We have now reached the eighth in the series of twenty paintings by Alphonse Mucha in his Slav Epic cycle. This monumental painting (8.1 x 6.1 metres), which he completed in 1916, was entitled Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel: Truth Prevails. Jan Hus was another outspoken clergyman who criticized the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. His Czech-language sermons inside the nondescript Bethlehem Chapel in Prague’s Old Town electrified congregations. In 1415, after clashing repeatedly with church leaders, he was charged with heresy and burned at the stake.
Jan Hus, sometimes anglicized as John Hus or John Huss, born in 1374, was, like Jan Milíč of Kroměříž, the subject of the previous work, one of the most influential clergymen of the Czech Reformation and one who rejected the Catholic Church’s excesses and argued that the Bible was the only true source of God’s word. In 1414 he was summoned before the Council of Constance, to defend his teaching. He came to the Council with a safe pass issued by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, and yet the Council declared him a heretic for his teachings and he was burned at the stake the following year. People were outraged by his execution and it provoked a rebellion among Czech nationalists which culminated in the Hussite Wars fought between the Christian Hussites, the followers of Jan Hus, and the combined Christian Catholic forces of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, the Papacy, European monarchs loyal to the Catholic Church, as well as various Hussite factions.
The setting of the painting is the of the high Gothic interior of the Bethlehem Church with a reticulated vault on three rows of octagonal columns. The Bethlehem Chapel was founded in 1391 in Prague by the burgher Jan Kříž and the courtier Hanuš of Műhlheim, In the painting we see Jan Hus leaning out over the edge of the four-sided pulpit, fervently preaching to a spellbound audience in Prague’s Bethlehem Chapel in 1412. Another listener is the founder of Bethlehem Chapel, the tradesman Jan Kříž – an old man seated in the front left. Jan Žižka, the future military leader of the Hussites, stands near the wall with a fresco of St George and the Dragon, on the left while Queen Sophia, wife of King Váklav IV, sits listening intently with her ladies-in-waiting on either side.
The Meeting At Křížky is depicted in the ninth painting of the Slav Epic cycle. It is connected to the eighth painting as it is about the cruel execution of Jan Hus in July 1414, who was burnt at the stake for his condemnation of the excesses of the Catholic Church, which created widespread fury amongst his followers in Czech lands, so much so that an underground movement opposing papal authority swiftly built up. They were declared heretics by the Papacy and the Council of Constance ordered that they be removed from their parishes. Charles University in Prague was also closed to ensure that their teaching ceased. Riots ensued and Hus’ followers began to gather in remote places outside the city walls in order to mount their rebellion. This painting by Mucha depicts one such secret gathering outside of Prague on September 30th 1419. To the right of the painting, standing aloft on a makeshift stage above a gathering of people, a preacher named Koranda, who is dressed in a brown cloak and who appeals to the crowd to take up arms against the Catholic Church. In the background we see that dark clouds blacken the landscape foretelling the bloody times and devastation that was to come. The Hussite Wars, as they were known, went on for twenty-one years with the peace treaty not being signed by the combatants until July 1436.
There are more battles featured in the tenth painting of the Slav Saga cycle. The painting is entitled After the Battle of Grunewald which Alphonse Mucha completed in 1924. Yet again the battle/war was brought on about ownership of land and religion, a recurring theme which still holds good today. The German Catholic military order of the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic religious order founded as a military order around 1192 in Acre, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, had settled in the Baltic area in the early 1400s with the intention spread the word of Christianity among the pagan tribes in the region, and to Poland and Lithuania beyond. However, the people of these lands did not want to hear the message and tried to defend their lands from Catholic colonisation. The Slavs, the Poles, led by King Władysław II and the Lithuanians, led by Grand Duke Vytautas, decided to fight this colonisation and Christianisation together and the they signed a treaty of intent. On July 15th 1410, these allied nations defeated the German-Prussian Teutonic Knights in a fierce battle at Grunewald in Poland, most of whom were killed or taken prisoner. Mucha chose to depict the scene of the battle the following morning. The Polish king Wladyslaw stands, shell-shocked, in the middle of the body-strewn battlefield and covers his face in horror. His country may be free, but this freedom has come at a terrible cost.
The eleventh painting in the Slav Epic cycle, After the Battle of Vítkov, which Mucha completed in 1916, is once again focused on war and death on the battleground. The fact that it was painted during the First World War was probably Mucha’s own observation of the horrors of war and the bloody fighting in the trenches. Once again, it is all about Jan Huss, his execution in 1415 and the subsequent rise of the Hussites. King Wenceslas IV was the ruler of Bohemia from 1363 and was ruling at the time of Hus’ execution. He died in August 1419 and was succeeded by his brother Sigismund, King of Hungary. However, the Czech people, who held him accountable for the death of Jean Hus, refused to accept his claim to the throne. However, Sigismund had the powerful backing of the Catholic Church and the German army. Feeling all-powerful, Sigismund launched a crusade against the Hussite movement and succeeded in occupying Prague Castle where he was crowned king. The following year, the Hussites and Sigismund fought at Vítkov Hill on the outskirts of Prague. The Hussites were led by their military leader Jan Žižka, and together with the army of Hussite and they succeeded in defeating Sigismund and his men, forcing them to retreat which led to Sigismund’s abdication. Mucha’s depiction of the battle is a melodramatic one which portrays the solemn mass given by the priest that led the Czech soldiers from Prague. The priest holds up high, a receptacle in which the consecrated Host is exposed for adoration, known as a monstrance. He is surrounded by clergy who lie in supplication on the ground at the sight of the monstrance. In the beautifully depicted background, we see that the rising sun is piercing the clouds and generating an almost celestial spotlight on the figure of Jan Žižka, the victorious leader, who we see standing to the right of the composition. Lying on the ground of the battlefield we see the abandoned weapons of the conquered army. Look at the left foreground and you will see a mother nursing her child. She has turned her back on the religious celebration. Maybe she has a foreboding that her fellow countryfolk will suffer further bloodshed as the Hussite Wars continue. Little does she know the wars will last for another seventeen years.
The Slav Epic cycle No.12: Petr of Chelčice was completed by Mucha in 1918 and instead of this work depicting the brutality of war it tends to focus on the tragic results of war. In the case of Chelčický, Mucha was mainly intrigued by the radical political thinker’s uncompromising pacifism and principled rejection of any kind of physical conflict. It could well be that Alfonse Mucha wanted, through his paintings, to remind the world of the doctrine of pacifism and the teachings and principles of the Unity of the Brethren, also known as the Evangelical Unity of the Bohemian and Moravian Brethren. The Hussite movement was made up of several parts, one of which became known as the Unity of the Brethren. The roots of this radical and pacifistic branch within the early Hussite movement go back to its ideological father Petr Chelčický. Petr of Chelčice was a pacifist who came from Bohemia who was passionately opposed to any form of war and military action in the name of religion. Alphonse Mucha supported the beliefs of Chelčice’s and chose to depict the more sinister side of the Hussite Wars through his Slav Epic paintings and as is the case in this work, he concentrated, not on the glory of battle, but on the effect of war on the lives of innocent victims.
The painting is a story about the attack on the village of Vodňany (now in the southern Czech Republic) in 1420, by the Tabor army. The Taborites were a radical Hussite faction within the Hussite movement led by Jan Žižka. The village was then plundered and burned down. forcing the inhabitants to flee their homes, taking the bodies of the injured and dead to the nearby town of Chelčice. In the painting we see these grief-stricken and angry gathered around the bodies of their loved ones along with the few possessions that they have managed to bring with them. Petr Chelčicky, who stands at the centre of the composition with a Bible under his right arm, offers comfort to the victims and implores them not to give in to vengeance. In the background the sky is dark and smoke can be seen from the burning houses of the village of Vodňany
After almost thirty years of war between the papal armies and the Hussites, the Papacy of Rome was forced to acknowledge the strength and determination of the Hussites and officially recognise the beliefs of the Utraquist Church in a treaty called the Basel Compacts. In the city of Jihlava, on July 5th 1436, the Compacts of Basel came into being. It was an agreement between the Council of Basel and the Utraquists, the moderate Hussites, which was ratified by the Estates of Bohemia and Moravia on 5 July 1436. The agreement authorized Hussite priests to administer the sacramental wine to laymen during the Eucharist. The Slav Epic’ cycle No.13: The Hussite King Jiří z Podĕbrad which Mucha completed in 1923 is all about the election in 1458 in Bohemia of its first native Czech king in around 150 years. He was Jiří z Podĕbrad, who proved to be an extremely popular ruler. In 1462, King Jiří sent a delegation to Rome to confirm his election and the religious privileges that had been granted to the Utraquist Church in the Basel Compacts. Not only did Pope Pius II refuse to recognise the treaty; he sent one of his cardinals back to Prague to order Jiří z Podĕbrad to ban the Utraquist Church and return the kingdom of Bohemia back to the rule of Rome.
In this painting, Mucha depicts the Prague visit of Cardinal Fantin’s to the royal court and his subsequent clash with King Jiři. Cardinal Fantin stands arrogantly in red robes as the king kicks over his throne in anger and defiance. His refusal to acknowledge the papal authority is met by awe and astonishment among the members of his court. In the right foreground we see a young boy looking out at us. He has slammed shuts a book entitled Roma, symbolising the period of cooperation with Rome had come to an end.
For Alphonse Mucha’s No.14 in his Slav Epic’ cycle, entitled The Defence of Sziget by Nikola Zrinski we have move forward a century in Slavic history, to the year 1566. It was the year that the Turkish army advanced upon the city of Sziget in southern Hungary. Their aim was simple. They wanted to expand the Ottoman Empire eastwards. Under the leadership of the Croatian nobleman Nikola Zrinski, the inhabitants of Sziget and the surrounding area gathered within the city walls and closed the gates. They held the city walls for nineteen days until the Turkish soldiers finally broke down the fortifications. Zrinski refused to surrender to the Turks and tried to force their way out of the besieged city but despite his courageous efforts to push his he and his men were killed in a ferocious assault. When Zrinski’s wife Eva saw that the Turks had taken the city, she decided to set fire to the city walls, killing countless soldiers and for a time halting the Turks’ advance into Central Europe. The painting by Mucha depicts the actions of Eva to sacrifice the city and many of its inhabitants in order to protect her country from the Turks. A column of black smoke bellows up from the spot where she has thrown a burning torch. To the left of the column, the men prepare for the final assault while, to the right, the women attempt to hide from the Turks.
…………………………………….to be concluded