Czech Marian Tradition: an examination of three cultural landmarks

Here is an old essay from my undergraduate days. The topic pertains to Czech Marian shrines and their relation to the Czech Marian tradition. With that said, please excuse any poor quality in this essay:

 CZECH MARIAN CULTURE

And Its Influence On The Czech Cultural Narrative

INTRODUCTION

            The modern Czech nation is thoroughly secular in national outlook and often, as a whole, treats religion either with outright contempt or simple disinterest. But this was not always so. For the majority of the time since the concept of a Czech nation existed religion was a major issue, whether it entailed Catholics, Protestant Hussites, or the Eastern Orthodox. The focus of this paper, however will be on a Catholic element: the Marian culture that came from the rich Catholic heritage in the Czech lands.

The Three Marian sites this paper will look at will be Svaty Hostyn, Stara Boleslav, and the Marian Column of Prague. These three examples are the three most important Marian sites in the Czech Republic and they have had historical significance in the cultural narrative of the Czech peoples. The first Marian shrine this paper will look at is Svaty Hostyn on the hill called Mount Hostyn in Moravia.

SVATY HOSTYN

            The hill called Mount Hostyn is located in the Northeast part of the Moravia region, which is the eastern half of what is now known as the Czech Republic. The paradox of Moravia is that it has its own unique culture and history but at the same time inextricably linked to the greater Czech culture. The reason for this is that Moravians are not of the Česky tribe that inhabits the western half of the Czech lands (a region known as Bohemia). In fact, the Moravians (the Moravsky) had, until 955 AD, a separate national history from the neighboring Czechs. We hear of Cyril and Methodius bringing Christianity to the Moravian people and developing a Slavic liturgy based upon the Greek Christian tradition and of the Great Moravian Empire that encompassed Moravia, Hungary, Slovakia and parts of Ukraine, Poland, and Romania. But this empire slowly crumbled in the face of nomadic horseman from the east: the Magyars, the Mongols and the Tartars.

These tribes were pagan, they had never heard of Christianity, but they did hear of the easy pickings in the Christian lands. One group, the Mongols subdued another group, the Tartars and incorporated them into their massive horde. As the Mongols pressed westward, so did the Tartars. Soon this vast horde was upon the Slavic lands known as Moravia, drastically smaller than its glory days. The year was 1241 AD, and a wing of the hybrid army of Mongols and Tartars was poised to strike into the fertile lands of the Czechs and Moravians. At this time, the Moravians were incorporated into the Czech Kingdom of Bohemia which had allegiance to the German Holy Roman Empire. But, the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick II refused to send help, he was too busy harassing the Pope with a military campaign in Italy to lend a hand to his subjects.
Bohemia, did however, have a King, Wenceslaus I (not to be confused the earlier St. Wenceslaus Premysl) who took the lead:

“The King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus I, went out to meet [the Tartars] and, despite the disproportion between his army and that of the invaders, defeated them brilliantly at Olomouc in 1241. At the same time a band of Mongols besieged the hill of Hostyn where the inhabitants of the region had sought refuge against the invasions.”[1]

The people at Hostyn were trapped on the hill top for the barbarians had surrounded them. They soon were down to their last provisions and were running out of water. What were they to do? Luckily, their ancestors had passed on to them a rich treasure: their Faith. In this faith was nourished a strong Marian tradition, which the people turned to in their time of despair.

One of the purported miracles that preceded the great miracle in the sky was that a spring of water came forth from the hilltop to quench a dehydrated people. Thena massive thunderstorm came that was so frightening that the barbarians soon retreated from Hostyn back into the steppes of Russia:

“They implored the Mother of God, who always performed miracles. Suddenly, an enormous thunderstorm broke which brought relief to Christians, with thunder and lightning destroying the tartar tents, forcing the Tartars to eventually withdraw from Hostyn.”[2]

From thence forth the hill was referred to as “Svaty Hostyn”, meaning “Holy Hostyn”, by the local people. The hill became a place of great pilgrimage as word had spread to all reaches of the Czech lands. A church was built on the hill with a beautiful painting of Mary holding the Christ-child in her arms as lightning bolts beneath her. But this painting was destroyed in 1620 by a wicked protestant landowner who owned the land surrounding the hill. As the Thirty Years War raged on the site was devastated by warring armies and was left unused for over 100 years. Even the Catholic Habsburgs, the rulers of the Austrian Empire to which the Czech lands belonged, refused to restore the shrine, and it was not until the 19th Century that nostalgic nationalists pushed for the restoration of Svaty Hostyn Shrine:

“ [The] church was destroyed several times and the entire mountain of Hostýn was abandoned completely. By imperial decree of Joseph II in 1784 the sanctuary was declared superfluous and pilgrimages were prohibited. During the first half of the 19th century the faithful began a fund-raising campaign in order to restore the church, which, as a result, was consecrated anew in 1845.”[3]

A great effort was made in fundraising for the site, and now at this site there is a magnificent Marian shrine that was consecrated by Cardinal Fürstenberg of Brno. It was here that the same Cardinal announced to the Czech people the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception to pious crowds of pilgrims. Despite the turmoil of two world wars and the rule of a communist government in the twentieth century the shrine survives and still attracts many visitors to this day. Its popularity traveled with Czech immigrants to the Americas as well. In Texas, were the majority of the Czech settlers were from the more agricultural Moravia region, there is even a small Texas town called Hostyn. In the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. the Czech chapel in named in honor of our Lady of Hostyn, in honor of her unfailing intercession.

STARA BOLESLAV

           Many with a decent knowledge of Czech history would not consider the town of Stara Boleslav a Marian site. Perhaps the town is known more famously for the tragic murder of Svaty Vaclav (St. Wenceslaus, or “Good ‘King’ Wenceslaus”) by his wicked and pagan brother Boleslav. But the Marian devotion derives from the medallion that St. Wenceslaus wore as Duke of Bohemia: A Palladium featuring the Virgin Mary, a symbol of the new Christian faith in the lands of the Česky.

The Palladium that was worn by St. Wenceslaus was passed down to him from his grandparents Borivoj I, the first Christian ruler of the Česky tribe, and his wife St. Ludmila. Legend held that Duke Borivoj was converted to Christianity during a visit to King Svatopluk of Moravia, who was a Christian. At a dinner feast he met the bishop St. Methodius, who was impressed that a king was humble enough to sit on the floor, for a pagan was not seen as worthy of sitting on chair in the presence of Christians. The bishop approached him and asked if he would like to become a Christian.[4]

The Duke accepted and asked that St. Methodius baptism him and his wife, Ludmila thereafter. It is at the baptism of Duke Borivoj and his wife Ludmila that we first hear of the Palladium:

 “Legend says that the icon, a picture or rather a metal relief of Our Lady was donated to Princess Ludmila on her baptism by St. Methodius and she later gave it to her beloved grandson Wenceslaus.[5]

St. Ludmila was inspired to live a Christian life, so much so that Czech chroniclers of subsequent ages seem to make her out as a Marian figure. Whether or not these learned men had intended to make the parallel is a matter of debate, but in their histories she is referred to as “The handmaiden of the Lord”. Had St. Ludmila modeled her virtuous life off of that of the Virgin Mary? There seems to be strong evidence in both historical accounts and folk legends of St. Ludmila’s charity, compassion and humility. Before her martyrdom at the hands of the men order to kill her by her own daughter-in-law, she asked that before they strangled her that they let her finish her prayers, that she may be pure before the Lord when she entered into his Heavenly Kingdom.

By this time, however, the Marian Palladium had been passed to her grandson, the Duke St. Wenceslaus. St. Wenceslaus was a strong promoter of the Christian faith in a land that still had a strong remnant of paganism. Because of this, St. Wenceslaus had many enemies. Amongst those who sympathized with the old way of worship were members of the Czech nobility, including St. Wenceslaus’ own brother, Boleslav, who was a wicked and brutish man, looked for an opportunity to justify removing St. Wenceslaus from power. The opportunity came when St. Wenceslaus refused to fight an invading German army led by the Henry I of Saxony and Arnulf of Bavarian. Instead, St. Wenceslaus made peace with them by swearing allegiance. Surely the Bohemian people would be enraged by this! So Boleslav murdered him on his way to church on the feast of Sts. Cosmas and Damian. As it turned out, St. Wenceslaus’ justness and charity as a ruler had ensured him great popularity amongst the people and Boleslav, now the Duke, always struggled to maintain order amongst his people.

Yet, Mary was on the side of Sts. Ludmila and Wenceslaus and with her intercession the blood of these martyrs did not go in vain:

“After his martyrdom, Wenceslaus’ faithful servant Podiven left the Boleslaus’ grad with the picture and dug it into ground for fear of profanation just before he was caught and hung by the murderers. For two centuries it was buried and only in the mid-12th century a peasant found it in the today’s location of the Our Lady’s church. Canons of the Stará Boleslav chapter had a chapel built there and placed in the picture. Attracted by some miracles, pilgrims started to come from surrounding villages as well as from Prague and a new Marian pilgrim tradition arose from the deepness of the St. Wenceslaus’ legend.”[6]

In fact the site was so popular that an enlarged version of the Palladium was cast and a new church was ordered in 1617. Even the German Hapsburgs rulers of the Czech lands were interested in enlarging the pilgrimage site, for they had a deep devotion to Mary and saw in St. Wenceslaus the unity of Christian kingship and Marian devotion. Today the site is still a major pilgrimage site and people can reflect in front of the large replica of the Palladium of Sts. Ludmila and Wenceslaus and remember what a remarkable impact she has had on the Czech people.

 

THE MARIAN COLUMN OF PRAGUE

           The lands of Bohemia and Moravia have always been full of strong, independent people who would express their sentiments whether they were right or wrong. Additionally, the Czech people have a bitter history of religious wars between Catholics and what we now called Protestants. The “Protestant” movement originally started long before the Christian Reformation era of the 16th Century in the land of Bohemia. They were led by a controversial priest by the name of Jan Hus who was also a professor of Theology at the university in Prague. His teachings were heavily based on John Wycliffe and were often borderline heretical, he also was a critic of the corruption in the Church. Eventually a bloody civil war ensued between Hussites and Catholics, with the Catholics winning only with the aid of German princes. This bitter memory was passed down to generations of Czech people, especially in Bohemia, were protestant sentiments were stronger.

However, the placement of a Marian Column in Prague had nothing to do with this sad chapter of history, but it is important to keep in mind as the narration continues in this essay. The baroque Marian Column was originally erected in 1650 by the German Hapsburg rulers of Austria and Bohemia, to commemorate the Austria victory of the invading Swedish army. It was built as gift to the Czech people for their fortitude and bravery during that terrible period of war. The people of Prague, being mostly Catholic accepted the Marian Column in the main square. However, by the 19th century nationalist sentiments were also on the rise and the leaders of the nationalist movement were mainly secularists and/or atheists. They spread the falsity that the column was really a symbol of German, Catholic and Anti-Democratic oppression by the foreign Hapsburg family. The secularists managed to weave the tale that this innocent monument to Mary was really a symbol of the Austrian-Catholic boot pressing down on the supposedly “Hussite” Czechs. They demanded that a statue of Jan Hus be erected in the square and demanded that Mary be torn down.

“Although over 90 percent of the nineteenth-century Czech population was Roman Catholic, many nationalists began to identify politically with the revived memory of the pre-White Mountain Bohemian heresy, led by Jan Hus in the fifteenth century. In 1890, Prague nationalist leaders began to raise funds for a Jan Hus memorial. The martyred Czech priest, who insisted on using the vernacular language in Mass, appealed to Czech nationalists, who were also fighting for language rights in the Germanized Austrian Empire. The Club for the Building of the Jan Hus Memorial in Prague eagerly anticipated 1915, the five-hundredth anniversary of Hus’s execution by the Roman Catholic Church when it would unveil its Hus monument. After bitter public debate and demonstrations by Prague Catholics, the Prague City Council approved Old Town Square as the monument’s site partly to counter the symbolism of the baroque Marian Column.”[7]

The mayor of Prague, a moderate by sentiment, proposed that perhaps the two monuments could co-exist in the square. But the nationalists would not have it! As soon as the Bohemia became part of the independent state of Czechoslovakia in 1919 after the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the radical nationalists tore down the Marian Column. However upset the people of Prague were, they would have to be vigilant: the new state was very unstable due to different factions and groups. Protestants made up a substantial minority of the Bohemian-Czech, but not so much in Moravia or Slovakia. Germans made up about a quarter of the new state’s population, they along with the Slovaks and Moravian-Czechs were strongly Catholic. Most Bohemian-Czech Catholics tended to be lax in their Catholic faith due to the immense influence of Protestantism and radical nationalism.

In an unstable Europe, it did not take long for war to break out. In Germany the National Socialists (Nazis) under Adolf Hitler eyed the Czech lands with their productive factories and large German minority with hungry eyes. Under German occupation, the Catholic faith was oppressed more than it had ever been, for the Nazis were neo-pagans who sought to eliminate Christianity all together. Then the Soviet Red Army, in its massive offensive against Nazi Germany, occupied Czechoslovakia. They had a great hatred of the Catholic faith, and put severe penalties on the Church in the Czech and Slovak lands.

Discussion had existed amongst Moderate Catholic politicians before World War II whether a new Marian column could be erected to symbolize the Czech Catholic heritage. In the words of one Catholic nationalist poet, Jaroslav Durych: “The Czech nation is not Hussite and never will be. The Czech nation is Catholic.” Why then could not a new Marian Column be built that did not arouse the political misinterpretations? Perhaps if the World War had not occurred a New Marian column would have been erected, but 50 years of authoritarian, anti-Christian rule by the Nazis and the Communists set religion back in the Czech lands. By the early 1990’s Churches were empty and religious subjects were taboo, even with the new and republican government that ensured the freedom of religion. So far efforts to gather funds to rebuild the monument have only had modest success abroad and almost none in the Czech Republic.

CONCLUSION

           These three shrines are a cross section of Czech Marian culture that helps us understand important aspects of the Czech people. Although, Marian Culture has struggled with secularism, communism and Protestantism, it still holds on in a people who were once strongly Catholic. The memory of Svaty Hostyn was brought with Czech immigrants of all generations to the new lands that they came to. Stara Boleslav is important in that it reminds the Czechs that the culture had strong Marian ties from the beginning and that the early Christian Czech rulers adored her. The Marian Column of Prague shows that for some Czechs the Marian heritage is a vital part of the Czech heritage, despite the fact that it was torn down, many wanted to re-erect the Marian monument.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Anonymous. Churches in Stara Boleslav. The Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Czech Republic. 2009.  http://www.navstevapapeze.cz/places/stara-boleslav-en/churches-in-stara-boleslav%5Ben%5D.

Anonymous. Holy Hostyn – The Pearl of Moravia. 2011. http://www.hostyn.cz/cizi/english.htm.

Kantor, Martin. 1990. The Origins of Christianity in Bohemia. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

Nemec, Ludvik. 1981. Our lady of Hostyn. Philadelphia: RCH Press.

Paces, Cynthia. The Fall and Rise of Prague’s Marian Column. Radical History Review.
John Hopkins University, 2001.
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/radical_history_review/v079/79.1paces.html.

 

[1] Nemec, Ludvik. 1981. Our Lady of Hostyn. Philadelphia: RCH Press. Pg. 3

 

[2] Nemec, Ludvik. 1981. Our Lady of Hostyn. Philadelphia: RCH Press. Pg. 4

[3] Anonymous . Holy Hostyn – the Pearl of Moravia. http://www.hostyn.cz/cizi/english.htm, 2011 .

[4] Kantor, Martin. 1990. The Origins of Christianity in Bohemia. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press. Pg. 248-249

[5]Anonymous 2009. Churches in Stara Boleslav.  Last Modified  2009 “The Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Czech Republic”. http://www.navstevapapeze.cz/places/stara-boleslav-en/churches-in-stara-boleslav%5Ben%5D

[6] Anonymous 2009. Churches in Stara Boleslav.  Last Modified  2009 “The Visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Czech Republic”. http://www.navstevapapeze.cz/places/stara-boleslav-en/churches-in-stara-boleslav%5Ben%5D

 

[7] Paces, Cynthia. The Fall and Rise of Prague’s Marian Column. Radical History Review. John Hopkins University, 2001. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/radical_history_review/v079/79.1paces.html.

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