerp (or in colossal-ity in the Gemäldegalerie), here it feels a little out of place, especially in contrast with the Národní galerie v Praze – Klášter sv. Anežky České I went to yesterday (The Wood Carvings and The Paintings in separate posts), which to me is far more of a properly Prague and Czech gallery.


Národní galerie v Praze – Klášter sv. Anežky České — 2: The Paintings

National Gallery Prague’s mediæval collection in the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia destroyed me. I had no idea how to deal with almost 400 images, almost all of them I wanted to blog, and none that seemed to fall naturally into a coherent subset. Ignoring all the photos of the captions, and all the closeups of details it seemed best to split the lot in two. So first up was the The Wood Carvings, and here are The Paintings (Madonna of Březnice gets her own post).

I almost didn’t make it past the second room. Nine large square works comprising the Vyšší Brod Altarpiece, with such detail, colour, movement … I spent half and hour there, and somehow convinced myself there wasn’t all that much to see in the further rooms so examined closely Jesus’ wound, blood springing in arcs and oozing like thick flowers around a mouth black and depthless.

St Catherine turned up so frequently, I began to wonder if I’d missed her in Berlin or if this was one of those specific regional subjects. And so much strangeness, such as the one I forgot to photograph the caption, with the woman on the right petting an animal I’m fairly certain is of the cryptozoological type, while her companion on the left is eyeing it and wielding a sword half her height.

As usual, ever since reading Carolyn Walker Bynum I’m enjoying the mediæval blood of Jesus in all its variety. And it gets everywhere, staining Mary’s cowl, elsewhere he looks apologetic while gushing mightily, as though he’s got messy hands and can’t come to the dinner table. Sometimes though the companions at the crucifixion get on their knees and cup the falling blood in their hands.

Also, just a phenomenal amount of women represented. Not just Mary, though she’s around in all her stages. Many saints, some more regular subjects than others: Saints Catherine and Barbara in particular, then many Abbesses and other women. Some works normally filled with male Saints were restaged with female; others had substantial numbers of women. Then there was Saint Mary of Egypt, a truly strange Saint and painting. She was a prostitute who converted to Christianity and decided to spend her life as a hermit in the desert. Her clothes soon fell apart and her body became covered in thick hair (or in this painting just covered by her long head hair), and she carries three loaves of bread which kept her alive for 47 years. There are also many works illustrating female friendship, such as in the St George Altarpiece and the Puchner Ark Altarpiece (where there’s also another St Francis of Assisi).

There’s so many works and closeups that didn’t make it here, and this is only one of three collections I’d like to see before I leave Prague.

After, I wandered in the Abbey itself, empty and restored, reading about Agnes of Bohemia.


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.


Národní galerie v Praze – Klášter sv. Anežky České: Madonna of Březnice

As @medievalpoc pointed out, the text on Mary’s halo, “Women of Jerusalem, I am dark but beautiful …,” can be translated as ’and’ instead of ‘but’ and the latter is “often seen is a deliberate mistranslation …”

This is a striking small painting in Prague’s National Gallery in the equally beautiful Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, I think the most superb collection of mediæval art I’ve yet seen. I tweeted it, and as it’s become quite popular (for me), and as I’m in the middle of culling 340 images down to something bloggable, I thought I’d at least post this with the text from the caption. The third image is the backside, with the inscription as described below.

Madonna of Březnice
Prague, 1396
Origins allegedly in the Augustinian Canonry in Roudnice nad Labem, later in the Castle Chapel in Březnice at Příbram on loan from the Bishopric of České Budéjovice.

The painting of the Madonna was commissioned by the Bohemian King Wenceslas IV in 1396, as reads the inscription on the rear. The painter used the St Luke Marian painting of the Byzantine type Hodegetria (Periblebtos) housed in Roudnice nad Labem as the model for his panel. The dark incarnate of the Madonna is explained in the Latin inscription from the biblical Song of Songs (1,5): “Women of Jerusalem, I am dark but beautiful …,” which appears on the Mary’s halo.


Muzeum hlavního města Prahy

Seven hours wandering Prague—well, six if I exclude the hour spent eating a pizza. Two of those were in the Muzeum hlavního města Prahy (I’m translating that as The City of Prague Museum), me visiting that as an accompaniment to Bologna’s Museo della Storia di Bologna almost a year ago.

It takes me about three hours to go through all my pictures and make decisions, edit them (mostly rotating, dealing with skew and warp distortions, lens barrelling, bad light, not much in the way of actual image editing), write the captions, upload them, get to here where I write something. So, a quick writing something.

The museum is not so large, and fairly standard for its type: a prehistoric/archaeological section, a mediæval section starting around 800CE, a renaissance section, a baroque, and finishing with a … imperial? anyway, the period of time finishing mid-19th century when most of europe was mad on colonising everywhere else. There’s no audio guide, though it doesn’t detract not having one. The rooms are small-ish, and often there’s a lot of text with each display, so if one were to do all the reading, they could emerge quite enlightened. I came out dumb as a stump.

As usual I went looking for women and non-typical Europeans, I mean the ones from Africa, Middle East, India, all the rest of the world who’d been busy living in Europe for quite some time already. I found a couple the instant I walked through the door, in a nativity scene. Strangely, I’m by now used to seeing a small population of ethnic diversity in any museum but noticed an absence of it here, despite seeing a fairly good representation throughout Prague in old sculptures.

I’m just going to write about each image in turn (maybe skip a couple if I’m so inclined, so those were the first two.)

The original Calendar face of the Prague Astronomical Clock. It’s worth a close look for all the detail, the zodiac, months of the year, seasons, plus a vast amount of information around the edge.

Earthware, bone combs, pots, jugs, pins, belt buckles, from the Bronze Age and generally neolithic, pre-history. It occurred to me that much of what I see of this kind of stuff has probably been made and used by women, weaving, spinning, thread and cloth-making instruments, cooking and kitchen utensils, sure there’s the odd arrowhead, axe, knife, but even those were used by women in places. Besides the obvious cliché of Caveman hunting Mammoth, or the image of the Iron Age blacksmith, museums are rather populated by the history of women, just not acknowledged or represented as such.

Anyway, on to less speculative stuff.

I particularly liked the Bleeding Jesus, as it’s a good representation of the type of blood cult Christianity Carolyn Walker Bynum talks about. Almost hilarious amounts of blood and gougings, and droplets arranged in triplets in a line. What this image is missing is his legs which look like he’s having a period of biblical proportions. I really don’t know where all that blood is coming from, but it’s certainly his nether regions.

Then there was this beautiful but battered statue of an armoured person, headless and broken, but still …

A couple more, and then this piece of the Apotheosis of St Ignatius of Loyola. It fits a particular style around the early 1700s I’ve seen before, the whatever (in this case St Ingatius) being held aloft by ‘Peoples from the Four Corners of the World’. I’m really not sure what they thought they were doing at the time, but from this perspective, they manage to look both horribly racist and tragically premonitory.

Then there were these two Putti, that I thought at first were black, but later I thought it was maybe soot or something, as the dark pigment goes across the plinth and Volute also.

And then I fell in love. Jan Jiří Bendl’s, Guardian Angel from 1650-ish is huge, probably 2 and an half metres and I spent far too long staring into her divine face. I would steal the shit out of this if I could get away with it. Often religious art looks like no one in particular, but this is somehow both an idealised form (and quite Italian) as well as distinctly a person. I was really taken by the changes as I moved around her.

The cupboard door I liked especially for the Chinese-influenced lacquer-work. It’s very Chinese until you look closer and then it’s very I have no idea.

A pen and ink map of Prague from 1769. I can even see where I live!

A tiny Baroque glass garden party with chamber orchestra and women with mad hats.

The massive model of Prague from 1834. It’s huge and strangely transfixing. Again something I’ve seen in a few museums, in Berlin, Bologna, all from around the same time.

Then more pen and ink drawings. There was an exhibition of Masters from Rudolph II’s Era, but I found a lot of them bland and mediocre. The drawings though. The Finding of the True Cross by Empress Helena, I liked just for the line-work, I could was imagining Legend of Korra done like this.

Paulus van Vianen’s (?) Landscape near Salzburg I noticed because it’s very un-European, and so in the style of Chinese landscape art that the artist must have been influenced.

And then there’s Saint Francis. Well of course.

So, one Prague museum down. I’m not sure how many I’ll see as my tendency to overwork after (it’s been four hours on this) is a little excessive. Walking and wandering, yes!



Away from Berlin with my backpack. To Prague. Grey mist hung and obscured visibility the entire journey. It snowed in Sächsische Schweiz along the Elbe in Elbsandsteingebirge. Prague arrived 5 hours later. I’m staying in the 5th district, the funicular up Petřín runs past my window across the park. In the evening I walked through the part of the old city.