Land of Velvet and Bones

By Jheri St. James

     When 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.

     Our 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 Žižkov (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.

     Another important castle is Cesky Sternberg, an ancient and picturesque medieval castle perched on a hill overlooking a scenic Bohemian river valley in Central Bohemia.

     Prague (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.

     The 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.

     So, 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, velvety peace.

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