Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Characters encountered in Czech religious history

Gargoyle on St. Vitus

Before Communism turned them into atheists, Czechs were rabid followers of Catholicism, a religion that insures a bloody history full of memorable characters. The proof:


A century before Martin Luther this Czech figured out that the Catholic church was flawed. People, he thought, should be allowed to read the Bible in their own language without threat of death and predetermination might be a little harsh also, he felt, the power of the pope too all encompassing. These views -- essentially the foundation of Protestantism -- made him unpopular with clergy who put him on trial, burned him at the stake -- naked in a fire started with pages of a non-Latin Bible --then dumped his ashes in the Rhine River. This was in 1415. But towns throughout the Czech Republic today have streets that carry his name and his statue dominates Old Town Square in Prague.


He was a Hus follower (A Hussite. A Hussy is something else) and a general. You can always pick him out of Czech historical paintings as the guy with the eye patch. Apparently he started out early as a fighter and lost the eye in a childhood fight. It was the first of many. He recruited peasants and farmers into a band of soldiers after the Holy Roman Empire killed Hus as a heretic and sent a series of armies into Bohemia. They used farm wagons and tools and he experimented with pistols, which could work against charging knights so long as farm boy-soldiers stood behind the right defenses. The story is that Zizka never lost a battle. He was wounded in a battle in 1421 that left him totally blind -- but he still led his forces. When he eventually died of the plague in 1424 his last wish was that his men would make drums out of his skin so he could continue to lead them in war.

Like I say, memorable.

The Infant of Prague

My grandmother, and probably yours too if you grew up Catholic, kept a statue of the Infant of Prague on the doily of the tall dresser in her bedroom. When my mother cleaned. she would always dust the tall crown and beneath the colorful silk robe of this dandified baby Jesus who holds a cross in one hand and a bird in the other. I never really got the symbolism. I still don't. Prague is home to the Church of Our Lady Victorious where the original statue -- made of wax -- continues to draw thousands of fans (they are called pilgrims). The status was a gift in 1628 to Bohemian Barefoot Carmelite nuns (they take a vow of poverty) from a Spanish princess. "Honor this image," she supposedly told them,"and you shall never want." But war, transfer of the nunnery to Germany and confiscation of churches in the city by the King of Sweden left the little statue in a bunch of trash behind the altar where it spent seven years until a priest found it, the hands broken off. OK, now the story gets weird. One day the priest is praying and he hears a little voice saying, "Give me my hands, and I will give you peace. The more you honor me, the more I will bless you."
What more can I tell you except that my grandmother's plaster copy infant had hands -- although the edges of its crown were chipped.

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