Prague's New (Old) Landmark -- The Marian Column

On the night of November 3rd, 1919, a group of political activists, firefighters, and everyday citizens walked to Prague's Old Town Square. Their goal: the destruction of the Marian Column (mariánský sloup) located there. Now, there were Marian columns all over the Czech lands--many erected after a plague in the early 1700s. The column in the Old Town Square, however, was different.

The column in 1900.

While there were people who tried to protect the 250-year-old monument, the majority--perhaps the vast majority--wanted it down. And so, down it came. Not only was it pulled down, but the two meter, gilded statue of the Virgin mary was decapitated.

The destroyed column, minus the state of the Virgin Mary.

Now, this wasn't just pointless vandalism. It was an expression of anger, to be sure, but also of liberation. Novermber 1919 was just after the death of the Catholic Hapsburg Empire which had held dominion over much of Central and Eastern Europe for about 300 years, allowing the birth of the free Czechoslovakia. The toppling of the column must have made the toppling of the empire feel more real to the people in the square that night.

Artist's rendering of the column, c. 1841.

For nearly 200 years, starting in the early 1400s, the semi-autonomous lands of the Bohemian Crown had been free to practice their Hussite strain of early Protestantism. The (second) Defenestration of Prague, however, had caused tensions between the Catholics and Protestants to boil over, and The Thirty Years War began. At the Battle of the White Mountain (Bílá Hora) in 1620, Protestant control over Bohemia was broken, and the Catholic Hapsburbs centralized control in Vienna. Thirty years later, the Marian column was built--near the beginning of a wave of such monuments all over Europe. The specific motivation for Prague's Marian column was to commemorate the defeat of the invading Swedish forces at the Battle of Prague, the last major action of the war. The victorious Hapsburg forces sought to solidfy their control over the Bohemian lands via religion. The column was both a place of relligious veneration and a physical symbol of Hapsburg victory and control--and of the Protestant defeat. 

The Jan Hus memorial today.

In 1913, however, as the influence of the Czech National Revival made itself known throughout Bohemia, the Marian column was joined by a memoral to Jan Hus, the Bohemian religious reformer who was burned at the stake. The Catholic/Protestant rivalry now had competing monuments, just meters from each other--but only for about 6 years. The "mob" that tore down the column, then, weren't destroying a part of their national heritage--they were reclaiming it and removing the imposition of someone else's. Or, at least, so they saw it.

70 years after it was torn down--soon after another revolution swept through Prague, this one driving the Communists from power--a fund was started to rebuild the Prague Marian column. After years of wrangling with local authorities, the column was rebuilt this year, and was "opened" a few weeks ago. Based on their website, the column's supporters seem to be acting out of religious faith, and not a sense of historical recreation.

Photo credit: me. 

This may help explain why the column is still controversial, with Prague's mayor calling it a symbol of conflict instead of unity. Indeed, shortly after it was unveiled, a man tried to set fire to the new column, saying that it should never have been built. The sandstone column wasn't seriously damanged, but it's easy to imagine the column continuing to be a source of tension in the years to come.

It's strange--I went and saw the column, took pictures, and generally approved of it. I liked the idea of returning what had been taken. But now...having done all the research to write this post...well, it's not so clear to me. Maybe sometimes the past is best left in the past.


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