This year, some historians contend, marks exactly 1,100 years since the birth of St. Wenceslas, the Czech king and chief patron of the Czech lands. To celebrate this important anniversary, the National Gallery together with the Prague Archbishopric, organised a special exhibition at St Agnes’ Convent in Prague entitled Svatý Václav – ochránce české země or King Wenceslas – the Patron of the Czech lands.
King Wenceslas, the fourth in line of the famous Premyslid dynasty, and an ardent advocate of Christian religion, was born either in 907 or 908 – historians don’t always agree for certain. What is known is that he died at the age of 28 by the hand of his brother Boleslav, when he was on his way to morning prayers. The day of his assassination, the 28th of September, is celebrated as the Czech national holiday - designated as the Day of Czech Statehood.
Soon after his death, Václav began to be worshipped as a martyr, and, as Vladimír Kelnar from Prague Archbishopric points out, his fame soon spread beyond the borders of the Czech lands:
“He became known for his peaceful talks with the Saxon King Henry the Fowler, which is sometimes wrongly interpreted as subordination to the newly restored Roman Empire, but all he wanted was a peaceful coexistence with his neighbour. Wenceslas is the only Czech who had a chapel in the Vatican consecrated in his name before the reign Charles IV. And I should also mention his canonisation in 1670, when the Catholic Church officially recognised his cult. The holiday granted to this saint is celebrated all over the world.”
Václav or Wenceslas has remained a symbol of Czech national identity for more than a thousand years and over the centuries, people created numerous works of art dedicated to his name. Charles IV had a Saint Wenceslas chapel built inside St. Vitus cathedral and, during the Middle Ages, more than 350 churches were consecrated to him. Art historian Jan Royt says St.Wenceslas is undoubtedly the most frequently depicted patron of the Czech lands:
“There are very early portraits that date back to the beginning of the 11th century. There are coins and seals with his picture. There is a rich iconography, from the Middle Ages, from the baroque period as well as from the 19th century. We don’t have the space to display all the great works, such as the vast mural cycles from St. Vitus Chapel or from the many churches in the countryside. The frequency of portraying St Wenceslas really reflects his popularity in Bohemia.”
Since the range of objects dedicated to St Wenceslas is so rich, it was of course very difficult to select the ones for the exhibition. But Jan Royt is certain that the organisers have selected the most beautiful works of art:
“There are objects from the permanent exhibition dedicated to Charles IV. We added objects from the Jagiellon dynasty, such as the reliquary bust of St. Wenceslas. You can see the most exquisite objects from the Baroque period, such as pictures by Petr Brandl and Karel Škréta, the greatest painter of the 17th century and a statue by Jan Jiří Bendl, who made the Plague Column at the Old Town Square. And finally there are statues by Myslbek from the 20th century.”
Apart from works of art that reflect the popularity of St Wenceslas, there are also objects directly linked to the patron. Many of them were last displayed more than 70 years ago. The exhibition St Wenceslas – Patron of the Czech lands, will continue until the beginning of March, 2009.
Photo: Barbora Kmentová