Prague in Search of Its Catholic Past

September 01, 2020

In the Czech Republic, one of the most secularized countries of the former Soviet bloc, a heated controversy has erupted since the restoration of a sixteen-meter-high column, topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Since August 15, 2020, the Virgin Mary once again extends her protective arms over Prague. Before being hoisted to the top of the column, the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague, Dominik Duka, blessed the statue crowned with 12 golden stars, and carried at its base by four angels.

Work of the sculptor Petr Vana, the current image of Our Lady is reminiscent of the statue carved in 1650 in the same place by Jan Jiri Bendl, and destroyed in 1918.

The white sandstone of the Marian statue contrasts with the bronze of the monument a few hundred meters away put in place in 1915, which evokes the figure of Jan Hus, who died at the stake in 1415 for having taught many heresies on the divine constitution of the Church and the Eucharist.

A contrast that illustrates how the legacy of the past still weighs heavily on Prague and its inhabitants.

The statue of the Crowned Virgin was built in the 17th century in order to commemorate the victory of the Holy Roman Empire, during the Thirty Years’ War, over a pseudo-reformist movement which was based on the teachings of John Hus.

When the Habsburg Empire collapsed in 1918 after the First World War, the new Czechoslovak ruling order launched headlong into a damnatio memoriae, of which the Marian column was one of the first victims. The statue of Hus was the lone survivor.

After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989 during the “velvet revolution” period, initiatives were launched to rebuild the column. Without success.

The question was raised again in 2017, but it three years went by before the project could finally come to fruition.

Finally on August 15, 2020, while a crowd of faithful, dressed in traditional clothes, celebrated the Renaissance monument in the old town square, in the presence of several political figures and Cardinal Duka, the opponents protest not far from there by shouting “Prague is not the Vatican” and “no to the column of shame.”

Ironically, officials of the Hussite faith lobbied until the last moment for a statue of Christ to take His Mother’s place on the column. In vain.

A few streets away, the bronze of Jean Hus now seems to look grim. It is understandable: what to do against the one who is “powerful as an army drawn up in battle”?