Wednesday 5 June 2024

Lessons From Czechia - Alphons Mucha's "Slav Epic" - How Religion Poisoned Everything

Mucha's poster advertising the first exhibition of the "Slav Epic"

"The Slav Epic"
History of the Celebration in Pictures
Alphons Mucha
Exhibited from June 1 to September 30, 1930
in the large hall of the exhibition palace
In Brno
under the protection of
Brno City Council
Open daily from 8-18.hrs.
We've just got back from Czechia where we spend 8 days visiting our son and his Czech wife.

We first went to Prague in December 2011 where, in addition to the breath-taking beauty of Old Town Square, dressed up for Christmas, the most abiding memory was the memorial to the two young Czechs, Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, who killed themselves by self-immolation in Wenceslaus Square in January and February 1969, respectively, in protest against the Soviet-led occupation of then Czechoslovakia in Spring 1968. Soviet-led Russian, East German, Polish and Rumanian forces had occupied the country to depose Alexander Dubček's regime, which had attempted to introduce liberalization and reformed communism more in line with western Social Democracy.

This time, apart from the stunning growth in prosperity that manifests itself in new roads, traffic, good eateries and supermarkets with full shelves and a wide range of choice, mostly since Czechia joined the EU, the most memorable event was a visit to a Museum in the Moravský Krumlov castle near Brno which is the temporary home of a series of immense paintings by the Czech artist, Alphons Mucha, perhaps more famous in the West for his commercial art nouveau designs for chocolate boxes, biscuit tins and soap packages that charcterised the 1920's and 30's.

In Czechia he is better known for his series depicting the 'Slav Epic', or the history of the Slavs, from their legendary origins in the wetlands between the Baltic and the Black Sea to their settled homeland in Eastern Europe.

The story is one of an oppressed people, set about by enemies, forever yearning to be free to live their lives in peace, according to their own customs, culture and tradition, free from interference by more powerful and expansionist neighbours. In the 1920, when Mucha was finalizing his epic, Russia had not emerged as the threat it would later become and was considered part of the Slav family of nations together with Poland and the Southern or 'Jugo' Slavs of the Balkans who had emerged from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I.

And underlying this backdrop of interference and meddling, was religion, Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox, each using their religion as an excuse to wage war and impose foreign rule on the Slavs. Consequently, Czechia is now one of the most Atheist country in Europe, with 37% of the population, second only to France with 40%, openly declaring their Atheism.

This description of Mucha's Slave Epic follows the sequence in which they are displayed in Moravský Krumlov castle, which is neither chronological in the events they depict nor in the order in which Mucha painted them, so bear with me if I flit back and forth from age to age throughout the Middle Ages and the 18th, 19th and early 20th century:

The first of Mucha's Slav Epic:
The Slavs in their Original Homeland - Alphons Mucha (1912)
There is no general consensus of where the Slavic peoples originated apart from some vague reference to between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Tradition has it that the Slavs, an Indo-European people, speaking an Indo-European language, emerged somewhere in Eastern Europe during the 'migration period' between 5th to the 10th century CE, traditionally in Polesia. During this period, The Huns, a Turkic people from Central Asia had moved westward in one of the periodic explosions of Central Asian nomads into Eastern Europe. This precipitated a movement of Germanic peoples, known in German history as the Volkswanderung, when various Germanic tribes such as the Goths, the Vandals and the Franks undertook huge migrations into Western Europe and North Africa (Vandals), into the Balkans, Italy and Spain (Goths) and France (Franks) where they destroyed and replaced the remnants of the Roman Empire.

The picture shows a Slav settlement being destroyed by fire by nomadic slave raiders who sold their captives in the slave market in the city of Kherson on the northern shores of the Black Sea. The giant figure is an old Slavic priest or zhrets, who begs the gods for help. He is propped up by a young man in red (symbolizing war) and a girls dressed in white (symbolizing peace). The painting symbolises the birth of a people born in fear, oppression and destruction, with nomadic Turkic raiders from the East and South and the Germanic Goths from the West. Their only hope is for peace in which to realize their potential, but they are going to need to fight for it.
The "Magic of the Word" triptych
1. Jan Milíč of Kroměříž (1916)
2. Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel (1916)
3. The Meeting at Křížky (1916)
This illustrates a period in Slav national development when, in a period of rising discontent with the corruption and debauchery of the Catholic clergy, they were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the Catholic Church, in a way that presaged the Protestant Reformation some years later.

The left-hand panel depicts the preaching of Jan Milíč, the son of a master weaver from Kroměříž who had risen to the post of notary to King Charles IV of Prague and then to the post of vice-chancellor and canon of St Vitus Church. He fell under the influence of the German preacher, Konrad Waldhausen whom Charles IV had invited to Prague to preach against the 'sinful and immodest ways' of the local citizenry. Milíč also became interested in the teachings of Francis of Assisi and resigned to live a life of poverty and preaching against pride, adultery and greed.

His most notable success was in his conversion of many of Prague's prostitutes. Having begged Charles IV to donate land in Prague Old Town, he built a chapel and a the 'New Jerusalem' monastic shelter for the women. The first picture depicts the construction of New Jerusalem while the women look on and listen to Milíč preaching. The woman with the face covering is meant to symbolize repentance, rectification and doing good deeds.

The central panel of the triptych depicts the last sermon of Master Jan Hus in Bethlehem Chapel in 1412. At the time, Hus was rector of Charles University in Prague. The chapel was the only place in Prague where sermons were preached in Czech at a time when the Catholic Church was determined to protect its monopoly on interpretation of the Bible by forbidding it to be translated into local languages to make it accessible to any literate person, not just priests trained in Latin. Masses were only permitted in Latin.

Hus had been strongly influenced by the teachings of John Wycliffe, Master of Baliol College, Oxford, sometimes called "The Morning Star of the Protestant Reformation" - a title often applied to Jan Hus - who had produced the first English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible and had argued against the Catholic Triune god and preached against Catholic corruption including the sale of indulgences. His followers were the Lollards, a prescribed heretical sect and Wycliffe was excommunicated although he escaped execution, the usual punishment for heretics.

Jan Hus's followers, the Hussites, eventually became a major Christian sect in Bohemia - the part of Czechia that includes Prague, the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation.

The panel depicts several Prague notables, and people involved in funding and building the chapel. On the left of the picture, near the chapel wall and next to the veiled figure in white, there is Jan Žižka of Trocnov, a courtier of King Wenceslaus IV and Queen Sophia's doorman. In front of him, dressed in black, is the tradesman Kříž who donated part of the land for the chapel and next to him, dressed in red, is Hanuš of Műlheim who obtained the building permit for the chapel and provided funds to build it.

Under the canopy on the right is Queen Sophia, wife of Wenceslaus IV, whose confessor was Jan Hus. Her lady in waiting is modelled on Mucha's wife, Maria Née Chytílová. The hooded figure lurking behind the font is a spy employed by Catholic priests concerned that Hus was preaching against the church's iniquities and the sale of indulgencies.

In 1412, an interdict was declared over Prague, banning all church rites until Hus left the city.

When the painting was completed in 1916, a private house stood on the site of the Jerusalem Chapel which was not rebuilt until 1954 to a design by the architect, Jaroslav Fragner. The chapel interior in the painting does not correspond with the modern chapel.

The right-hand panel depicts the beginnings of the Hussite rebellion. To begin with, the movement had been peaceful and non-violent, seeking to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, with rallies on hilltops at Hradiště (later Tábor), at Beránek near Vožice and at Oreb near Třebechovice, however it quickly became radicalized by a radical sect from Tábor. On September 17, 1419, a proclamation was read by Václav Korda, a priest from Pilsen, to a rally on Bzí Hill, addressed to all Czechs, telling them "Brethren! Know that the vineyard has blossomed, but the goats want to eat it all up, so don't walk holding a stick but a weapon!". It was a call to arms to defend the Hussite.

The scene depicted is the meeting of the armed group in response to this proclamation that took place on September 30, 1419 on a hill called Na Křížkách. This hill is still called U Křížků, located some 20 Km south of Prague.

The painting is full of symbolism: the dry tree with the white banner signified was and death; the green pine and red banner represent life. The dark sky pierced by lightening signifies the changes that have recently occurred - the Death of Wenceslaus IV, the first defenestration in Prague and Jan Žižka forming the first military division of Hussites. The picture as a whole is a call to arms and a challenge to fight for the truth for which Master Jan Hus had laid down his life.

As usual, a theological difference was shaping up to end in a bloodbath with 'truth' going to the side which did the most killing.

The Celebration of Svantovit on Rügen (1912)
This next painting deals with events preceding the Hussite rebellion, in the pre-Christian era when the Slavs had become too populous for their homelands and so set out to find a new homeland, during the period known as the Migration Period. As early as the 7th Century CE, some tribes settled on the Baltic coast, assimilating with the local Celtic and Germanic people.

Near the Odra estuary to the Baltic Sea is an island called Rügen, the home of the Rani tribe, on which there was a temple to the god Svantovit in the city of Arkona. The painting shows the autumn festival to celebrate Svantovit in which the priests thank the god for the harvest and prophesy the future. In that respect, Arkona was to the Slavs what Delphi was to the Greeks.

In 1168, Christian Denmark launched a crusade against the Baltic Slavs, led by Valdemar of Denmark. They captured the city of Arkona, destroyed the temple and burned down the statue of Svantovit. The top part of the painting symbolises this destruction of the Slavic religion with the Germanic war god, Wödan on the left looking on surrounded by sacred wolves. The figure on the sacred white horse represents the last Slavic warrior as Svantovit takes his sword from his hands. People in chains represent the conquest of the Baltic Slavs by Germanic people.

At the bottom to the left is a bard, as a reminder that all we know of the Baltic Slavs is from oral traditions in myths and legends. In the center is a woman in white with a grey area above her, symbolizing the poor prospects for the Rani tribe while to the right a boy tries forlornly to carve a replacement for the statue of Svantovit.
This painting then records the destruction of an important Slavic religious tradition by crusading Germanic Christians.

The next painting celebrates a high point in Slavic cultural development with Tsar Simeon of Bulgaria (Car Simeon Bulharsky) taking control of a large part of the Balkans in dispute with the Byzantine Empire (the descendant of the Eastern Roman Empire) which had adopted Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Car Simeon Bulharsky (1923)
The reign of Tsar Simeon at the turn of the 9th and 10th centuries marks the high-point of Bulgarian power and glory. After fighting with his neighbours, Simeon gained control of most of the Balkans and came close to taking Byzantium and so the crown of the Byzantine Empire.

Simeon's reign also marks the birth of Slavic literature.

When Bishop Methodius died in Great Moravia in 885 CE, it sparked a dispute between supporters of Latin and Slavic liturgies. Although Methodius had promoted Gorazd as his successor, Rome imposed Bishop Wiching of Nitra to administer the Moravian Church and banned the use of the Slavic language in worship. Slavic priests were expelled from Great Moravia and most went to Greater Bulgaria, including Clement of Ohrid who became the first Slavic Bulgarian bishop (depicted top left). In the upper right corner is Naun of Angelarij who simplified the Galgolitic Alphabet to Cyrillic - the predecessor of the modern Cyrillic Alphabet.

The painting shows Simeon on a throne in a palace in the capital city of Velká Pereslav, supervising the works of scribes who write down the elders' memories to preserve them for posterity. The available literature is translated here, and monks transcribe a reproduce works of literature. The whole painting illustrates Byzantine richness and opulence.

The next painting is a stark depiction of the aftermath of the battle of Grunwald in which the Slavs were triumphant over the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic order of shock troops charged with spreading the authority of Rome by force of arms. Painted in 1924, it is Alphons Mucha's call for peaceful coexistence of nations.
After the Battle of Grunwald (1924)
In the 12th century, the Teutonic Knights, an expansionist crusading order, settled in the then Slavic territory of Prussia and quickly got into territorial dispute with its neighbours. In 1409, war broke out between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania in which Poland became involved on the side of Lithuania, supported by a mercenary corps from Bohemia and Moravia led by Jan Sokol from Lamberk. The corps also probably included Jan Žižka from Trocnov.

The painting depicts the scene the morning after the bloody battle in which the Teutonic Order was defeated. King Władysław II Jagiełło covered his face in pain at the unnecessary deaths and the immense sacrifice of his warriors. Under the hill is the body of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Ulrich von Jurgingen with a cross on his chest. In the background the Orthodox Patriarch blesses the fallen, especially the Smolens who were in the front row in the battle.

The numerous white cloaks with black crosses symbolize the broken power of the Teutonic Order and how Poland and Lithuania had defended their freedom.

In the next painting Alphons Mucha celebrates the 9th century introduction of the Slavonic liturgy at Great Moravia as a symbol of Great Moravia's independence from Bavaria.
The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy at Great Moravia (1912)
The Great Moravian Empire had successfully faced the onslaught of the Germanic Franks, but the local church was subordinate to the Bavarian bishops. Moravia's ruler, Prince Ratislav realised that he needed to assert the independence of the Moravian Church to strengthen to nation's position as a united entity, so, in 860-861 CE he asked Pope Nicholas I for help. However, this was refused so Ratislav turned to the Byzantine Emperor Michael III with a request to send teachers to Moravia who would be capable of spreading the faith in a Slavic language.

Amongst the teachers sent by Michael III were Constantine (who later took the name Cyril) and his brother Methodius from Thessaloniki (Salonica). They compiled a new script, Glagolitic (the predecessor of Cyrillic), and used it to translate the Gospels. Although they face stiff opposition from the Latin priests, they eventually prevailed and Old Slavonic became an equal ecclesiastical language in Great Moravia. The Pope eventually appoints Methodius as Archbishop, giving him authority over Bishop Witching of Nitra.

The painting is set in the Great Moravian capital, Velehrad. It depicts Price Svatopluk sitting on a high stool with bishops and nobles before him. The deacon is reading a letter from the Pope appointing the new Archbishop Methodius. A Frankish knight watches him humbly. The Rotunda in the background represent the Church of St George in Thessaloniki with Methodius at the head of a procession of his disciples.

The group at the top of the painting represents the violent spread of Christianity by the Franks. At bottom left, Cyril, in a cowl, protects the Moravians from heaven. At top right, Mucha uses four figures to symbolize the liturgical connection of Great Moravia to Kievan Rus with St. Olga and her husband Igor, to Great Bulgaria with St. Boris and his wife.

The two figures in the middle, sitting on a sword shaped like a ship, are the sons of St. Vladimir of Kyiv, Gleb and Boris, patrons of sailors and protectors of merchants. This is Mucha's metaphorical depiction of Christianity as a port to which all Slavic nations gradually arrive. The prominent young man with a circle and clenched fist in the foreground represents strength and cohesion.

While the northern Slavs of the Baltic and south into Bohemia and Moravia (Modern Czechia) were consolidating their position and unifying around a Slavonic liturgy and asserting their independence from the Latin liturgy and the Germanic tribes to the West, the southern Slavs of the Balkans, especially Serbia, were struggling to become unified. They lived in valleys separated by high mountains and were dominated by the Byzantine Empire until the 12th century when Stefan Nemanja succeeded in unifying most of the tribes in the Drina basin and Montenegro. In the 14th century, Stefan IV Dušan incorporated more of Serbia, southern Macedonia, Albania, Thessaly and the Belgrade area into an empire that stretched from the Danube to the Gulf of Corinth. In 1349 he issued a Code, creating a feudal society giving rights and power to feudal lords over the peasants. In 1346 he had been crowned Tsar of Serbs and Romans (The (Greek) Byzantines always called themselves Romans) in Skopje, making him, de facto, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, a high-point in Slavic political power.

In the same ceremony, his son, Stephen V. Uroš, was crowned king of all Serbian and costal territories.

The next painting depicts the moments immediately after the coronation in Skopje.
The Coronation of Stefan Uroš Dušan
At the head of the procession, the nobles carry the tsar's helmet, shield and sword, symbols of his military power, and the chancellor carries the state seal, the symbol of his political powers. The tsar dressing in lavish robes carried a scepter, also a sign of his powers.

His son, Steven V. Uroš follows in his footsteps while girls with branches sprinkle flowers in the path. The Sebian patriarch (Senior Eastern Orthodox Archbishop or Pope) follows behind.

The girl with a long braid and floral crown in the foreground, is typical of Mucha's elaborate Art Nouveau style.

In the 13th century, under Wenceslaus I's son Ottokar II of the Přemyslid dynasty, Czechia became a major power on the European stage. The town of Kutná Hora provided an abundance of silver resulting in unprecedented prosperity. Due to his wealth and generosity, Ottokar was known as the 'Golden King' and Czechia expanded its empire in Austria to include Styria, Egerland, Carinthia and more.

The next painting depicts the marriage of Ottokar's niece, Kuningunde of Brandenburg to the second-born son of his long-time rival, the Hungarian Béla IV, also called Béla, as part of the political machinations that took place following Ottakar's defeat of Béla IV in battle and his annexation of Bratislava.
King Ottokar II of Bohemia. (1924)
Ottokar II had a major long-time rival in Béla IV of the Hungarian Árpád dynasty, culminating in the Battle of Kressenbrunn. Ottokar's 'iron cavalry' which earned him his alternative nickname, the 'Iron King', prevailed and Béla's forces fled the battlefield in chaos. Taking Bratislava forced Béla to negotiate a peace agreement.

To consolidate this resulting peace, Ottokar divorced his wife, Margaret of Bebenburg and married Béla IV's granddaughter, Kunigunda. He also arranged the marriage of his niece, Kunigunde of Brandenburg to Béla IV's second-born son, Béla. The latter wedding took place on October 25, 1264, on Žitný ostrov, an island in the Danube in what is now Slovakia.

The painting shows influential European rulers of the time in a tented city specially built for the wedding. Ottokar is shown warmly welcoming his recent rivals. The guest list includes King Daniel of Galicia and the Serbian King Stefan Uroš I with both his sons Dragutin and Milutin, the Duke of Croatia, Bosnia Transylvania and Bulgaria, princes, counts and knights from Germany, Poland, Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Ottokar had a serious claim to the throne of Holy Roman Emperor. However, the electors, overwhelmingly German, chose the inconsequential Prince Rudolf I of Germany from the house of Hapsburg.

In 1273 the peace gained through political marriages broke down and the Hungarians invaded Moravia. In 1276 the Holy Roman Empire attacked and Ottakar was forced to cede numerous territories to Rudolf I. Finally, Ottokar had to face civil war when the Czech nobles rebelled, eventually being killed in battle at the Battle of Marchfield on August 26, 1278.

The Unity of the Brethren was a religious denomination, originating in the later 15th century in response to corruption in the Roman and Ultraquist churches. The Ultraquist Church was the largest sect of the Hussites after they split into factions. They preached that the Eucharist should consist of both bread and wine and be administered to the laity (one of the Four Articles of Prague of the original Hussites). At the time, the Roman Catholic Church insisted that only priests could receive communion wine. Of the Hussite factions, the Ultraquists, also known in Czechia as the Calixtines were closets to Rome and eventually allied themselves to Rome in suppressing the more radical Hussites, the Taborites and Orphans at the Battle of Lipany in 1434.

The Brethren were influenced by Humanism and consequently moderated their former strict approach to education, producing some of the best schools in Czech lands.

The next painting depicts one of the most famous Brethren schools in Mucha's hometown of Ivančice: the aristocratic Law School. He shows the town as it was in the 16th century, with city walls and a church tower. Karel the Elder of Žerontín, then lord of Rosice and Náměššť nad Oslavou supported the institution. A number of distinguished people taught there, including Jan Blahoslav from Přerov, known for his translation of the New Testament from Greek into Czech. This translation was considered a gem of Czech literature and the Brethren set up a printing press at their church in Ivančice to print copies of it. The press was eventually transferred to a Romanesque fortress near Kralice. Because of that relocation, Karel the Elder's translation became known as the Kralice Bible

The following painting shows the classes being taught at the Brethren school in nature. The location of this school is today known as "Va Sboru", "At the Brethren’s place".
The Brethren School at Ivančice (1914)
The location of this school is today known as "Va Sboru", "At the Brethren’s place".

The lessons are interrupted by a visit from Karel the Elder of Žerontín who is shown sitting on the right, under the shelter, looking at copies of the Bible. His second wife is nearby. Her face shows that she was ill and had suffered illness all her life. There is a printing press on the right edge of the painting. A young man, with the face of Alphons Mucha reads from the Bible to a blind man. The fruitful prosperity that followed the hot summer of the Hussite wars is symbolized by a sunny autumn scene and abundant harvest. The swifts circling the church tower symbolize that the Unity Brethren will soon need to leave on long journeys. After the Battle of White Mountain (1620) many left to seek refuge abroad. The Battle of White Mountain was an early battle in the 30-years war from which the Czech people were to suffer horribly as the Catholic Church tried to suppress the Protestant Reformation. The battle ended the Bohemian Revolt and gave the Germanic Hapsburgs a supremacy that was to last for 300 years, until the end of World War I and the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

In the next painting, Mucha comes forward to the 19th century and events in Russia.

Russia had fallen behind both politically and economically, only catching up with developments in the West in the 19th century. Defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and several peasant uprisings, under the influence of the political developments in France where the monarchy had been overthrown and a nation built ostensibly on the principles of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (freedom, equality and brotherhood) forced the Russian government to implement changes. The Emancipation reform laid the foundation for industrial development with freedom for the working class who were now free to leave the countryside where they have been tied by feudal laws, to move into the industrial cities.

On February 16, 1861, Tsar Nicholas II issued a proclamation abolishing serfdom, so freeing 47 million serfs from the Mediaeval feudalism that tied them to the land of their feudal overlords.

This event is depicted in Mucha's painting set in Red Square, Moscow in front of St Basi's Cathedral.
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia (1914)
The Kremin towers loom in the background. To the right of the temple, built in the 16th century by the first Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible, is a round tribune from which the Tsar's order abolishing slavery was announced on March 5, 1861. The village and Townspeople remain in the square to deal with their new freedom in their own way. Some are clearly rejoicing while others are unsure what to expect.

Above the towers of the Church of Vasily the Blessed, the first rays of the sun symbolize the dawn of freedom, gradually penetrating the fog. Mucha painted this after a trip to Russia in 1913. He originally intended to paint it as a glorious event but changed it when he realised the oppression of ordinary Russian people and their actual standard of living. This was just 4 years before the October Revolution that overthrew the monarchy and replaced it with Soviet Communism.

We're back now to the 15th century, to another significant figure in the cultural development of the Slavic people, Petr Chelčický, the influential religious thinker and pacifist from the village of Chelčice near Vodňany. He knew the leaders of the Hussites personally, including Jan Huss.

His religious beliefs included the complete equality of all Christians which led him to conclude that, to be rewarded in the afterlife, people living in secular coexistence should endure evil without resistance. This set him apart from the other Hussites who taught that they had to be prepared to defend truth and religion with force of arms if necessary.

The next painting depicts an event in the autumn of 1420.
Petr Chelčický at Vodňany (1918)
In autumn, 1420, the victorious Hussite army had marched back from Prague to southern Bohemia when a powerful local feudal lord Oldřích of Rosenberg, an implacable enemy of the Hussites since his defeat at Tàbor sacked the town of Vodňany with a band of mercenaries. He murdered and banished supporters of the reform movement, demolished the city walls and installed a new, anti-Hussite town council. The Hussite army set out from their camp near Písek and stormed Vodňany to retake it from the invaders.
The painting shows smoke rising from the plundered and burning city in the background. The inhabitants flee to the pond near the Chelčice village and lay their dead and wounded on its shore. Their faces reflect hopelessness, fear and anxiety: on the left is a crying little girl who was able to save only the dishes in the basket and a caged bird. Next to her, a young women mourns the death of her loved ones. The event evoked an overwhelming desire for revenge, but Petr Chelčický intervenes to proclaim his faith in the power of love, tolerance and forgiveness. Holding the man’s raised fists, he tells him "No, you must not repay evil with evil because then it multiplies, and it does not end. Let evil perish!

In 1457, following Chelčický's teaching, Jan Řehoř founded the Unity of Brethren in Kunvald.

In 1566 Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary with a large army and in August that year they laid siege to the town of Szigetvár which was defended by troops of the Croatian Royal Army under the command of the Ban of Croatia, Mikuláš Ŝubić Zrinski, a descendant of the old noble house of Ŝubić Bribirski. He had risen to fame by defending his homeland against the Ottomans and in 1863 he was appointed commander of the royal army at Szigetvár.

Though vastly outnumbered the defenders fought fiercely for every part of the city, palace and old fortress. Ultimately, Zrinski and his garrison were defeated, but their courage and the enormous casualties they inflicted on the Ottomans postponed the Ottoman campaign in the west for several years.

The painting depicts the last moments of the siege when the Turks had already taken the city.
The Defence of Szigetvár by Nikola Zrinski (1914)
The painting shows the palace and old fortress engulfed in flames. Zrinski delivers a fiery speech as he prepares what remains of the garrison for a last charge. Exhausted fighters lay aside their heavy gear, so it doesn't slow them down.

The righthand side of the paintings shows a gunpowder magazine that the defenders don't want to fall into enemy hands. The commander of local women lights a torch which she will throw into the magazine, destroying it and her women with it. Other women follow her onto the scaffolding because they prefer death to captivity and slavery.

The black column dividing the images symbolises the explosion of the fortress and the nobility of the terrible sacrifice: the lives lost defending freedom.

During the Hussite era one battle stands out for the bravery with which a Hussites army, led by Jan Žižka of Trocnov, withstood an attack by the mercenary army of the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund.

Sigismund was the younger brother of King Wenceslaus IV, and after Wenceslaus’s death, Sigismund laid claim to the Czech throne and laid siege to Prague. Jan Žižka set out from Tábor to try to raise the siege. As an experience military leader, he realised the strategic importance of Vítkov Hill, so he fortified the road that led from the only access to Prague not occupied by Sigismund's forces, the Poříčská gate, under Vítkov Hill to Tábor, by building two log cabins surrounded by a small moat and a wall. He defended this position personally with 26 men, two women and a girl.

Sigismund's armies launched an attack on Prague on Sunday, July 14, 1420, with the cavalry from Meissen storming Vítkov Hill. They managed to reach the log cabins where they met heroic resistance from the defenders. The uneven battle raged for some time until the situation became desperate until the people of Prague used the Poříčská gate to attack the cavalry from the rear. In the ensuing panic and confusion, many of the enemy perished as they tried to flee down the steep slope.

This painting depicts the scene after Žižka and his fighters descend victoriously from Vítkov Hill.
After the Battle of Vítkov Hill (1920)
The priest from Tábor stands at the field altar holding the host; other priests lie on the ground in deep humility. A man sitting on a wicker basket is accompanying the prayer by playing a field organ. On the left of the road a young warrior bandages his wounds, and a woman is breast-feeding her baby - symbolizing a new generation. Poříčská gate and the city walls can be seen on the left in the background, brightly lit by sunlight. Vítkov Hill looms on the right and Žižka, in a red cloak, stands deep in thought and thanks God for his victory. In front of him are captured weapons and equipment.

A notable figure in Slav cultural history is the teacher and philosopher, Jan Amos Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský), known as the 'Father of Education'. His parents were members of the Unity Brethren, a pacifist Hussite faction. The Komenský family took its name from the village of Komňa near Uherský Brod, where Jan's father, Martin, worked as a miller for his brother. Jan's birthplace is uncertain, probably either Uherský Brod or Nivnice, but around the time of Jan's birth, his family moved to Uherský Brod where they belonged to the wealthy burger class and became important members of the Unity Brethren who helped Jan attend their school in Přerov. He graduated from colleges in Herborn and Heidelberg. During his studies he began writing 'Treasures of the Czech Language' and prepared Theatrum Universitatum Rerum (The Treasures of the World), an encyclopedia for young people.

After completing his became a priest and teacher studies he returned to the Přerov school and later became rector of the Brethren school in Fulnek. After the Battle of White Hill in 1620, which resulted in victory for the Germanic Hapsburgs and the suppression of the Slavs which was to last until the end of World Ward I in the form of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, executions of Hussites took place in Old Town Square and a warrant was issued for Jan Komenský's arrest.

Heeding the warnings of Karel the Elder of Žerontín he went into hiding at Šternberk on the Žerontín estate, but then had to flee from Moravia to Bradýs nad Orlicí.

Following the issue of the Renewed Provincial (Land) Ordinance which effectively abolished Czech independence from the Hapsburgs and made Catholicism the only legal religion, Jan Komenský went into permanent exile, first to Leszno in Poland, then to England, France, Sweden and Hungary and finally back to Leszno. The Peace of Westphalia, the treaty that ended the 30-years war, gave the Hapsburgs dominion over Czech lands and meant permanent exile for Komenský. While in Leszno he wrote a major work, 'The Last Will and Testament of the Dying Mother: The Unity of Brethren, in which he called on Czechs not to lose hope for their eventual independence, but in 1655 he declared his support for Protestant Swedish troops who had invaded Poland, for which his house was burned by Polish Catholic partisans, destroying his manuscripts including a 'Pansophia' (encyclopedia) on which he had been working and his 'Treasures of the Czech language, and he went into exile in Holand where he remained until his death in 1670.

The painting by Mucha shows him at the end of his life looking across the sea, yearning for his homeland.
Jan Amos Komenský (1918)
The painting shows Jan Komenský strapped to a chair on the seashore where he often went to reminisce about his Czech homeland. His friend's gesture and the grief of his wife and others signify that this is his last days before his death on November 15, 1670. He is buried in Naarden which can be seen silhouetted in the distance.

We go back now to the 15th Century to another significant figure in Czech history - George (Jiří) of Poděbrady "King of Both People" (1458-1471). This painting illustrates an event in his life.

Zdeněk Kostka of Postupice and Prokop Rabštejn, allies of King Jiří, delivered a message to Pope Pius II in Rome, requesting that he confirm the 'Basel Compact' (an agreement that regulated the relations between the Hussites and the Catholic Church). But Pius III did not take kindly to it. Instead, he sent a delegation to Prague demanding that King George, his family and the whole nation renounce the Hussites and confirming that he would not recognise the Basel Compact.

The painting shows King Georg's reaction to the Pope's demands.
The Hussite King Jiří of Poděbrady and Kunstat (1923)
King Jiří received the Pope's delegation in the King's Court in Prague's Old Town during the Diet (Parliament). His reaction to the Pope's demands is furious as he rises from his chair, knocking it over in the process and exclaiming, "I do not recognise the Pope as judge over my conscience, my family, or my nation!". The papal envoys are forced to stand as they were not offered seats, to mirror the fact that Jiří's delegates were made to stand before Pius II in Rome.

Several historical figures are represented in the painting. The five-petalled rose at the back marks the lord of Rosenburg, a member of the royal council and ruler of southern Bohemia. Sitting opposite is Archbishop Jan Rokycana, with a cross on a purple robe. In the right corner is the most famous court jester in Czech history, Brother Paleček, in a fool's cap, a wise and educated man who renounced all privileges to advise the king. To his left a boy closes a book inscribed 'Roma' to symbolize the end of negotiations between King Jiří and the Pope.

At the end of this audience, the king dismissed the papal envoys. The next day he arrested and imprisoned the permanent representative of the Czech kingdom to Rome, Fatinus de Valle, who had returned to Prague with the Pope's envoys for betraying and misrepresenting the interests of the Czech kingdom. The Pope retaliated by anathematizing King Jiří (i.e., excluding him from thew society of the faithful because of heresy) and refused to recognise him as King of Bohemia.

Jiří remained on the Bohemian throne for a further 10 years until his death in 1471, aged 51.

Forward now to the 19th century to an event that marks the bid for independence from the Hapsburgs that the Czech's lost in the Peace of Westphalia that ended the bloody 30-Years War between Catholics and Protestants in Central Europe.

After a period of recatholicization, centralization and Germanization which reached a peak in the 18th century under Maia Theresa and Joseph II of Austro-Hungary, with an attempt to suppress even the Czech language, nevertheless a Czech national revival flourished. The people of Prague fought hard to restore their cultural and national identity and, at the end of the 19th century, a progressive youth group, the Omladina, had formed. The movement was accused of high treason and, in an attempt to suppress it in 1894, 76 people were prosecuted and 68 of them were sentenced to a total of 96 years in prison. Among them were future representatives of political and cultural life such as Alois Raší, Karel Stanislave Sokol, Stanislav Kostka Neumann and others.
The Oath of Omladina Under the Slavic Linden Tree (1926)
In this highly symbolic painting Mucha sets the scene in and beneath the sacred linden tree, based on a real tree in Žamberk region. Mother Slavia is seated in the fork of its branches with young people kneeling before her swearing allegiance to the nation and mutual cohesion. To the left in the background stands an old man with a huge grey moustache, a figure from the history of Serbia, as a reminder that a similar also existed there. A Sokol member takes the oath on the right. The Sokol movement (Czech: [ˈsokol], falcon) is an all-age gymnastics organization first founded in Prague in the Czech lands of Austria-Hungary in 1862 by Miroslav Tyrš and Jindřich Fügner. It was based upon the principle of "a strong mind in a sound body". Sokol, through lectures, discussions, and group outings, provided what Tyrš viewed as physical, moral, and intellectual training for the nation. This training extended to men of all ages and classes, and eventually to women. It quickly became associated with Slav cultural identity.

Some of the faces are deliberately left blank as Mucha did not want to portray the politicians of the day. This period was when criticism of Much's work was at its height, and this may have discouraged him from completing this work.

The girl playing the harp in the lower part of the scene is modelled after Mucha's daughter Jaroslava; the boy on the right on his son, Jiří. On the right an old man sings about the famous deed of his ancestors and on the far right, painted before it gained its notoriety as the symbol of fascism, is a swastika - a symbol of the sun in motion worshipped by ancient Slavs and other pagan nations.

The next painting in the series is of the interior of a temple on Mount Athos, in Greece. Although not strictly Slavic, Mount Athos has huge spiritual significance to Orthodox Christians, the predominant religion of some Slavic people, particularly Russians and some Balkan peoples.

Mount Athos is the easternmost of three peninsulas projecting into the Aegean from Khalkidhiki. The whole peninsula belongs to the Orthodox monastic state and comprises some 20 monasteries with about 2,000 monks. Its significance derives from it being the centre of Orthodox Christianity during the Turkish Moslem occupation of Greece and the southern Balkans.

According to legend the Virgin Mary found refuge there and Athos is traditionally her last resting place. In 1045, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX decreed that no female may set foot on the entire peninsula, not even female animals, except cats.

The painting represents the interior of one of the Athos Temples, the apis with the mosaic of the Virgin Mary.
Mount Athos (1926)
On the far right, rays of sunlight enter the temple, illuminated by numerous candles. Priests stand before the iconostasis and let pilgrims kiss the holy relics. Cherubs hovering in the bright light carry models of four other Orthodox monasteries: Serbian Hilander, Russian St. Panteleimon, and Bulgarian monasteries Zograf and Vatopedia. Behind the cherubim, we see portraits of the four heads of these monasteries. In the foreground is a young man supporting a blind old man - The model for the young man was Mucha himself.

The final painting in the series, and the summary of the entire Slav Epic, is the Apotheosis of the Slav History.
Apotheosis of the Slav History (1926)
Four colour section the scene. At the bottom right the colour is blue, symbolizing antiquity and the Slavs in their homeland when they worshipped pagan gods. The old pagan priest, Zhrets, presents a burnt offering to the gods.

In the upper third, the colour is red, commemorating the famous moments in Czech history - the most important Czech rulers - Přemsyl Ottokar II, Charles IV and the last Czech king, Jiří of Poděbrady - and the reformation ideas of Jan Hus and the Hussite movement.

Under the red is a black rection symbolizing lost battles and the period of oppression of the Slavs: raids by Franks, Avars and Turks and 300 years of suppression of the Czech language after the Battle of White Mountain.

But the largest area of the canvas is painted yellow - the colour of joy and freedom. The First World War ended in 1918, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were dismantled so many Slavic nations achieved freedom. At the bottom left, people welcome legionnaires returning home and women in national costumes knit garlands and prepare flags for the celebration of independence. On the right, an old man gives thanks that he has lived long enough to experience freedom. The flags of the victorious powers flutter in the background. On the left are representatives of the Slav nations.

The figure of a young Slavic man dominates the upper part of the painting. His arms are spread wide to show he is finally free. He holds a wreath of victory and unity with ribbons of a Czechoslovakia tricolour tied to them. The image ends with a rainbow, symbolizing the most important idea of the entire Slavic Epic cycle~: peace between nations.

Of course, these paintings were completed in the years immediately following WWI and before WWII and its aftermath when the Slavic nations were again subject to foreign domination. It was to be a further 70 years or so before the Slavs finally became free and freely joined with other European nations in the European Union. As a result of the cultural history of Czechia, and its sorry experience of the blood-soaked struggles between competing religious ideologies and of religion providing the excuse for repression and denial of freedom of conscience, Czechia is now second only to France in Europe, in the proportion of its citizens who openly reject religion altogether.

Ten Reasons To Lose Faith: And Why You Are Better Off Without It

This book explains why faith is a fallacy and serves no useful purpose other than providing an excuse for pretending to know things that are unknown. It also explains how losing faith liberates former sufferers from fear, delusion and the control of others, freeing them to see the world in a different light, to recognise the injustices that religions cause and to accept people for who they are, not which group they happened to be born in. A society based on atheist, Humanist principles would be a less divided, more inclusive, more peaceful society and one more appreciative of the one opportunity that life gives us to enjoy and wonder at the world we live in.

Available in Hardcover, Paperback or ebook for Kindle


Thank you for sharing!

submit to reddit

No comments :

Post a Comment

Obscene, threatening or obnoxious messages, preaching, abuse and spam will be removed, as will anything by known Internet trolls and stalkers, by known sock-puppet accounts and anything not connected with the post,

A claim made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Remember: your opinion is not an established fact unless corroborated.

Web Analytics