St Vitus Cathedral, Prague, and Europe's Christian heritage

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague, and Europe's Christian heritage

Stephen W. Carson

For Stephen W. Carson, seeing Prague was not just a tourist experience; it forced him to contemplate afresh the nature of liberty, civilisation, faith, and everything that Marxists spent the 20th century labouring to destroy.

The author works as a software engineer, studies political economy at the graduate level at Washington University, and works with inner-city children in St Louis through a ministry of his church. This article (here shortened) appears by permission of 'Codex', a quarterly Australian magazine of politics, the arts and culture (1/62 Bloomfield Road, Ascot Vale, Vic 3032,

It came together for me in St Vitus' Cathedral in the castle (Hrad) of Prague. I had been making a point of visiting important cathedrals on my Holy Roman Empire Tour. But something about St Vitus brought a pattern to my conscious attention that had been in front of me throughout Europe.

Though now the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague (Praha) is historically the heart of Bohemia. It was briefly the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, starting with the reign of Charles IV (1346-78). Prague again took centre stage when the Habsburg Rudolf II (reigned 1576- 1612) moved the capital of the Habsburg lands there from Vienna. (Rudolf II was a truly eccentric individual, by the way, a great lover of astrology, alchemy and the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose portraits were composed entirely of fruits and vegetables. He was usually accompanied by his pet African lion Otakar. He died the day after Otakar died.)

The Hrad is not a single castle so much as a whole palace town enclosed by walls. Whoever has ruled the Czech lands has ruled Prague, and the rulers of Prague always occupy Hrad, including the Communist government of the post-World- War-II era and later the administration of President Vaclav Havel. But the buildings of civil administrators are limited in their charm and character.

Far more interesting to me is the magnificent St Vitus' Cathedral, which dominates the third courtyard of the Hrad. Built on the site of a 929AD cathedral (in turn built on the site of a heathen altar), the current cathedral was begun in 1344 and not completed until 1929! In the software business, we call this a "schedule slip".

The first thing that strikes the eye once inside, after the sheer immensity of the place, are some truly outstanding stained glass windows. My favourites are several by Frantisek Kysela, who uses an unusual technique that makes the windows look as if they've been shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces. There is also one by the Art Nouveau master (and Czech national treasure) Alphonse Mucha, whose distinctive and joyful illustrations you almost certainly know, though you may not know his name. After these dazzling features are absorbed, though, some of the most culturally important features remain.

Patron saint

The patron saint of the Czech is honoured in the Chapel of St Vaclav (we know him as Good King Wenceslas). Vaclav was born in 907 and dedicated himself to promoting Christianity throughout the land. He was murdered by his pagan younger brother Boleslav the Cruel, who ten years later repented, converted and had his brother's body transferred to the spot that now has the chapel. The chapel itself is quite remarkable: the gilded walls are inlaid with about 1,372 semi-precious Bohemian stones (1372 commemorating the year of the chapel's creation).

Further along towards the head of the church is the tomb of St John of Nepomuk, built in 1736 to honour a priest who was killed by the King in 1393. The legend is that he refused an order to divulge the Queen's confession and so was thrown off the Charles Bridge, bound and gagged. Though the details of his resistance to the State are disputed, the history of Christian martyrs who opposed the State deserves an article of its own.

While in Moscow, for a final non-Holy Roman Empire part of my tour, I learned of the martyr Philip. Metropolitan Philip denounced Ivan the Terrible for the horrifying sin of murdering his own son. Ivan had his servant Malyuta Skuratov strangle Philip for this. Just in case the stand of the Church was unclear, Philip was promptly canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church after Ivan's death. There may be a clue in these sorts of episodes to the hatred of contemporary statists for real Christians.

The details about St Vitus that I've mentioned so far only begin to describe all the ways in which the cathedral is interwoven with the art, heroes and character of the Czech people. As if to encapsulate what I had realised, I found a painting in Prague that simply uses St Vitus' Cathedral to represent Prague and the Bohemian people. (Similarly, Tchaikovsky uses the haunting melody of a Psalm sung by the Russian Orthodox to represent the Russian people in his 1812 Overture).

This integration of St Vitus with Czech history and culture is not unique to the Czech. I could just as well have described the Duomo and Florence, St Mark's and Venice, the Mathias and Budapest, the Dormition and Moscow, or Westminster Abbey and London.

I say all this to make a simple point. Separation of Church and State is a very different thing from separation of Church and Nation. The first is relatively unproblematic for the Christian and the libertarian. It simply means excluding the use of aggressive force either against or on behalf of the Church. This should be unproblematic for Christians since, as St Irenaeus of Lyons said: "with God there is no coercion." The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, not the blood of the pagans.

But separation of Church and Nation (by "nation" I mean here the people and their culture), for an historically Christian nation, involves a radical tearing of a people from its own history and culture. Robert Conquest in The Harvest of Sorrow describes successive campaigns by the militantly atheist Bolshevik regime to separate the Russian nation from the Russian Orthodox Church. They wanted to demolish churches and cathedrals without sparking a peasant revolt. So they decided to establish a precedent by taking just the church bells, while spinning some story about a greater need for the metal in the bells. The Russian peasantry often were not fooled, and would try to prevent the taking of the bells or the demolition of their village church. Many were shipped to the gulag for their efforts.

Attack on religion

Militant atheists killed 2,691 priests and 3,447 nuns in Russia, 6,832 priests and members of religious orders during the Spanish Civil War, millions of Russian Christians 1917-91, and made a ferocious attack on Judaism that nearly eliminated European Jews altogether. Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand suggests a different interpretation of the 20th century from that of a battle between two systems of political economy. He and his wife, having lost relatives in the mass murders by the National Socialists because of being Jewish, then were tortured and imprisoned for many years by the Romanian Communist regime for preaching Y'shua (Jesus) as the Messiah.

Wurmbrand wondered what the ferocious attack on religion had to do with a humanitarian concern for economic equality. Why did Communists in Romania force prisoners to perform Black Masses, with faeces as "bread" and urine as "wine"? (Solzhenitsyn reported similar things from the Soviet gulags). Wurmbrand argued that the 20th century was a titanic spiritual battle above all, with the arguments over political economy a subsidiary element to the real struggle against Judaism and Christianity.

Interestingly, in investigating Karl Marx, Murray Rothbard came to strikingly complementary conclusions, despite a rather different perspective as a secular Jew. Rothbard argues that most fundamental to understanding Marx is understanding his almost religious millenarian vision which preceded his work on economics. Even this vision was in turn preceded by a youthful turn towards "militant atheism". Rothbard writes that "It was this hatred of God as a creator greater than himself that apparently inspired Karl Marx."

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