11 June 2021

‘You are robed in glory and majesty,
wrapping yourself in light as in a garment’

Figurines bought in the Jewish Quarters of Kazimierz in Kraków and Josefov in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Kraków, I bought a number of figures in Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz: one from a stall outside the Remah Synagogue shows a Jewish man with a broad black hat, a tallit or prayer shawl on his shoulders and holding a Bible marked with a large Star of David; the other, bought in a shop selling Judaica, depicts a man with his tallit covering his head, holding the Torah scrolls on his shoulder.

They now stand on a bookshelf in the Rectory in Askeaton, beside a figurine of the Golem, bought in Josefov, the old Jewish Quarter in Prague, and a glass figure of a rabbi bought in a Jewish artist’s shop in Murano.

The figurines in Kraków come in various sizes and shapes, playing Klezmer music, generally wearing broad black hats and long black coats, with long beards.

At the time, I jested that I never knew I had so many lookalikes. But, occasionally, some of the figures were disturbing, presenting stylised images that seemed to draw on stereotypical images used in anti-Semitic portrayals of ghetto Jews in central Europe: large or crooked noses, grabbing hold of coins or money bags, leering grins and grimaces.

I have held on to my two figurines: they remind me of Jewish piety, devotion and prayerfulness, they remind me of that visit to Kraków and Auschwitz, and they remind me to keep speaking out about the Holocaust, racism and anti-Semitism.

The World Jewish Congress published a disturbing report this week on the alarming rise in anti-Semitism around the world in the month of May alone.

But this week the city of Kraków also announced measures to stop the sale of these figurines depicting Jews, often holding money, which are seen as good luck charms. The objects have long divided opinion, with some arguing they reinforce harmful stereotypes but others saying they are a harmless tradition.

‘These figures are antisemitic and it is time for us to realise that,’ Robert Piaskowski, the mayor’s representative for culture, told Gazeta Wyborcza. ‘In a city like Kraków, with such a difficult heritage and a painful past, they should not be sold.’

It is estimated that about a quarter of Kraków’s population was Jewish Before World War II. However, almost all the city’s Jews were murdered during the German occupation and in the Holocaust. Some managed to escape and others left after the war, amid a wave of anti-Jewish violence in Poland.

Robert Piaskowski says that the city’s official position was formed after consulting Jewish communities, various institutions, and businesses that sell the figures.

The figurines first emerged in the 19th century, but only in the 1990s began to include figures of Jews holding money. The figurines with the coins were first described in articles from 2000, with the authors saying the phenomenon is recent, and that the figurines probably date back to the period after the collapse of Communism in 1989.

Sometimes those figures are turned upside down by the owner to symbolically take the Jews’ money in the belief it will bring financial good fortune.

A group of almost 50 organisations and individuals representing Jewish groups, cultural and academic institutions, tourist bodies, and municipal offices published a joint letter earlier this week. They said the figurines have an ‘unequivocally anti-Semitic dimension.’ The images draw on a traditional antisemitic canard of the Jewish moneylender.

The authors of the joint letter say the city has received many letters of complaint from tourists indignant and upset by these objects in a city that ‘so painfully experienced the Holocaust and the loss of much of its population.’

The city cannot prohibit most businesses from selling the figurines. However, reports this week say contracts with tenants using city property – such as souvenir stalls on the market square – are to include clauses specifying that they cannot be sold.

The organisers of regular fairs in the city – where the figurines are often sold, especially at Easter – have already agreed to stop selling them.

Robert Piaskowski says that the main aim is to ‘start an important conversation about Polish-Jewish relations, about empathy and seeing [things] from another’s perspective.’

‘Only co-operation and dialogue will make it possible to change attitudes and withdraw from sale the offensive figurines,’ says the joint letter. The signatories add that they want to ‘promote and support traditional craftsmanship’ in other ways.

Many private retailers have already decided to stop selling these images. OBI, a German retailer, removed images of the so-called ‘Jew with a coin’ from its outlets in Poland in 2019 after an online campaign. However, some argue that the tradition shows a kind of nostalgia for Jews.

I am now questioning how appropriate it was to buy these figurines in Kraków, and whether I should keep them on my bookshelf.

Meanwhile, as I look at these figures in their tallitot, in my reflections this Friday evening I am reflecting too on a traditional Jewish prayer, based on Psalm 104: 1-2, said before saying the blessing on donning the prayer shawl or tallit:

Bless, O Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, how great you are.
You are robed in glory and majesty,
wrapping yourself in light as in a garment,
spreading forth the heavens like a curtain.

After saying the blessing and donning the tallit, a traditional prayer, based on Psalm 36: 8-11, is said:

How precious is your loving kindness, O Lord!
The children find refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They shall be filled with the rich plenty of your house.
You give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light, we see light.
Bestow your loving kindness upon those who know you,
and your righteousness on the upright in heart.

Shabbat Shalom

Figurines in Kazimierz playing Klezmer music (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
13, Saint Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Prague Cathedral and Prague Castle stand above the River Vltava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

Today in the Calendar of the Church is the Feast of Saint Barnabas. This week my photographs are of cathedrals in European capitals or former capitals. This morning (11 June 2021), my photographs are from Saint Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague, the Czech capital.

Inside Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague … it took almost 600 years to complete its building programme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This spectacular cathedral in the grounds of Prague Castle has influenced Gothic architecture throughout Europe. It stands in a dominant position at the top of Hradcany Hill, and it is Prague’s most prominent landmark, with spires that can be seen from every vantage point throughout the city.

The cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Prague but is owned by the Czech government as part of the Prague Castle complex. It is the largest and most important church in the Czech Republic and here too are the tombs of King Wenceslas and many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors, as well as the Bohemian crown jewels.

The dimensions of the cathedral are 124 by 60 metres, the main tower is 102.8 metres high, the front towers 82 metres, and the arch height is 33.2 metres.

The current cathedral took almost 600 years to build, and this is the third of a series of religious buildings on this site, all dedicated to Saint Vitus.

The first church on this site was an early Romanesque rotunda founded in 930 by Vaclav I, Duke of Bohemia – better known in the west through the popular Victorian carol as ‘Good King Wenceslas.’

Saint Vitus, a Roman martyr was chosen as the patron when Wenceslas acquired the arm of the saint as a relic from Emperor Henry I.

When the Bishopric of Prague was founded in 1060, Prince Spytihněv II began building a larger Romanesque basilica on the site. This was a triple-aisled basilica with two choirs and a pair of towers connected to the western transept. The design was inspired by Romanesque architecture in the Holy Roman Empire, including the abbey church in Hildesheim and Speyer Cathedral.

The south apse of the older church was incorporated into the eastern transept because it included the tomb of Saint Wenceslaus, who had become the patron of the Czech princes.

Work on building the present Gothic cathedral began on 21 November 1344, when the Bishops of Prague were raised to the rank of archbishops.

King John of Bohemia laid the foundation stone for the new building. The patrons were the dean and chapter of cathedral, Archbishop Arnost of Pardubice and King Charles IV of Bohemia, soon to become the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles IV envisioned the new cathedral as a coronation church, family crypt, treasury and the tomb of Saint Wenceslas.

The first master builder was Matthias of Arras, who was brought from the Papal Palace in Avignon. Matthias designed the overall layout of the building in the style of a French Gothic cathedral. This included a triple-nave basilica with flying buttresses, a short transept, a five-bayed choir and a five-sided apse with an ambulatory and radiating chapels.

However, Matthias lived only long enough to build the most easterly parts of the choir: the arcades and the ambulatory. The slender vertical lines of late French Gothic style and clear proportions indicate his work.

After Matthias died in 1352, 23-year-old Peter Parler assumed control of the cathedral workshop as master builder.

At first, Parler only worked on plans left by Matthias, building the sacristy on the north side of the choir and the chapel on the south. But once he had finished all that Matthias left unfinished, Parler continued with his own innovative ideas, with a unique new synthesis of Gothic elements seen in the vaults he designed for the choir.

Parler trained as a sculptor and woodcarver, and he approached architecture as a sculpture. His vaults have double diagonal ribs that span the width of the choir-bay. The crossing pairs of ribs create a net-like construction that considerably strengthens the vault. They also give a lively ornamentation to the ceiling, as the interlocking vaulted bays create a dynamic zig-zag pattern the length of the cathedral.

His pillars have classic, bell-shaped columns, and he designed the dome vault of the new Saint Wenceslaus chapel, the clerestory walls, the original window tracery and the blind tracery panels of the buttresses.

His influence is also seen in the corbels, the passageway lintels, and the busts on the triforium, depicting faces of the royal family, saints, Bishops of Prague, and the two master builders, Matthias and Parler.

However, work on the cathedral proceeded slowly because the Emperor wanted Parler to work on other projects, including the new Charles Bridge in Prague and many churches. When Peter Parler died in 1399, only the choir and parts of the transept were finished.

Parler’s sons, Wenzel and Johannes Parler, continued his work, and they in turn were succeeded by a Master Petrilk. Under these three masters, the transept and the great tower on its south side were finished, as well as the gable that connects the tower with the south transept. Known as the ‘Golden Gate’ because of its golden mosaic of the Last Judgment depicted on it, the kings entered the cathedral through this door for their coronations.

The Hussite Wars put a stop to building work in the first half of 15th century. The workshops closed, and the cathedral furnishings, pictures and sculptures were damaged. A century later, a great fire heavily damaged the cathedral in 1541.

Several attempts to resume work on the cathedral were unsuccessful. Later attempts only brought some Renaissance and Baroque elements into the Gothic building, including the baroque spire of the south tower and the great organ in the north wing of the transept.

At a conference of German architects in Prague in 1844, Václav Pešina, a canon of the cathedral, and the architect Josef Kranner presented a programme to renovate and complete the cathedral, and a society was formed to promote the completion of the cathedral.

Josef Kranner headed the restoration work in 1861-1866 which consisted mostly of repairs, removing many baroque decorations and restoring the interior.

The foundations of the new nave were laid in 1870, and in 1873, after Kramer’s death, the work passed to the architect Josef Mocker, who designed the west façade in a classic Gothic manner with two towers.

After Mocker’s death, Kamil Hilbert became the third and final architect of the cathedral restoration.

The sculptor Vojtěch Sucharda worked on the façade in the 1920s, and the Czech Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha decorated the new windows in the north nave. Frantisek Kysela designed the Rose Window (1925-1927) that depicts scenes in the creation story.

Saint Vitus Cathedral was finally finished in 1929, in time for the Saint Wenceslas celebrations and almost six centuries – 585 years – after it began.

Although the entire west half of cathedral is a neo-Gothic addition, much of the design and elements developed by Peter Parler were used in the restoration, giving the cathedral a harmonious, unified appearance as a whole.

The cathedral has influenced the development of Late Gothic architecture throughout Central Europe, including the Stephansdom cathedral in Vienna, Strasbourg Cathedral, Saint Marko’s Church in Zagreb and Saint Barbara’s Church in Kutna Hora.

Regional Gothic styles in Slovenia, northern Croatia, Austria, the Czech Republic and southern Germany were all heavily influenced by Parler’s design, especially his net vaults.

Did Parler’s work on Saint Vitus Cathedral, with the ingenuity and ornamentation in his design of the vaults, influence the Perpendicular Style of English Gothic at the end of 14th century, or was it the other way around?

Saint Wenceslas Chapel is not open to the public but can be viewed from the doorways. A small door with seven locks leads from a corner of the chapel to the Crown Chamber containing the Czech Crown Jewels, displayed to the public only once every eight years or so.

Visitors also have their attention drawn to the spires, the gargoyles, the stained-glass windows. But close by are many other church buildings, including the Archbishop’s Palace, the Church of the Holy Spirit and the Basilica of Saint George, the best-preserved Romanesque church in Prague. It dates from 973, and the rust red façade is a 17th century baroque addition.

A government decree in 1954 entrusted Prague Castle to ‘all Czechoslovak people’ and to the administration of the President’s Office.

Today, the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Vitus, Saint Wenceslaus and Saint Adalbert is the Roman Catholic cathedral of Prague and the seat of the Archbishop of Prague.

Until 1997, the cathedral was dedicated only to Saint Vitus, and it is still known popularly only as Saint Vitus Cathedral. In 1997, on 1000th anniversary of the death of Saint Voitechus, the church was re-dedicated to Saint Wenceslas and Saint Adalbert.

The Roman Catholic Church has filed several petitions on the ownership of the cathedral. In 2006, the President’s Office ceded the administration of the cathedral to the Metropolitan Chapter. But the courts have ruled that the cathedral is owned by the Czech Republic, although the chapter owns the interior furnishings.

Original Gothic work at the east end of the cathedral (Photograph; Patrick Comerford)

John 15: 12-17 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

The great west doors of Saint Vitus Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (11 June 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the life and work of Saint Barnabas, friend of the poor and missionary to Cyprus.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Last Judgment depicted on the ‘Golden Gate’ at the south side of the cathedral (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