A replica of a controversial 17th century Marian column was re-erected on Prague’s Old Town Square on Thursday, more than a century after the original was torn down by an angry mob. Its restoration has highlighted the history of the first Baroque statue in the Czech lands and the years of controversy surrounding it.
It was a historic moment for many Prague inhabitants as the 15-metre-tall column with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary and four allegorical figures of angels – a perfect copy of the sandstone original – once again rose in all its glory on Prague’s Old Town Square. Sculptor Petr Váňa, who worked on the statue for 20 years and fought a fierce battle with the authorities to be allowed to reinstall it, told Czech Radio it was an unforgettable moment.
It is not often that a historic artefact arouses controversy in a city that reveres its historic legacy; but the Marian column is one such example. It was erected in 1650 as an expression of gratitude for the salvation of Prague from the Swedish army at the close of the Thirty Years’ War. But it also acquired a different symbolism – for many ordinary Czechs, it represented the enforced re-Catholisation by Austria's Habsburg rulers of a country that venerated the religious reformer Jan Hus. Days after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia it was torn down by an angry mob.
In 1989, shortly after the fall of communism, local Catholics and history enthusiasts set up the Association for the Renewal of the Marian Column. But even 80 years after its destruction emotions surrounding the statue had not entirely subsided. Its proponents faced numerous obstacles and legal hurdles in their efforts to bring it back. Although work on a replica of the column started in 2002, as late as last year Prague City Hall councillors rejected its instalment and people were asked to sign petitions for it to be brought back.
And the debate was not merely academic – there were scuffles and skirmishes between supporters and opponents on Old Town Square as the dispute over the column raged on –with politicians, religious figures and ordinary people getting involved.
Last summer, the Archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Dominik Duka hit out at Prague’s mayor, Zdeněk Hřib, after the latter compared efforts to return the Marian column to the city’s Old Town Square to recreating a huge statue of Stalin that stood on Letná Plain.
On the day of its return, the Marian column had quite an audience. And Cardinal Duka himself came to view the replica and appeal for an end to the disputes surrounding it.
“We have a new symbol here. Let us forget the past and think about the present. We must all strive to live together in an atmosphere of goodwill and mutual respect.”