The Christchild of Prague

2 2004 Dějiny English
obálka čísla

L´Enfant caritable de Prague, Bambino Gesu di Praga,

Das gnädenreiche Jesuskindlein von Prag, Jesu Niňo de Praga, Prazske Jezulatko...

We could continue in other languages, but all names would have one meaning. The small wax statue of the Christchild, which the Spanish noble woman Marie Manrique de Lara brought to Bohemia when she married one of the richest noblemen of the 16th century Vratislav z Perstejna. The couple was blessed with eleven children, nine daughters and two sons. Even for one of the most prominent noble families it was a problem to find suitable husbands for their daughters, especially after their father’s death and the subsequent financial difficulties. At that time the pious lady of Perstejn evidently turned frequently to the little statue of the divine infant, which reminded her of home and of her carefree youth, and asked it for help. She gradually succeeded in marrying her daughters off. The most successful was undoubtedly the marriage of the twenty year old beautiful Polyxena with Vilem of Rozmberk. The husband, to be sure, was more than thirty years older, but was a member of the most outstanding noble family in the kingdom. As a wedding gift the young bride received from her mother the memorable little statue of the Christchild, perhaps in order that the fourth marriage of the childless Vilem finally be blessed by the birth of an heir. This did not happen, and after five years Vilem died. The young widow retired to the castle in Roudnice, and it seemed that she would remain a widow. After a long eleven years, at the age of thirty-six she married Zdenek Popel z Lobkovic, who was a year younger than she, educated and a skilful politician, the head of the Catholic party in Bohemia. For years the marriage remained childless. In 1609 the forty-two year old Polyxena bore a healthy little boy whom the happy parents named Vaclav Eusebius. A first child at that age was and still is a small miracle. When her husband died nineteen years later, in 1628, she gave the family heirloom, the statue of the Christchild blessing, to the church of the barefoot Carmelites on the Lesser Side. After the Battle of the White Mountain, in which the Catholic imperial armies were victorious, the church was dedicated to the Victorious Virgin Mary. It has been reported that Father Dominic, a member of the Carmelite order, a Spaniard originally called Ruzzola, when the armies were heading toward Prague, found in the Johannite castle in Strakonice the Birth of the Lord depicted on a wooden tablet. He took it and during the battle rode on horseback in front of the imperial lines with a crucifix in his hand and the picture hanging from his neck. With a powerful voice he called the soldiers to battle in the name of the Virgin Mary. For this deed Emperor Ferdinand promised him to found two monasteries, one in Vienna and one in Prague.He soon fulfilled his promise. As early as the 7. September, 1621 the Prague Carmelites were given the building, a church originally built for the German Lutherans of the Lesser Side. After a short time it was remodelled in early baroque style. The order was given a considerable amount of money by the Spanish generals of the imperial armies Don Baltasar de Maradas, whose coats of arms adorn the ledge above the main portal. Other military commanders also contributed gifts. Their money mainly came from the properties confiscated from non-Catholic participants in the anti Habsburg uprising. A copy of the picture of the Birth of the Lord from the Johannite castle in Strakonice is preserved in the church to this day. The original was left in Rome after the dedication. It was placed in the church by the same name, but burned in a fire in the early nineteenth century.

The church has another unique characteristic. It is the only Christian church in Prague which, unlike the usual orientation of the presbytery toward the East, has the altar on the opposite side – west. Perhaps so that its façade faces the street and not the Petrin hill.

Initially the Carmelites were not doing very well in Prague. On the one hand the country was shaken by the Thirty Years War, on the other hand the members of the order did not receive the promised support from the Emperor. It has been said that in 1628, when Polyxena of Lobkovic donated to the monastery the statue of the Christ Child, the Emperor suddenly awarded the order an income of 2000 guilders and a regular allotment of food. Further sufferings awaited the monks only three years later. The Saxon armies attacked the city and plundered it mercilessly. In the church of the Virgin Mary the Victorious the soldiers destrpyed the furniture and took the valuables. The Christ Child they threw among the refuse on the oratorio. It lay there unnoticed for all of ten years, when mercenary armies of the warring sides marched through the country. In 1638 a few Carmelites returned to the monastery. One of them, brother Cyril discovered the discarded statue of the Christ Child on the oratorio and placed it on the altar wearing a faded blue dress. A former military commissioner obligingly repaired the broken hands. After that wrong deeds of which he had been wrongly accused were dropped and conditions in his family improved. When Father Dominic, who had contributed to the victory on the White Mountain and the founding of the monastery promised that he would take better care of the Christ Child, his health quickly improved. In the bad times of the Thirty Years War rich and poor turned to the small statue of the Child of God for help. Miraculous recoveries multiplied. Out of gratitude for intercessions and fulfilled wishes believers started to bring the statue numerous gifts. During the invasion of the Swedes who occupied the left bank of the Moldau in 1648, the inhabitants of the Lesser Town carried their possessions to the church and hoped that they would be protected…The monastery served as a refuge for the poor and the wounded Swedish soldiers. General Königsmarck, on the request of the prior actually appointed special guards for the church and the monastery, so that they were not pillaged. The church was even visited by the supreme commander of the Swedish army, the later king Charles Gustav and donated thirty ducats to the Christ Child. From the 2. half of the 17th century on the reputation of the Christ Child of Prague, especially as a miraculous advocate of people who cannot have children, spread all over Europe and later in the whole world. There are copies of the miraculous little statue in many churches. It enjoys great respect in the Spanish speaking countries, in Mexico, Central and South America. In the fifties a delegation from the People’s Republic of Vietnam caused great embarrassment with the communist government of Czechoslovakia when it presented a beautiful dress to the Christ Child.

Something else is worth noting: The tiny statue of the Child of God has a large collection of very beautiful outfits. They are richly embroidered, decorated with pearls and precious stones. Women grateful for help sewed them with their own hands and donated them. One was sewn by Empress Maria Theresa who had many children, although she was not very fond of Czechs. Members of women‘s orders take care of the dresses. They change the garments of many colors according to the Church calendar. Before Christmas it is red, before Easter violet, then green…The statue has been located since the 18th century in a glass case on a pedestal made of gilded silver to the right of the church isle. Above its head is a beautiful crown, in the left hand it holds the imperial apple, with the right it blesses the believers. On its neck it has a miniature of the greatest European distinction, the Order of the golden fleece. The tiny statue, which was created by an unknown wood carver in Spain 500 years ago, gives hope to believers. And its appearance pleases the non believer by its gentle loveliness. It is because of it that the church of the Virgin Mary the Victorious is among the most visited and best known sights apart from Hradcany.

Jana volfová
translation: Vilma Iggers

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