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The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

 

If a “mad” king, Rudolph II, brings together, as part of his legendary court, two self-proclaimed transformers of lead into gold, the likes of Dee and Kelley, plus the bizarre, satirical painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo and the revolutionary astronomer Kepler, and all this in a city where a giant clay monster, the Golem, exists, then one thing is for sure: Prague is a magical city.

I visited Prague in the cold of January, when winter dressed it in the garb of twilight and the lights of the night gave it a mystical, enchanted atmosphere.

A trip to Prague is like a journey through any number of mysteries, ancient beliefs, symbols, magical occurrences, cosmic energies and astrological schemes.

The city’s marvellous architecture, steeped in a wealth of enigmatic symbols, narrates ineffable stories of ghosts and occult sciences. It is history made legend, and legend made history.

For centuries Prague was the European capital of the esoteric, forming, together with Turin and Lyon, the Triangle of White Magic.

Prague carries its destiny in its name. Some hold that the word Prague comes from the Slavic term Pràh, for ‘entry gate’, in the sense of an ideal passage between our world and unknown universes.

Scholars say that the ley lines converge in this city, meaning the lines of an energy that, when it intersects throughout the world, creates a flow of cosmic energy.

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

It was Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor and a fervent patron of alchemy, who chose Prague, in 1355, as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, filling his court with alchemists, numerologists, scientists, artists and astrologers.

Charles IV drew up the plans for the new city, Nove Mesto, himself, basing everything on astrological patterns. And it was Charles who had the Castle and the Cathedral of St. Vitus built, as well as the Charles Bridge, a symbol of the city that is emblematic of Prague’s esoteric bent.

But it was at the end of the 1500’s, under Emperor Rudolph II, that Prague become a legendary place, the site of a court that, having been moved back to the city from Vienna, hosted a series of brilliant, enlightened minds, including John Dee and Edward Kelley, the astronomer Kepler, the alchemist Sendivogius and the painter Arcimboldo.

Rudolph II was an introverted, highly cultured man, a lover of the arts and letters who was said to suffer from manic-depressive psychosis.  He was the “mad king”, with a weakness for the alchemistic sciences and an obsessive interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, meaning a yearning for immortality, all of which brought him to offer astronomical sums to anyone able to provide him with an elixir of eternal youth or a way to transform plain metal into gold.

Rudolph literally shut his scientists and alchemists inside low-ceilinged, cramped homes situated on a narrow street that was later called the Golden Lane. Confined to these dwellings, they were supposed to rapidly arrive at the secret to transforming metal into gold.

To achieve this objective, Rudolph drew on the services of two figures who seemed cut from legend:  John Dee and Edward Kelley.

John Dee was a mathematician, an alchemist and a devotee of the occult, as well as a professor at Cambridge and the personal astrologer of Queen Elizabeth I, the man from whom she received advice on the right day for her coronation.

John Dee was known for having created the Sigillum Emeth, or the Esoteric Seal, which he used to communicate with the great beyond.

The working relationship between Dee and Kelley got underway in 1582, two years before the start of the period they spent at the court of Rudolph II.

Edward Kelley, an Englishman like Dee, was an alchemist and a medium. It was said that he spoke with the angels, and that Dee used him as a clairvoyant.

One day Kelley told Dee that he had found, in the Abbey of Glastonbury, a red powder, along with the Book of Dunstan, a volume on alchemy. He claimed to be able to produce a red tincture that would transform metal into gold.

Having moved to the court of Rudolph II in 1584, the two initiated their experiments, and supposedly Kelley succeeded in transforming lead into gold in the presence of the Emperor.

But this period of magical experimentation was short-lived, with the Pope condemning it as black magic. Dee went back to Great Britain, returning to the good graces of Elizabeth I, while Kelley was imprisoned by the Emperor, who did everything he could to extract Kelley’s secret from him. But the latter, after leaping from the tower in an attempted escape, had to have his leg amputated before being put back in prison. He ultimately committed suicide, and so the magical transformation of plain metal into gold came to an end.

The era of Rudolph II was also said to have been marked by the presence of an anthropomorphic being, the Golem. This clay giant, a being with neither a soul nor the faculty of speech, had extraordinary strength and was totally devoted to his creator’s will.

Legend has it that in the 16th century, when the Jews needed to find a way to defend themselves from the Catholics and the Protestants, the rabbi of Prague, Low, who was thoroughly versed in the Kabbalah, used a variety of mud from Moldavia to create a giant Golem who would scare away the anti-Semites. Low brought this being to life by placing the word “Emet”, or “truth”, under his tongue. He had predicted that one day the Golem would turn against its creator, and so it came to pass. Escaping the rabbi’s control, the Golem destroyed everything it found in its path, until finally the rabbi had to put an end to its existence by removing the first letter of the word “Emet”, turning it into “Met”, or the word for death. The Golem returned to its former state of mud and was placed back in the attic of the Synagogue.

Rudolph II, who abdicated in 1611 in favour of his brother, died cursing Prague and its people as unthankful.

WHAT TO SEE IN PRAGUE

STARE MESTO

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

Stare Mesto is the old city, the medieval heart of Prague. It is a place in which to wander about the narrow streets, stopping in the old city’s square to admire the noble buildings.

To understand the magic of Prague, you need to walk along the ROYAL WAY, from the Powder Tower, through the old city, and finally to the Castle.

It was called the Royal Way because the Kings of Bohemia would travel along it during their coronation procession.

The royal Way is the path to the Philosopher’s Stone.

It starts from the POWDER TOWER, a medieval structure that was part of the set of 13 gates which surrounded Prague. Given its name in 1700, the tower became a site for storing gunpowder.

The route continues along the CELETNA ULICE, leading to the square of the old city. But first comes the HOUSE OF THE BLACK MADONNA, an example of cubist architecture dating from 1911, but which fits in well with the overall architectural scheme. It is named after the black statue of the Madonna that sits atop one of its corners. A bit further on, shining forth from above the entrance to a building, is the “BLACK SUN”, an esoteric symbol consisting of 16 black rays and a human face. In alchemy, the colour black is the first step towards the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone, meaning the phase of decomposition and symbolic death known as Nigredo.

The Royal Way then reaches the SQUARE OF THE OLD CITY, the focal point of all of Prague, as well as the renowned square holding the astronomical clock with its tower, as well as the Gothic church of Our Lady before Tyn.

Here the Emperor’s procession would pause, so that he could swear his fealty in front of the Church of Tyn.

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

THE ASTRONOMICAL CLOCK is an unparalleled masterpiece of mechanics and science, as well as a grand allegory. Built in 1410 by the master clockmaker Kadané, and then further refined by Master Kanus, it is the world’s oldest working astronomical clock. Legend has it that Kanus was blinded to keep him from creating another such masterpiece, but that the master clockmaker still managed to get to the works of the clock and put it out of use.

Of particular interest are the mechanism, and the 4 figures found on the sides of the clock, depictions of the capital vices: above and to the right is a skeleton, representing Death, flanked by Lust, in the person of a Turk. To the left is Vanity, in the form of a man holding a mirror, while Greed is depicted as a Jew, an accurate representation of how the people of that time viewed the Jewish faith.

At the stroke each hour, an extraordinary mechanism goes into action: it begins with Death, as if to say that, sooner or later, Death comes for everyone. Once Death has pulled the chord that it holds in its right hand, the hourglass in its left hand begins to rotate. Then Lust shakes its head while, up above, the Twelve Apostles (11 + St. Paul) come out two by two, with the grand finale being the cock’s crow.

The astronomical quadrant is an astrolabe for calculating the positions of the stars. It has two hands, one for the stars and one for the moon. There is an outer  ring, and an inside one with the symbols of the zodiac. In the centre of the backdrop, in royal blue, is the earth, while the upper portion, depicting the sky atop the horizon, is sky blue, and the lower portion, the part of the sky below the horizon, is red and black.

A beautiful view of the square and the city can be had from the uppermost level of the OLD TOWN HALL TOWER.

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The CHURCH OF OUR LADY BEFORE TYN has an imposing Gothic façade, with two towers, as well as spires, though only the upper portion can be seen, while the style of the interior is baroque. The pipe organ is said to have a highly refined sound, though I didn’t get to hear it! It is named after the adjoining courtyard of Tyn, which has an entrance on one side.

To the right, coming soon after the clock, is the HOUSE AT THE MINUTE, where Franz Kafka lived for a few years. Its façade is decorated with graffito scenes taken from the Bible and mythology.

The next site long the Royal Way is Karlova Street, which leads to the Charles Bridge and includes a wealth of stores providing the opportunity to browse for souvenirs and Bohemian crystal.

At the corner of Liliova Street is the HOUSE OF THE GOLDEN SERPENT, a renaissance building with baroque decorations and, in its upper portion, a golden serpent with a 3-pointed head and a man in its mouth. The serpent’s connotations of fertility are tied to the human coming out of its mouth. It was here that Prague’s first café was opened in 1713 by a man born in Damascus, known as ‘the Arab’ on account of his turban and clothing. Before he came to town, coffee was thought to be a pharmaceutical beverage and not something to be savoured for its taste.  He bought the House of the Golden Serpent, opened his café and taught the people of Prague to enjoy the magical pleasure of coffee.

THE HOUSE AT THE GOLDEN WELL: a renaissance-style home veiled in stories of ghosts. There are any number of legends involving this house, so that I’m not sure which to believe. Some say that for a lengthy period of time the heads of a Spanish couple who had stopped at the home, which was once a hotel, would wander about at night. The owner, dazzled by the wealth that the two appear to have displayed all too eagerly, killed them and cut off their heads, which he threw into the Vtlava River, while he hid the bodies in the basement. But things did not end well for the innkeeper, as the house burned down, together with all the gold, and he died trying to flee on horseback.

Continuing along the route, we reach the OLD TOWN BRIDGE TOWER, which leads to the CHARLES BRIDGE.

CHARLES BRIDGE

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The CHURCH OF OUR LADY BEFORE TYN has an imposing Gothic façade, with two towers, as well as spires, though only the upper portion can be seen, while the style of the interior is baroque. The pipe organ is said to have a highly refined sound, though I didn’t get to hear it! It is named after the adjoining courtyard of Tyn, which has an entrance on one side.

To the right, coming soon after the clock, is the HOUSE AT THE MINUTE, where Franz Kafka lived for a few years. Its façade is decorated with graffito scenes taken from the Bible and mythology.

The next site long the Royal Way is Karlova Street, which leads to the Charles Bridge and includes a wealth of stores providing the opportunity to browse for souvenirs and Bohemian crystal.

At the corner of Liliova Street is the HOUSE OF THE GOLDEN SERPENT, a renaissance building with baroque decorations and, in its upper portion, a golden serpent with a 3-pointed head and a man in its mouth. The serpent’s connotations of fertility are tied to the human coming out of its mouth. It was here that Prague’s first café was opened in 1713 by a man born in Damascus, known as ‘the Arab’ on account of his turban and clothing. Before he came to town, coffee was thought to be a pharmaceutical beverage and not something to be savoured for its taste.  He bought the House of the Golden Serpent, opened his café and taught the people of Prague to enjoy the magical pleasure of coffee.

THE HOUSE AT THE GOLDEN WELL: a renaissance-style home veiled in stories of ghosts. There are any number of legends involving this house, so that I’m not sure which to believe. Some say that for a lengthy period of time the heads of a Spanish couple who had stopped at the home, which was once a hotel, would wander about at night. The owner, dazzled by the wealth that the two appear to have displayed all too eagerly, killed them and cut off their heads, which he threw into the Vtlava River, while he hid the bodies in the basement. But things did not end well for the innkeeper, as the house burned down, together with all the gold, and he died trying to flee on horseback.

Continuing along the route, we reach the OLD TOWN BRIDGE TOWER, which leads to the CHARLES BRIDGE.

 

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The story goes that Parler decided to add a special egg-based mix to the mortar. But since there were not enough eggs in the city, subjects from every corner of the realm came bearing loads of all sorts of eggs, including hardboiled ones, as well as cheeses.

The Old Town Bridge Tower, also designed by Parler, includes a statue of Charles IV in a sitting position.

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant



The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

It was all calculated according to a precise astrological layout, so that during the summer solstice, for example, the Old Town Bridge Tower finds itself in a position that, at twilight, allows the sun to illuminate the lantern of the tower of the Cathedral of St. Vitus, where the saint’s cranium is kept.

The Charles Bridge ends in Mala Strana, with the Two Towers. The smaller one is the Judith Tower, dating from 1158 and a part of the old bridge, while the higher structure is the Mala Strana Tower.

 

MALA STRANA

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

Continuing along the Royal Way, after the Charles Bridge, comes the Mala Strana, or “Small City”. The route runs along Mostecka Street, where the King would receive the keys to the city, after which the procession would move along the upward sloping Nerudova Street, before reaching the castle.

Mala Strana is a beautiful neighbourhood, with its baroque homes, its cafés and its venerable pubs.

It also holds the baroque masterpiece of the CHURCH OF ST. NICHOLAS. Commissioned by the Jesuits, work began on the church in 1673 and was concluded in 1755.

Inside, visitors can admire Europe’s largest fresco, a work by Johanss Kracker entitled “The Apotheosis of St. Nicholas”, as well as an organ with 2550 pipes that was played by Mozart in 1787.

 

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The steeply rising NERUDOVA Street is famous for its baroque homes, its stores and its cafés. The name comes from the Czech poet Jan Neruda, whose last name was also taken by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Sights along Nerudova Street include the HOUSE OF THE GOLDEN HORSESHOE, named after the bas-relief atop the portal depicting St. Wenceslaus on a horse that apparently had a golden shoe.

THE HOUSE AT THE THREE VIOLINS, where three violins appear above the portal because the home once belonged to a family that built that instrument, is also said to be haunted:  on nights when there is a full moon, three skeletons supposedly play the violin, and they do not take criticism of their music well!

THE HOME OF THE GOLDEN KEY has a golden key depicted on its frontispiece.

We have almost reached the end of the Royal Way.

THE PRAGUE CASTLE

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The last stop on the “Royal Way” marked the arrival at the Castle, where the King would be crowned with the sceptre, the crown and the royal sphere in the Cathedral of St. Vitus.

The Prague Castle, Prazsky Hrad in Czech, is found on one of the nine hills of Prague, sitting imperiously above the city.

It is the world’s largest castle, so be prepared for lengthy walks and climbs up healthy flights of stairs when you visit it. It is currently the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic.

Visitors must buy a ticket, except for entry in the Church of St. Vitus, which is free.

The initial stone construction dates to 884 after Christ.

 

 

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

But it was in the Romanesque period that the Royal Palace, the Basilica of San Giorgio and the city’s cathedral, along with the rest of St. Vitus, were built.

The Emperor Charles IV moved the capital of the Holy Roman Empire to the city, sparking significant change. The Romanesque basilica was replaced by the current cathedral, whose style is in line with the Gothic architecture favoured at the time in France, and the Royal Palace was rebuilt.

The Renaissance period saw the building of the Belvedere Palace, along with the Hall of the Pallacorda and the Italian gardens, while the main structure was also expanded.

It was under Emperor Rudolph II that the Castle experienced its era of maximum splendour.

 

The First Court, where visitors can view the changing of the guard, is entered through the Gate of Giants. This is also the site of the “Treasure of St. Vitus”.

In the Second Court are the Spanish Hall and the Rudolph Gallery, which holds masterpieces by Titian, Rubens and Tintoretto.

In the Third Court is the CATHEDRAL OF ST. VITUS, the splendid gothic cathedral built at the orders of Charles IV. The Emperor took the relics of St. Vitus from Pavia, the head of St. Luke from Padua and the head of St. Victor from Feltre.

Construction of the church was begun under the architect Matthias of Arras in 1344, but he died 8 years later, and so the work was assigned to the German architect Peter Parler, who finished the eastern portion of the church. The western portion, completed posthumously, dates from some point between the 19th and the 20th centuries.

Visitors can admire the 14-metre high stained-glass windows by Alfons Mucha with their depictions of St. Cyril and St. Methodios.

The Great Tower is 90 metres high, and the extremely steep stairway that leads to the top has 297 steps. Once you’re up there, the view is spectacular.

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

Also to be see are the Tomb of St. Vitus, the patron saint of Bohemia, and the chapel of St. John of Nepomuk, a baroque work done in silver and topped by a canopy. It is said that the tongue of the Saint, when exhumed, still had fresh blood in it.

The Chapel of St. Wenceslaus, also designed by the architect Parler, has walls that are decorated with gilded panels and semi-precious stones. Hidden behind a door on the south side is a stairway that leads to the Coronation Hall.

GEORGE’S BASILICA is a church whose proto-baroque façade hides a Romanesque/baroque church.

THE GOLDEN LANE is lined with small, low-ceilinged homes originally built for the guards of Rudolph II, though Rudolph ultimately used them to house renowned alchemists, such as Dee and Kelley, who worked on transforming metal into gold, as well as on the Grand Work of Alchemy, or the production of the Philosopher’s Stone.

From 1916 to 1917, Franz Kafka lived at the home at no. 22, in his sister’s apartment.

NOVE MESTO

Nove Mesto, whose name means ‘New City’, was founded by Charles IV in 1348. Despite the quarter’s medieval origins, a good many of the buildings were constructed between 1800 and 1900.

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

WENCESLAS SQUARE, also found in Nove Mesto, holds a towering equestrian statue of St. Wenceslaus.

Wenceslas Square has served as the stage for revolutionary movements and major events of the Czech Republic. It was here that the fall of the Communist regime was announced in 1989, and in 1969, during the period known as the Prague Spring, Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest over the Communist regime.

The DANCING HOUSE is located in Nove Mesto, along the river. Designed by the architects Milunic and Gehry, it is also known as the Ginger and Fred Building, in honour of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The glass tower, tapered in its central portion, appears to embrace the other building.

 

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant

The MUCHA MUSEUM is dedicated to Alfons Mucha, the great Czech artist of the Art Nouveau school. This style was widespread in the city, and Mucha was its leading practitioner. On exhibit are advertising illustrations, such as those for Moët & Chandon, together with paintings, plus the acclaimed Parisian posters that made him famous through the world as they announced the “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt’s productions of Gismonda, Medea and Lorenzaccio.

I adore Mucha and the Art Nouveau and suggest that everybody pay a visit to this small museum.

 

The allure and the magic of Prague: a crazy king, two visionary alchemists and a clay giant