Prague landmark or a symbol of oppression?

The Marian column on the Old Town Square was the first Baroque monument in Bohemia. Destroyed in 1918, it remains controversial.

Whenever Eugen Kukla walks over the Old Town Square, he misses something. "All my childhood, I looked at a large painting of the square that hung in the living room of my parents' house," says Kukla, who grew up in Prague's Old Town and still lives there today. And when I was with my father on the Old Town Square, he always seemed so empty to me, he says.

He was all the more excited when the Prague sculptor Petr Váňa started to rebuild the Marian column on the Old Town Square on Wednesday, 29th May. Colleagues had already begun removing the paving stones before the police put an end to it. Although Váňa had a valid building permit, he had forgotten to officially report the start of construction.

Only two years ago, the chances of a resurrection of Maria in Prague looked good. The district of Prague 1, to which the Old Town Square belongs, had even agreed to erect a copy of the column. Additionally, a petition with over 3000 signatures had requested the magistrates to bring the column back to the square. But the city leaders remained unmoved and voted against the pillar.

For centuries it was the landmark of the Old Town Square. The baroque, 16 metre high sandstone sculpture was erected in 1650, designed by Jiří Bendl, modelled after Vienna’s Marian column. The Prague Column was the third oldest in Central Europe, after Munich and Vienna, and the first Baroque monument in Bohemia and Moravia. It was built to celebrate the end of the Thirty Years' War, and specifically for the liberation of Prague from Swedish troops, who shortly occupied the west bank of the Vltava, before the Westphalian peace in 1648.

On the pedestal of the Marian Column was a Gothic portrait of the Virgin Mary, provided by the Italian Miseroni family, who at the time of Rudolf II, had succumbed to the cultural power of Prague, and settled on the Old Town Square for the pillar.

However, during the period of the Czech National Revival in the 18th and 19th centuries, the column became a symbol of the Habsburgs' oppression of the Czech nation, predominantly because of its Catholic overtones, as when the column was erected, Bohemia was a vastly Protestant area. The Hapsburgs had lead the Germanisation of Bohemia, with its Catholic roots, following the defeat of the Bohemian nobility at the Battle of the Bílá hora in 1620. Notably 27 Bohemian, Moravian and Slovak nobles were brutally executed in Old Town Square for their rebellion against the Habsburg crown, with 12 of their heads being placed on the towers of Charles Bridge, and being left there for 10 years. To commemorate this, 27 white crosses can still be found on the floor of Old Town Square.

Move forward over 250 years, and five days after the official founding of Czechoslovakia, the people's anger, or perhaps the need of Czech anarchists to settle accounts with the past, resulted in the destruction of the Marian Column. “This was not a good omen for the newly formed First Republic”, sighs Eugen Kukla, who is involved in the society for the rebuilding of the Marian Column.

His colleague, Jan Bradna, has studied the events of that day: On November 3, 1918, it was a Sunday, there was a rally at Bílá hora, attended by tens of thousands. After the rally, provocateurs led the crowd through Mala Strana, across Charles Bridge, and to the Old Town Square, says Bradna. There, at the Jan Hus Monument opposite the Marian Column, which had been erected three years earlier, the fire brigade from the Žižkov district of Prague was already waiting with ladders, ropes and hammers. And with the first pull of the ropes, the Marian Column was gone. 

But not forgotten. And perhaps shortly, a column will be standing in Old Town square again. 

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