20 April 2023

The Charles Bridge Crucifix
also tells the story of
antisemitism in Prague

The Crucifix on the Charles Bridge, Prague … the head of Christ is surrounded with verses from the ‘Kedushah’ – and has a backward letter aleph (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During our short stay in Prague last week, we crossed the Charles Bridge many times each day and at night, between each side of city, admiring the Vltava River below, the site of Prague Castle and Cathedral above, the statues that line each side of the bridge.

The Charles Bridge one of the best known sights in the Czech capital, and we were staying only a few minutes walk away in the Charles Bridge Palace Hotel.

I returned last week to see the large Crucifix and Calvary scene which stands out among the many statues and sculptures of saints that line each side of the 15th-century bridge and that seem to be expressions of Catholic piety.

But all is not as it seems.

In all, there are 30 statues or collections of statues on the pedestrian bridge that connects the Old Town to Prague Castle. The statue of Saint John of Nepomuk is the first of the many Baroque statues on the bridge. They form two rows, one on each side of the bridge. Over the years, many statues have been damaged and many originals have been replaced by copies.

The Crucifix on the Charles Bridge, Prague, is part of a Calvary scene (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

However, the one truly cringe-worthy statue on the bridge is a Crucifix that is part of a Calvary scene. The head of Christ is surrounded by the Hebrew words Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, Adonai Tzva’ot (‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts’) from the Jewish prayer, the Kedushah. The inscription essentially appropriates Jewish liturgy to tell Jews they should worship Christ as God and in a not-too-subtle way seeks to blame Jews for the crucifixion of Christ.

The Crucifix and Calvary scene is one of the most historically interesting sculptures on the bridge, and it gained its present appearance gradually over many centuries.

The original wooden crucifix was installed soon after 1361 and was probably destroyed by the Hussites in 1419. A new crucifix with a wooden corpus was erected in 1629. but this was severely damaged by the Swedes near the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The remnants of this crucifix can be found in the National Museum in Prague.

The second crucifix was replaced by another wooden Calvary which, in turn, was replaced with a metal version in 1657. This crucifix, bought in Dresden, was originally made in 1629 by H Hillger, using a design by WE Brohn. Two lead figures were added in 1666, but these were replaced in 1861 by the present sandstone statues by Emanuel Max of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist.

The controversial part of this composition is the gold-plated lettering which Elias Backoffen, a Jewish community leader, was forced to pay for in 1696 as a punishment for an alleged blasphemy by a Jewish businessman.

As his punishment, Elias Backoffen was ordered to raise the funds to buy the gold-plated Hebrew letters that were placed around the head of the statue, spelling out ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, the Lord of Hosts,’ the Kedushah, the solemn Hebrew prayer incorporating verses from the Book of Isaiah, the Book of Ezekiel, and Psalm 146.

The Kedushah is traditionally the third section of all Amidah recitations. In the silent Amidah, it is a short prayer, but its public repetition is considerably lengthier and requires a minyan or quorum of ten Jewish men over the age of 13. The prayer incorporates three Biblical verses:

קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה' צְבָאוֹת מְלֹא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבוֹדוֹ

Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot M’lo Khol Ha’aretz K’vodo

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6: 3).

בָּרוּךְ כְּבוֹד ה' מִמְּקוֹמוֹ

Baruch K’vod Adonai Mim’komo

‘Blessed is the Glory of the Lord in Its Place’ (Ezekiel 3: 12).

יִמְלֹךְ ה' לְעוֹלָם. אֱלֹהַיִךְ צִיּוֹן לְדֹר וָדֹר. הַלְלוּיָהּ

Yimloch Adonai L’Olam, Elohayich Tziyon L’dor Vador Hall’luyah

‘The Lord will reign for ever, your God, O Zion, for all generations, Hallelujah’ (Psalms 146: 10).

All three of the verses are recited as part of the congregational response to the cantor. For the first verse (Isaiah 6: 3), it is traditional for everyone to rise to their toes with each recitation of the word קָדוֹשׁ (kadosh, ‘holy’). During the Kedushah of the Amidah, those taking part in the prayer are expected to stand.

Of course, these verses are also adapted liturgically by Christians in the Sanctus and Benedictus at the Eucharist. But this lettering above the Crucifix is pointedly in Hebrew, and so the city fathers of Prague were appropriating one of the most sacred texts in Judaism in a public effort to humiliate the city’s Jews with a reminder that they would be forced to look on each day as they crossed the bridge.

This has since become a prime example of late mediaeval European anti-Semitism and has long offended Jewish tourists in the city where the legendary mystic Rabbi Judah Loew created the fearsome Golem.

The letter א (aleph) in the word Tzva’ot is backwards, and tour guides once interpreted this as a secret signal to other Jews. In fact, the letter was removed by the Nazis during their occupation of Prague, and when the Czechs who restored the letters after the war made a mistake. In addition, the letter ו (vav) in Adonai seems to have gone missing.

The plaques in Czech, English and Hebrew below the Crucifixion scene on the Charles Bridge in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

In recent years, in a long overdue righting of a wrong, the city has added three bronze tablets under the statue, with explanatory texts in Czech, English and Hebrew. The tablets were installed after Rabbi Ronald Brown of Temple Beth Am in Merrick, New York, noted the possibly offensive intention of the text during a visit to Prague.

After three centuries of silently mocking Prague’s Jews, three small plaques – in Czech, English and Hebrew – were affixed on a wall below the crucifix on 8 March 2020.

The bronze plaques read: ‘The addition to the statue of the Hebrew inscription and the explanatory texts from 1696 is the result of improper court proceedings against Elias Backoffen, who was accused of debasing the Holy Cross. The addition of the Hebrew inscription of the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Holy, Holy, Holy is our Lord of the Multitude,” which represent a very important expression of faith in the Jewish tradition, was intended to humiliate the Jewish Community.’

It is signed ‘The City of Prague, 8 March 2000.’

The texts were the subject of negotiations. An early draft featured much stronger language and called the cavalry scene ‘a witness to the gross disparagement of the idea of holiness.’ It detailed the hostile trial of Elias Backoffen and said the inscription was ‘a result of violence and an attempt to humble a community that worshipped in a different way.’

The plaques were unveiled on 8 March 2000, with about 40 North American rabbis, the Mayor of Prague, Jan Kasl, and several Catholic leaders present. The date was chosen to mark a variety of Christian reconciliation projects advocated by Pope John Paul II and Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York.

Jan Kasl, who paid for the plaques himself, received critical letters from local neo-Nazis questioning the move. Some people at the unveiling hoped the plaques signalled improved relations between the city’s Christians and the small, struggling Jewish community in Prague.

‘This statue now becomes a monument of the horrors of antiemsitism and a great symbol of reconciliation,’ said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis.

Bishop Pavel Pilsner said the plaques do not mean a diminution of Christian devotion to Christ, but are an effort to ask forgiveness from the Jewish community for the offending inscription that ‘insulted and reduced the dignity of the Jewish community of Prague.’

The Charles Bridge is lined with 30 statues or collections of sculptures, and is one of the best-known sights in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (12) 20 April 2023

The new Church of Aghios Ioannis towers over the village of Piskopianó in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is the second week of Easter and Sunday (16 April 2023) was Easter Day in the calendar of the Orthodox Church.

Later this afternoon (20 April), the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is holding an online seminar, ‘Preaching for God’s World,’ asking how we include the environment in our preaching.

Before this day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. As this is Easter Week in the Orthodox Church, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on an Orthodox church in Crete;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The churches of Piskopianó:

I have been visiting Crete almost every year since the 1980s. My photographs this morning (20 April 2023) are from the modern Church of Aghios Ioannis (Saint John) in the village of Piskopianó, in the mountains above Hersonissos, and the older Church of Eisodia Theotokou (the Presentation of the Virgin Mary).

I first visited Piskopianó in 1994, I spent weeks on end there throughout the 1990s, and I have stayed there often since. Today, a new church towers over the stepped, narrow streets of Piskopianó.

Piskopianó is a parish within the Diocese of Petras and Cherronisou, and, for a short time, Piskopianó was the centre of a diocese. When Arab pirates started attacking Crete in the seventh century, many early Christian churches and basilicas were destroyed. At this time, Hersonissos was abandoned, and the see of the diocese was transferred to Piskopianó, and remained here until the ninth century, when the diocese was relocated to Pedialos.

The name of Piskopianó may hint at its earlier, historical, episcopal importance, or it may describe the village’s location looking out as a balcony over this stretch of the north coast of Crete.

The old basilica in Piskopianó was a three-aisled basilica built in the sixth century. It was 45 metres long and 20 metres wide, it had an interior arch that was 9.4 metres in diameter, and its floor was covered with marble.

While the Bishops of Cherronisou were seated in Piskopianó, they are mentioned in official documents from the eighth to the tenth centuries, and the Bishop of Cherronisou took part in the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 787 AD.

The diocese was relocated to Pediados in the tenth century, and in the 19th century it was seated in the Monastery of Agatathos.

Meanwhile, the Church of Eisodia Theotokou, a small single-nave, barrel vaulted church, was built in the 16th century, and has been renovated a few times since then. The iconostasis is woodcut, with gold encrusted leaves, and the icons on the iconostasis date from 1863. The marble in the sanctuary probably comes from the earlier Basilica of Pikcopianó, which has not been excavated yet.

The neighbouring large parish church, the Church of Aghios Ioannis, was built in 2009 and stands above the village with the mountains as a stunning backdrop. Two 19th century buildings between the old and the new church have been renovated and serve as the priest’s office and as a guesthouse. The parish priest is Father George Kokkiadis.

Inside the Church of Eisodia Theotokou in Piskopianó, built in the 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 3: 31-36 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 31 ‘The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. 33 Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified this, that God is true. 34 He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.’

Inside the Church of Aghios Ioannis in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme in this week’s prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘Safeguarding the Integrity of Creation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by USPG’s Regional Manager for East Asia, Oceania and Europe, Rebecca Boardman, who reflected on ways to get the climate justice conversation started, in the light of this week’s International Earth Day (22 April 2023).

The prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (20 April 2023) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for preachers, lay and ordained. May they be attentive to the needs of the world and have the courage to be prophets of our time.


Almighty Father,
you have given your only Son to die for our sins
and to rise again for our justification:
grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth;
through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Lord God our Father,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ
you have assured your children of eternal life
and in baptism have made us one with him:
deliver us from the death of sin
and raise us to new life in your love,
in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The earlier Church of Eisodia Theotokou in Piskopianó, with its Byzantine-style doorframe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org