Although I have been to several art museums in Prague and have learned about important local artists such as Nouveau painter and decorative artist Alphonse Mucha; and painter and graphic artist, František Kupka, I will approach this post a little differently. Instead of thinking of “art and place,” I am thinking about “place as art” or “art as place.”
I am taking a course this semester called “Religion, Politics and Culture.” Coincidentally, my professor’s surname is also Mucha. I have certainly learned a great deal in class, especially because we go on small excursions every session (the class is once/week and lasts three hours) in order to physically see the theories we discuss. We recently learned about two religious artistic phenomena: Gothic style and Baroque style; we covered Renaissance style only briefly. The Renaissance followed the Protestant Reformation and it was a return to the classics, and a focus on humanism. It set the tone for modern secularism.
Gothic style developed in the High Middle Ages when Christianity dominated all levels of society. At that time, everything was unified under the omnipotence of God. Gothic style was a product of religious fervor, and is best manifested in cathedrals. Cathedrals were “heaven on Earth” and reflected upmost spirituality. A cathedral’s height demonstrated God’s majestic transcendency. Its pointed arches and pillars pointed towards heaven while the stained glass windows were thin and large to allow for the illumination of God’s light. In short, gothic style was meant to inspire worshippers to contemplate God’s greatness.
In the Modern Era (around the 17th century), the Catholic Church developed Baroque style as a response to the Protestant Reformation. Baroque was a religious advertising campaign based in art that combatted Protestant criticism about the Church, and celebrated the Church itself—not necessarily God. Baroque was not only also exemplified in dramatic and grand architecture, it was manifested in literature, paintings, sculptures (Michelangelo), and music (Mozart and Bach). Baroque style concentrated on the Church community and gave art strong religious/ecclesiastical characteristics. Thus, Gothic style was religious art, whereas Baroque style was art with religious undertones.
Prague is filled with gothic cathedrals and baroque churches. Old Town Square is enclosed by a gothic cathedral and a baroque church. In fact, the city of Prague was very active in the Baroque movement. All of this is quite interesting in the present, given that the Czech Republic is actually one of the most radically secular countries in all of Europe. Most Czechs are atheist, agnostic or simply apathetic as a result of the harsh consequences of the Thirty Years War. In the Thirty Years War, different political fractions misused religion to the extent that when the war was over, Bohemia lost a lot of its land and population.
So what does this all mean for place as art or art as place? Well, it is easy to take religious houses of worship for granted—as expected, permanent places in European cities. Rarely do we ever step into a church and analyze its art or history. Prior to my class, I was not able to differentiate between a gothic cathedral and a baroque church. I would not have been able to appreciate their existence in Prague without knowing that to a degree, they are representative of a tumultuous, painful history. Nevertheless, the architects of a church purposely made their church a work of art. Thus, churches demonstrate the fact that places can be art; and that art can be a physical place as opposed to only a painting on a wall. We do not have to be religious to recognize that stepping into a church is like stepping into a masterpiece. In a city as secular as Prague, we can perhaps confidently say that the religious projects of church architects have met their expiration date, but the artistic projects are eternal.
As de Botton says on page 205, “our capacity to appreciate can be transferred from art to the world.” When we can appreciate the artistic beauty of a house of worship irrespective of our religiosity, we can better appreciate the world around us because we gain a deeper understanding of its history and culture. Who would have thought that I would learn so much about Prague from just stepping into a church here and there?