St. Wenceslas - Patron Saint of the Czech Lands

9 2005 Dějiny English
obálka čísla

Legend, Myth, Reality

"It had become the most recent fashion?" to seek the most remarkable personages in European history. After we had come back to Europe, although I strongly doubt that there really was a return since we had never really left the land below the Rip Mountain. The truth is that our land was twice, by brute force, swallowed up by two evil, powerful regimes, the Nazi and the Communist, which definitely doesn't speak of a voluntary exodus. As we again had settled among the European nations, the game of voting or choosing the greatest, or the most remarkable personality has appeared even in our peaceful countryside. The people, starting with well - known personalities such as scholars and ending up with entertainers, took it up. They became voluntary advocates of the individual personalities on television screens and in the press. You could say that the population, although for years devastated by a totalitarian regime and numerous school reforms made rather thoughtful decisions.

Even though history was a mandatory subject, it was actually barely tolerated. It had given me a living. It was and still remains my hobby and thus I really missed seeing in one of the leading places a man of flesh and blood although entwined with legends. Without him it would have been considerably harder for us to live and survive in this turbulent land of ours. It is, dear readers, Wenceslas descendant of the Premyslide Dynasty, canonized a saint shortly after his violent death. Today's fans of sport and other competitions know well the value of a first place, but hardly anybody realizes what a win it was for the new medieval state to have its very own patron saint that was not just some kind of import. The Christian rulers drew their power from the higher will of God. However, the forces that drove his own brother Boleslav to murder that morning of the 28th of September 928 or 935, were more of this world. It was sibling rivalry, the desire to rule, complicated family circumstances after the father's premature death and misunderstandings between his mother Drahomira a pagan, and grandmother Ludmila christened in Moravia.

Ludmila was also murdered in 921, the reason probably being the primeval problematic relationship between daughter-inlaw and mother-in-law.

Factual information about the life of Wenceslas is pitifully scarce. There is also the question of whether or not he was married, or whether he had offspring. He or she would not have ended up well after his death. Marriage does not seem to go along with his holiness and dedication to spiritual life. We read of his courageous fight in the last moments of his life when at the end he bares his breast to receive the last mortal blow. That seems to oppose the legend of his peaceful nature. Boleslav obviously repented his violent deed even though at the time a fight or even murder, were quite common. He had his brother's body taken to Praha and entombed in the St. Vitus Rotunda at the seat of the Premyslide Dynasty which is today's Hradschin area. Soon after that, he managed to get the Bishop of Regensburg who had authority over the Czech lands, to have his brother canonized a saint. That was the beginning of the Saint Wenceslas legends.

In one of these we read, "He had a lot of sympathy for orphans; he was the father of widows and of those who suffered; he was a comforter of the injured; he was humble, patient, peace-loving and kind." An ideal till now unfulfilled, but promising hope. Wenceslas was and remained a symbol of goodness, reconciliation, agreement and tolerance. In the Czech hymn composed in his honor we sing, " Saint Wenceslas, ruler of the Czech lands have mercy on us, remember your people, pray for us to God and the Holy Spirit, comfort those who mourn, keep away all evil, Saint Wenceslas" and ending with the famous words, " Don't let ours, nor future generations perish" (according to the oldest records from 1473)

We have entered the third millennium and it seems that our pleas of that ancient hymn composed to honor our very own patron saint have never ceased to protect us. Even though he was not among the top most remarkable Czechs, he remains immortal. During the 11th century St. Wenceslas was looked upon more and more often as an immortal ruler of the Czech lands. It was he who bestowed power upon the elected, worldly ruler. The Czechs did not believe in the saying, "The King is dead, long live the King!" because their saintly ruler was in heaven, immortal. A hundred years later, the thought of a chosen nation took root. In one of the old scripts the Czech lands were shown as a City of God, according to the ideas described in the works of St. Augustine. Charles IV had originally been christened Vaclav and during his rule, his goal vas to cultivate the St. Wenceslas tradition. Construction of the remarkable chapel in the St. Vitus cathedral, truly expresses his ardor. In addition to all the treasures, there stands a statue of St. Wenceslas from the workshop of Petr Parler. The saint is clothed in armor, his hand holding a spear, and his head covered with a princely cap. Anthropological examination of the saint's scull by Dr. E. Vlcek in the 20th century revealed that the face modeled by Petr Parler actually resembled that of St. Wenceslas of the Blanik Knights. But St. Wenceslas was not recognized merely as a holy man, but as a soldier as well. How else could have come into being the legend of the Knights of Blanik led by the saint to help his people (tribe) at the time of greatest need? The word "tribe" is a medieval expression, which encompassed those under the same landlord. The word "nation" comes from a later period of enlightenment and romanticism at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. What's remarkable is the fact that during the cruel Hussite Wars in the 15th century, whether at home or against the Crusaders abroad, both opposing sides prayed to the same patron saint for help. Although the Hussites had never accepted the cult of sainthood, a Declaration of the Prague towns from 1420 clearly states," With the help of our great patron St. Wenceslas we shall deliver our most Christian kingdom from oppression and persecution." At approximately the same time, a member of the opposing side, a Catholic states, " Dear King Wenceslas, you who has the power from God have mercy on us, drive out the enemy and prevent them from doing us harm." A few decades later in 1458, tired of war and the devastation of land, both sides meet at the Old Town Hall to elect a king. Together they sing the old Hymn," Saint Wenceslas, Ruler of Czech lands?"

During the Thirty-Year-War, personalities such as Jan Amos Komensky an important member of the Unitat Fratrum, a Calixite exile who died in faraway Holland, turn to the saint for support. Bohuslav Balbin a member of the Jesuit Order and a strong defender of the Czech language also seeks his intercession.

Two hundred years later in the turbulent year of 1848, an ingenious journalist, a courageous and provident man Karel Havlicek Borovsky, suggests the Horse Market one of the most important squares in the New Town section of Prague, be renamed stating, " In commemoration of the meeting in the Spa of St. Wenceslas, in honor of our dear patron saint whose statue stands there, let it be called, Wenceslas Square."

Since that time, after the square was thus renamed, the people had come there to gather in good times or bad. Why? Is it historical memory which is present in all human societies or is it the statue itself whether the one by the sculptor Bendl from the Baroque period or the one by Myslbek where the saint is accompanied by four other holy patrons of the land? It may well be what the old Romans called,"genius loci", guardian of the place. One fact is sure. The people have gathered here many a time during the turbulent and difficult 20th century.

Jana Volfova
Translated by Paula Schultz

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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