Once upon a time Prague was obsessed with alchemy and the search for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone.
Alchemy has evolved over time into the science we know as chemistry. But in its infancy, alchemists were seeking an unknown substance they termed the Philosopher’s Stone. This mysterious material would not only transform base metals into gold but it would be an elixir for life, granting immortality, eternal youth and a cure for all diseases. Who would want anything less? ?
In the 15th and 16th centuries, alchemists, hermeticists and occultists were being persecuted elsewhere in Europe but were welcomed in Prague. When King Rudolf II of Bohemia became Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II from 1576–1612, Prague prospered. Emperor Rudolf’s life’s mission was to find the Philosopher’s Stone so he filled his court with as many alchemists as he could find. During this period in history, alchemy was considered a respected science so Rudolf II built and paid for large labs in which his alchemists could work for him at the castle. The Emperor himself spent time in the labs working on experiments.
Delving into this rich and cryptic history when science and mysticism were closely linked was both fascinating and entertaining. There is a Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague where you can see one of the most famous alchemists of Rudolphine times, master Edward Kelley, an Englishman, with his alchemist’s lab, tools, artifacts and manuscripts and learn more of the art and science of alchemy. There is a second museum, the Museum of Alchemy, Speculum Alchemiae. This newly opened preserved medieval alchemical lab was recently discovered in one of Prague’s oldest buildings during renovations and in now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lawrence Principe is said to be one of the foremost scholars of alchemy in the world today. He earned his first PhD in chemistry and his second in the history of science. His book The Secrets of Alchemy, published in 2012, is a book we have added to our reading list.
Streets like Celetna were part of the Royal Route that took visitors to Prague castle, where a number of symbolic ties to the city’s alchemical history can be spotted on houses. Alchemists stayed at the House at the Stone Lamb while waiting to hear word from Emperor Rudolf II and the main door here is loaded with symbolism for the Alchemist. We spotted the beautiful ‘black Madonna’ symbolized as the first phase of the alchemical process. Then we found the symbol called ‘the Black Sun’. The yellow sun is traditionally associated with gold, whereas the black sun is a nod to the base metal in its un-worked state. We saw the symbol ‘the White Peacock’ and the white peacock’s tail is a symbol representing the second phase of alchemy.
The Powder Tower or Powder Gate
This Gothic tower in Prague is one of the original 13 city gates. It was built in 1475 and was meant to be an attractive entrance more than defensive tower. Mihulka Tower was once the threshold of the alchemical pathway and Emperor Rudolf II used the tower as both a dungeon and a workplace for his alchemists.
In the 17th century gunpowder was stored in the tower forever changing its name to the Powder Tower. Today the tower is still nearly black from last centuries coal burning pollution and yet to be cleaned.
National Gallery – Impressionism
The National Gallery is easy to find. It is inside Kinsky Palace on the Old Town Square. We were incredibly lucky to view a large temporary exhibit, being shown in Central Europe for the very first time, called French Impressionism: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection.
Some of our favorite paintings were by Camille Pissarro in this show and we also enjoyed beautiful paintings by Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Berthe Morisot, Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Courbet, Alfred Sisley, Édouard Manet and Paul Gauguin. It really was a great find to be able to see such a large group of work by the French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
The Central Gallery was sensational! One gallery with three great artists. Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol and Alfons Mucha. Simple really but we loved that there were only three artists. The permanent exhibitions are on three floors with one artist’s artwork per floor.
There is something about Dali’s unconventional style we find very appealing. This permanent exhibition contained numbers of etchings, paintings and drawings, many we had not seen before. We thought his collection of horses were especially good. Dali’s elephants with the long thin legs and his melting watches are also always interesting to gaze at. One new piece of information we learned was that Dali and his partner Gala, lived in the US between 1940-1948.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987) was born Andrew Warhola. His parents emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1921. This exhibition had Warhol’s famous graphic art portraits of Marilyn Monroe and the popular Campbell soup cans. There was an amazing cover photo of Cyndi Lauper and Liza Minnelli from his Interview Magazine. We enjoyed the ten screen-prints of the youthful bad-boy Mick Jagger; iconic 1970’s pop art.
Alphonse Mucha was born in Bohemia in 1860 (before Bohemia became Czechoslovakia) and died after a German interrogation in 1939. His art is best known for his graceful women with their long, softly flowing hair, wearing pastel and light colors surrounded by decorative details and, of course, his partnership and collaboration with Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) the famous french stage actress.
Mucha’s had received some recognition for illustrating a book of fairy tales and illustrations he did for La Vie Parisienne and Le Monde Illustré magazines. But it was a random telephone call in 1894 that would launch his name and career. Mucha’s employer at the time, received a phone call from the manager of the Thé’tre de Renaissance, asking whether anyone was available to design a poster of Sarah Bernhardt and her upcoming play, Gismonda. Most of the senior skilled draftsmen were away for the entire holidays, so Mucha was asked if would try his hand at designing a poster.
His first poster for her, Gismonda, made him famous. Sarah Bernhardt immediately offered Mucha a contract to produce stage and costume designs as well as posters and he worked with her for many years.
Some of his most famous posters, the four seasons, Monaco Monte-Carlo, Princess Hyacinth, and others were in this beautiful collection at the museum.
Located next to the Powder Gate in the center of the city, Municipal House is a magnificent civic building and really a Museum in its own right. Of the many majestic rooms inside Municipal House, Smetana Hall is one of Prague’s eminent concert venues and ballrooms.
Construction began on Municipal House in 1905, the height of the Art Nouveau architecture style and the beginnings of the wonderful Art Deco movement. Both art forms are beautifully represented in the many multipurpose rooms. Many of the rooms in the building are closed to the public, open only for guided tours and we encourage anyone to take a tour. Our favorite Czech artist, Alphonse Mucha decorated one entire room.
We had not come across the term sgraffito before our time spent in Prague. Basically, it is when you have two layers of contrasting colors of plaster or stucco, one on top of the other and then you ‘scratch’ a design through the top layer to reveal the contrasting color beneath. We saw some truly magnificent sgraffito drawings, designs and patterns on buildings and castles throughout Prague. This style of art makes such an interesting contrast for our eyes to rest upon and we have not seen it anywhere else on our journey.
Prague is full of both art and alchemic history. We have taken more photos in this city than any other city we have visited. There is just so much we wanted to capture and remember.
Na zdraví from these Prazan,
Ted and Julia