Land of Velvet and Bones
By Jheri St. James
referring to the Czech Republic (bounded by Germany on the
west and northwest, Poland on the north and northeast, Slovakia
on the southeast, and Austria on the south) the word “velvet” is
often used. Historians refer to the peaceful “Velvet
Revolution” in 1989, when Soviet authority collapsed
and the Czech Rebublic government took back its independence.
In 1993, the country underwent a “velvet divorce” into
its two national components, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Not many countries can claim the use of the word “velvet” in
regards to historical change, unless it might be the iron
fist in the velvet glove.
Bohemia and Moravia formed a separate entity until 1918.
It was successively ruled by the Premysl dynasty, Austria,
the Hussites, and the Habsbuerg dynasty. With the collapse
of the Habsburg dynasty during World War I, Bohemia, Moravia
and Slovakia formed the new republic: Czechoslovakia. The
Czech and Slovakian republics formed a federation in 1968.
And in 1993, Slovakia left this federation. The political
and economic liberalization that started after the collapse
of Communism was pursued by the independent Czech government.
The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union
in 2004. Common Ground 191 finds it interesting that a landlocked
country, strategically located astride some of the oldest
and most significant land routes in Europe (including the
Moravian Gate, a traditional military corridor between the
North European Plain and the Danube in central Europe) having
suffered so many changes in government leadership was able
to finally achieve any kind of velvety transition. There
may be much to learn here.
There are two main natural and historical regions of the
Czech Republic: (1) Bohemia in the west comprises the Bohemian
Massif, the Ore Mountains, and the Giant Mountains, which
serve as natural boundaries between the republic and neighboring
countries. Valleys carved out by rivers break through the
mountains, notably the Labe (Elbe) valley linking northwestern
Czech Republic with Germany. In north-central Bohemia, rivers
have carved the lowlands on which Prague stands. (2) Moravia,
east of Bohemia, includes a lowland area featuring the fertile
valleys of the southward-flowing Morava River and the northward-flowing
Odra (Oder). Prague, the center of Czech culture, became
one of the great political and artistic capitals of Europe
between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Smooth as velvet has been the economic growth of the Czech
Republic, now one of the most stable and prosperous of the
post-Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe.
soil from the Czech Republic came through the efforts of John
and Alena Bouska, Canadians who were traveling there in June
of 2005. They picked up the soil in Prague at Mount Vitkov
where the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier is located on ikov
(Vitkov) Hill. During World War I, huge numbers of soldiers
died without their remains being identified. The practice developed
for nations to have a symbolic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
that represented those unidentified soldiers. Much work goes
into trying to find a certain soldier and to verify his identity.
The United Kingdom first buried an Unknown Warrior in Westminster
Abbey in 1920, leading other nations to follow their example.
The most famous tomb is that in France under the Arc de Triomphe.
These tombs are also used to commemorate the unidentified fallen
of later wars. Although monuments have been built as recently
as 1982 in the case of Iraq, it is unlikely that any further
ones will be constructed. Advances in DNA technology mean that
even the tiniest fragment of bone is usually identifiable.
Franz Kafka’s grave is also located in Zizkov cemetery.
He was a famous Jewish writer (1993-1024) who created stories
of conflict for isolated, guild-ridden protagonists—conflicts
that could not be resolved or escaped, no mater their personal
effort. Some of his words: “The first sign of the beginning
of understanding is the wish to die.” “To die would
mean nothing else than to surrender a nothing to the nothing,
but that would be impossible to conceive, for how could a person,
even only as a nothing, consciously surrender himself to the
nothing and not merely to an empty nothing but rather to a
roaring nothing whose nothingness consists only in its incomprehensibility.” Ironically,
his executor ignored instructions to destroy all his work,
and subsequently published his novels and short stories. Perhaps
his grave had a velvet lining?
Another important burial site is St. Vitus Cathedral which is
the resting place of Good King Wenceslas of the Christmas carol,
which has become something of a pilgrimage site. Most of the
velvet-clad Kings and Queens of Bohemia have their final place
of rest here as well and the Coronation Chamber houses the Bohemian
Crown Jewels. St. Vitus’ southern entrance, the Golden
Gate, is decorated with a richly gilded colored mosaic representing
the Last Judgment, dated from 1370, one of the artistic treasures
found in the castle district.
important castle is Cesky Sternberg, an ancient and picturesque
medieval castle perched on a hill overlooking a scenic Bohemian
river valley in Central Bohemia.
(Praha) is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic.
Situated on the Vitava River in central Bohemia, it is home
to approximately 12 million people. Nicknames for Prague include “City
of a hundred (thousand) spires,” “The Golden City,” Paris
of the Twenties in the Nineties”; the “Mother of
All Cities” and “The Heart of Europe.” Prague
has been included in the UNESCO list of world heritage sites.
Founded in the latter part of the 9th century, Prague soon
became the seat of the kinds of Bohemia, wome of whom also
reigned as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire in later times.
During the 14th century reign of Charles VI, the city flowered,
producing the New City, the Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral,
the oldest gothic cathedral in central Europe, which is actually
in a castle, and the Charles University, oldest university
in central Europe north of the Alps. Other landmarks include
the Lennon Wall, the Astronomical Clock, National Theatre,
The Rudolfinum (home of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra),
opera houses, concert halls, galleries and music clubs. Prague
is the wealthiest city in Central and Eastern Europe and wealthier
than many in Western Europe, with a per-capital GDP of EUR
31,369, which is at 149% of the European Union average. Eight
universities and colleges.
art scene in the Czech Republic flourishes with Czech glass
art sculptures and installations world renowned. Vaclav Cigler,
Marian Karel, Vladimir Kopecky, Stanislav Libensky and Jeroslava
Brychtova are a few of the big names in this lovely art medium.
At this time at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New
York, Czech glass is being shown in a show called “Czech
Glass, 1945-1980: Design in an Age of Adversity,” the
largest glathering of postwar Czech glass ever seen in the
United States. The exhibition features a wide array of dazzling
objects, including tour de force sculptures, that shed light
on the innovations of Czech designers and artists who, working
in the wake of World War II and under Communist rule, invented
new ways of painting and creating sculptural forms in glass.
Speaking of art, in Sedlec, a small town about 70 kilometers
east of Prague is a church decorated with artworks made of human
bones. The story begins in 1218 when a certain abbot Henry made
a pilgrimage to the holy land and brought back a jar full of
soil, which he spread over the church’s cemetery. As a
result, the cemetery came to be regarded as sacred and turned
into a popular burial spot. By 1318, more than 30,000 bodies
were buried there and by 1511, it had become necessary to remove
the older bones to make place for the new ones. These later became
the material for the macabre creations. In 1870 a local woodcarver
was hired by the Duke of Shwartzenberg to decorate the inside
of the church with the human remains (approximately 40,000 sets
of bones), including wall and ceiling coverings, a bone chandelier,
a bone chalice, and the Coat of Arms of the Shwartzenberg family.
in conclusion, it seems that the simple act of picking up some
soil and bringing it to another country can have unimagined
consequences. We here at Common Ground 191 are visualizing
unimaginable consequences in the simple acts of picking up
soil and shipping it to our studios here in Laguna Beach, California—quiet,
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