Macabre Prague

by David Sturm

Visitors to St. James Church in Prague's Old Town marvel at this architectural masterpiece dating from 1374 with its carved stone tympanum, ceiling frescos, 21 side altars and baroque tombs.

While craning their necks inside they may notice something curious above and to the side of the main entrance -- a black club-like object hanging by a chain from an iron armature bolted to the wall. It's a 500-year-old human arm.

It reputedly belonged to a thief who, while trying to steal the jewels from the main altar, found his arm seized by a statue of the Virgin Mary. The statue's grip was unrelenting, so church officials had to hack off the miscreant's arm to free him. It was hung up in the church as a lesson to all. A faded painting next to the arm depicts the miraculous event, which records say happened in the year 1400. It's worth reflecting, also, that St. James is traditionally the church of Prague's butchers guild.

Welcome to Prague, a city of often jarring contrasts. There is Golden Prague, the City of 1,000 spires, where the Vltava River glistens in the sunshine and reflects the baroque glory of palaces high on the royal hill of Hradcany.

But there's another Prague, a city of the macabre and the mysterious whose legacy embraces alchemist's laboratories, religious fanaticism, storied executioners, improbable miracles and many grisly legends. Many of the most chilling icons of Old Europe -- the hooded executioner, the robed necromancer, the sadistic inquisitor -- are straight out of Prague history. It's the the city that inspired the legend of the Golem and the stories of native son Franz Kafka.

As Czech writer Arnost Prochazka put it, "She never ceases to enchant with her magic spells, the old she-devil Prague."

The executioner and the Green Frog

Old Town Square perfectly illustrates how the sunny and dark sides of Prague exist side by side.

The square, one of the most beautiful in Europe, is a riot of taffy-colored baroque buildings, outdoor cafes and souvenier stands. Horses clop across the cobblestones pulling sightseers in carriages as umbrella-brandishing guides lead their flocks back and forth, regaling them in a dozen languages. Each hour on the hour, the astronomical clock strikes on the Old Town Hall and a crowd gathers to watch the parade of plaster apostles. But walk over to the side of the Old Town Hall facing the square itself and look down. Set into the pavement are 27 white stone crosses marking the spot where 27 esteemed Czech leaders were executed, 24 by beheading and 3 by hanging, on June 21, 1621, a day of infamy in the nation's history.

The 27 had the misfortune to be Bohemian nationalists and Protestant Hussites at a time when the Catholic Habsburgs of neighboring Austria, decisively victorious over the Czechs in the Battle of White Mountain (the first battle in the Thirty Years War), were determined to stamp out the noisy patriotism and upstart religion of the fiercely independent Czechs.

The executioner on that fateful day, Jan Mydlar, used four swords during the gruesome spectacle and needed six assistants to haul off the corpses. Mydlar, a patriot himself, earned a place in the hearts of his countrymen for wearing the black hood of mourning on that day instead of his usual flame-red hood and for lopping off each head with only one stroke so as to lessen the suffering of the condemned.

An Englishman in the audience that day attested to Mydlar's dexterity, saying that when his blade fell "it was as if the winds had blown the heads from their shoulders."

Ten of the heads were placed in iron cages and hung for all to see from the tower facade on the east side of Charles Bridge until Protestant Saxons, during an occupation of Prague in 1631, removed the heads and buried them in Tyn Church, whose bristling twin spires loom over Old Town Square.

After most executions, Mydlar retired to the Green Frog Inn (U zelene zaby) for a mug or two of beer. The Green Frog still stands on U Radnice just off the square and it still contains a the separate room where the executioner, customarily a social pariah, was forced to partake refreshment alone.

About 20 yards from the Green Frog, nestled next to St. Nicholas Church, is the birthplace of Franz Kafka, which now houses the Franz Kafka Exposition, a modest museum about his life and work.

Kafka and the Golem

Kafka needs no introduction to aficinados of the grotesque and disturbing. A Czech Jew who wrote in German, he was born, raised, schooled, employed and nursed during his eventually fatal tuberculosis all within these neighborhoods around Old Town Square. More than any other author, according to Angelo Maria Ripellino in his book "Magic Prague," "Kafka absorbed all Prague's humours and poisons and descended into its demonic nature." Although Prague is never named in Kafka's book "The Trial," it is clearly the setting and many of the city's landmarks are described, albeit obliquely, in the book. In fact, the walk from Old Town Square to Charles Bridge through Mala Strana and up to an abandoned quarry near Strahov monastery is the last mile walked by angst-ridden protagonist Josef K. on his way to his execution.

Turn right leaving Kafka's birthplace and turn right again at the first street, Maiselova, and you are plunging into the old Jewish Quarter. After crossing Siroka and passing the pink Jewish Town Hall on your right, turn to the right and you're face to face with the Alt-Neu Synagogue, whose attic, legend has it, is the final resting place of the Golem.

The Golem, or Jewish Frankenstein, was the legendary creation of the celebrated Rabbi Loew of medieval Prague, who built the monster out of clay and brought him to life as a kind of protector of the ghetto. One day, however, the creature went on a rampage and the rabbi turned him back to a lump of clay. The only safe place to put the remains was a room with no entrance or exit and that is where it rests today in an attic room, so the legend has it, behind the rather sinister-looking facade of the synagogue.

Little is left of the Jewish Quarter, known in Prague as Josephov, because of a "hygenic" slum clearance that demolished most of the ghetto in the 1890s. However, one of Europe's most astonishing cemeteries is a few steps further down Siroka. The Old Jewish Cemetery, the second oldest in Europe, was the only burial place allowed Prague's Jews for over 300 years. Some 12,000 gravestones teeter crazily over a plot about the size of three tennis courts. The dead are in layers as many as 12 deep beneath your feet. No one knows how many are buried here and estimates range between 20,000 and 100,000. One reason these patches of ancient Judaism survived World War II and the Nazi Occupation of Prague is that Hitler ordered this graveyard and the synagogues around it preserved because he wanted to make it an "exotic museum of an extinct race" after the war.

The Loretto's bearded woman saint

Away from Old Town, on the west side of the river, the palaces of the old nobility of Bohemia cluster at the foot of the imposing royal complex known generally as Prague Castle, or Hradcany. The castle district embraces the stark gothic-and-baroque profile of St. Vitus Cathedral and a clutch of private palaces which now house government offices, museums, special exhibits, restaurants and churches, including one very strange church called The Loretto.

The Loretto, really more like a pilgrimage site than a church, is a vestige of one of the more peculiar cults that blossomed around baroque era worship of the Virgin Mary. From the outside, the building is a charmer, an architectural gem by father and son baroque masters Kristof and Kilian Dientzenhofer, replete with squadrons of bouncing cherubs. Once inside, you're not in a church but a courtyard surrounded by a cloister where visiting penitents strolled. Along the walls of the arcade are stations to stop and pray to various saints, whose intercession specialities are helpfully inscribed: St. Sebastian for the plague, St. Blaise for sore throat, St. Apollonia for toothaches, etc.

In the center of the Loretto's courtyard is its reason for being, the reason pilgrims traveled here. Called the Sancta Casa, it is a kind of huge carved stone vault that encases a replica of the room where Mary received the Annunciation, that is, was told by the Archangel Gabriel that it was her destiny to bear the son of God. This building is a replica of one that was supposedly transported by angels from the Holy Lands to northern Italy when heathen Turks threatened the holy site. Many Loretto shrines popped up after news spread of the miracle of the flying building, but Prague's is the biggest and most famous.

Visitors stroll through the Loretto's arcades until they enter the sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, which at first appears like most of Prague's baroque churches. But notice the painting of the martyr St. Agnes on the wall to your right. As an adoring cherub hovers above her, the saint, in a state of exaltation, holds up a platter containing her own severed breasts. What appear to be dummies in the two glass cases flanking the altar are the skeletons of Saints Felicissimus and Marcia, each encased in wax mask and dusty robes.

On your way out, make sure to check the last corner chapel in the arcade and look at the sculpture to your left of the crucified bearded woman. This is Saint Wilgefortis who was a devout Christian virgin betrothed by her evil father to marry a heathen. Begging God on the eve of her wedding to prevent this unholy union, she awoke to find she had sprouted a foot-long black beard. Not surprisingly, her intended took one look at her and hastily called off the ceremony. The poor woman's enraged father, however, ordered her crucified. She was canonized and became the patron saint of women in unhappy marriages.

The mad emperor, alchemists and ghosts

Many kings ruled over Prague, the historic capital of the kingdom of Bohemia and the ancient seat of Czech nationalism. But none were odder than Rudolf II. This Habsburg emperor, now believed to have been insane, relocated the seat of the Holy Roman Empire from Vienna to Prague because he found Prague more congenial to his pet interests, including alchemy, astrology and all manner of occult sciences.

In the Castle District seek out the Powder Tower opposite the north side of St. Vitus Cathedral (admission is included in the all-in-one castle sights ticket obtainable inside the entrance to the cathedral). It was in this tower, orginally built as an armory, that Rudolf installed his alchemists' laboratories, even supervising them via a royal inspector to sort out the charlatans from those who were "truly" able to turn base metals into gold. The famed British duo of alchemical history Edward Kelley and John Dee labored in this tower for years and entertained Rudolf and his court with their mumbo jumbo. Today, you can tour the two levels of the tower where alchemists' labs are recreated using authentic flasks and crucibles. The soot on the walls and ceilings is the real thing, the 400-year-old residue from those pseudo-scientists' smoking cauldrons.

Czech historians will tell you that the alchemists and hermeticists of the Renaissance era in Prague -- who spent their days "proving" the existence of dragons, reading fortunes in Tarot cards and trying to conjure angels -- should be regarded not so much as quacks but as iconoclasts seeking an alternative to church dogma to explain the mysteries of the universe. As for ghosts, there are many. Here are three of Prague's favorites to watch for, especially along the narrowest, most twisted cobblestone lanes where the moonlight is most faint.

The iron man is the ghost of one Jachym Berka, a soldier doomed by his own vanity and pride. When he returned from the wars to Prague 400 years ago he foolishly believed lies being spread that his fiance had been unfaithful and he spurned her. Heartbroken, the woman drowned herself in the Vltava River and her father, finding this unbearable, flung himself off a tower to his death. Thunderstruck by these events, Berka was overcome with remorse, causing him to hang himself in a cellar. The story has it that Berka's ghost wanders Prague in his soldier's armor, seeking a virgin who will walk with him for an hour to exonerate his sins.

The ghost of the bell-ringing nun was an imperious gentlewoman who flew into a rage once when her servant girl failed to obey her orders quickly enough. The servant, it seems, was so devoutly Christian that she stopped to kneel and pray whenever she heard the chimes of Tyn Church on Old Town Square. When no manner of shouting could persuade the pious girl to cease, her infuriated mistress promptly strangled her. Repentant afterward, the noblewoman entered a convent and bought a new bell for Tyn Church. It is said she can be seen and heard during the pre-dawn hours pulling the ropes to give the bells a ring.

Finally, there is the French major who was killed when his troops laid siege to Prague in 1741. For a long time it was said his ghost patrolled the ramparts of Prague's ancient Vysehrad fortress, attacking passersby as if he was still fighting the enemy Czechs. In 1892, an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army had a bright idea. Wouldn't it salve the fallen officer's ego to be saluted? It worked. These days, the major strolls the walls with a spectral smile on his face and a polite nod to anyone who offers him a salute.

Anyone who wants to get a close-up look at the, er, haunts of these characters can sign up for the Ghost Tour of Prague, which leaves most evenings at 9:10 and 10:10 p.m. from the visitors' center on Old Town Square.

(Originally published in the Toronto Sun on February 1, 1998, and in the San Francisco Examiner May 3, 1998.)

(c) 1994-2001 David and Chris Sturm
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