Often, art is used to represent something. It is used as a medium to express emotion, pride, or particular message. As such, I understand national art, especially those displayed in public, to represent a certain national pride or emotion. One particular work of art that continues to baffle me is the largely placed statue of Jan Hus by Ladislav Šaloun in the center of the Old Town Square in Prague.
Before we continue, I feel that it may be important to introduce who this character, Jan Hus, is. Born in 1369, Jan Hus was a theologian, priest, philosopher, master, and rector of an educational institution. He is widely known as the first Church reformer as he argued against the Roman Catholic church and sought ecclesiastical reform. He was consequently executed for his rebellious tendencies and instigated the Hussite Wars.
One may find my confusion in the importance of the Hus statue in the Czech context puzzling, but there is a clear reason as to why I feel this way. The statue is blatantly one commemorating a deeply religious figure, and believe it or not, the Czech Republic is the second most atheist nation in Europe. To have a religious figure in the center of the Old Town Square in a strongly atheist nation is extremely baffling to me. What was the rational and thought process behind building such a statue? The art is used to commemorate the figure, but why?
One possible explanation to the phenomenon is Hus’ contribution to the Czech language. In order to represent each sounds by single vowels, Hus added diacritics such as the “hook” and “dot” above certain letters and combinations. Language is important to the inherent culture and pride of a nation. Perhaps it was sufficient for Hus to have contributed to the language for him to be forever commemorated at the middle the Old Town Square.
Another possible explanation may be provided by a more contemporary understanding of the Czech Republic. Dissidence and revolution is a central theme in contemporary Czech history. Following the Soviet Invasion and Communist oppression, the Czechs were able to free themselves through the non-violent Velvet Revolution. As such, the Czech have found great pride and solidarity in their identity as dissidents. Jan Hus draws great sympathy from these Czechs as he is also identified as a great symbol of dissidence against oppressive regimes. His opposition to the Vatican church stood as a model for these Czechs to organize in the way that they did. Although not necessarily successful, his reputation as one of the Czech’s first and greatest revolutionaries still resonates throughout the Czech Republic.
I think one of the most beautiful and interesting aspects of art is that the meaning of an art piece can often be interpreted in different ways based on context, understanding, and social context. Unlike math or science, where there is always a definite answer of sorts, art allows the audience to provide their own understanding and connect with the artist in a form beyond words or form. The statute of Jan Hus is the same. Although not explicitly mentioned, it emanates a nationalistic pride and emotion to all Czechs, providing hope and empowerment to all.