Friday, January 04, 2008

Jewish Quarter and St. Nicholas Cathedral

Jewish Quarter
With all the sights closed, this was a great opportunity to enjoy the architecture. One of our first stops after the tour ended was the Jewish Quarter. Located near the Old Town, the area had a concentrated number of synagogues and an old cemetery. Looking through the closed gate, I could see the cemetery crammed with simple grey gravestones jutting out of the ground at various angles. I read that there are over 12,000 gravestones, but an estimated 100,000 people buried there – due to the fact that for over 300 years, it was the only place where Prague Jews could be buried. The Jewish Town Hall, built in 1570 but remodeled in 1763 with a Baroque look, stood out amongst the more somber buildings. Once on the hitlist for demolition in a campaign to raze the entire Jewish Quarter (health hazard due to complete lack of sanitation), the distinctive building is now the seat of the Czech Jewish communities. The walls of one synagogue are a memorial to the Czech Jews killed in the Holocaust. The persecution of Jews is longstanding, including oppressive laws such as a 16th century law in which they had to wear a yellow circle as a mark of shame. Within the Jewish Quarter are some beautiful Art Nouveau buildings and a few churches.

Dusk at around 3:45, our architecture viewing was essentially over. In the Old Town Square, the stands were all closed, but there still was quite a large amount of people. Shops, except for some souvenir stores, were closed. We were warned that many of the restaurants would be by reservation only, but we did find a small one, where I had local apple strudel and hot chocolate.

Dec. 26- Museum Tour Day
On our last day in Prague, Olja and I did the museum “tour”. After being dropped off by our bus (part of the group was going to a sight outside of Prague), we headed towards Prague Castle. On the way, we walked through the New Town. In Wenceslas Square, was one of the buildings I had wanted to see – the Wiehl House. Completed in 1896, this 5-storey building is in the Neo-Renaissance style, with colorful sgraffito and some Art Nouveau sculpture. We also passed by the Powder Gate, one of 13 entrances into the Old Town and begun in 1475. It was modeled after the Old Town bridge tower, complete with rich sculptural decoration. It received its present name in the 17th century when it was used to store gunpowder. Next to the Powder Gate is the Municipal House, one of Prague’s most prominent Art Nouveau buildings. Built in 1905-11, the cream-colored building’s exterior has allegorical sculptures around the entrance, corners, and in front of the glass dome. Above the decorative entrance is a large semi-circular mosaic entitled Homage to Prague. It would have been fun to go inside this building and see the decorative works of Mucha and various Art Nouveau artists, or to enjoy a concert in the main hall with its superb acoustics.

Already in the vicinity of the St. Agnes of Bohemia Convent, we decided to go there next. Started in 1234 by a sister of King Wenceslas I (she wasn’t canonized until 1989), the convent was one of the first Gothic buildings in Bohemia. Recent painstaking restoration has now brought the convent back to much of its original appearance. It is now used to display a collection of medieval art from Bohemia and Central Europe. The pieces, some dating back to the 1300’s, were carefully arranged and included explanations in both Czech and English. It was interesting to follow the evolution in its depictions of Mary and Jesus, from a more stiff arrangement, others more human, and still others more flowing. Many of the pieces were in excellent condition, particularly remarkable since they were sculpted of or painted on wood. Several altarpieces were in the collection, including one that is completely intact – a rarity. I appreciated being able to go around and see the “back” side of the altar, the part that you would see if the piece was closed. After touring this exhibition, the others of the day, particularly The Loreto, were disappointing.

Wandering up the narrow streets of the Little Quarter, we made our way up to St. Vitas Cathedral, where I took close-up photos of gargoyles, and then on to the Loreto and Strahov Monastery. The Church of St. Nicholas was our next destination. The most distinctive landmark of the Little Quarter, construction of this High Baroque church occurred from 1703-1761. Altars were highly ornate and one had carved golden cherubs over most of it. Above the main entrance was the baroque organ, once played by Mozart. The ceiling is full of frescoes, including a large lofty one in the main section. In the 230 ft (70 m) high dome was a fresco entitled The Celebration of the Holy Trinity. With my zoom lens, I was able to capture detail not otherwise possible from the ground floor. In front, the High Altar contains a copper statue of St. Nicholas. Around the side of the pinkish marble columns and interior are well-crafted statues of the Church Fathers, including St. Cyril, who Christianized the Slavs.

Later, we did our shopping, buying handmade gifts (not those made in China) at special Czech handmade stores and I bought a marionette. No Czech glass for us!
That evening, we boarded the bus for the long trip back to Belgrade.

I found Prague to be one of the most picturesque cities I've visited. Although full in varied architecture, I found its Baroque, Gothic, and Art Nouveau/Secessionism architecture to be particularly noteworthy. I would love to come back and revisit spots, arriving early in the morning before the crowds obscure the view. Perhaps in spring/summer, when the gardens are in their glory and one can sit in an outdoor café in the town square....

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