My fifth and final blog about Alphonse Mucha’s looks at the last six monumental paintings in his Slav Epic cycle and I will talk about the current fate of all twenty of the works of art.
His fifteenth painting of the Slav Epic was entitled The Printing of the Bible of Kralice in Ivančice which he completed in 1914. The Bible of Kralice, also called the Kralice Bible, was the first complete translation of the Bible from the original languages into the Czech language. It was translated by the Unity of the Brethren and later printed in the town of Kralice nad Oslavou, a village in the Vysočina Region of the east-central Czech Republic. The first edition had six volumes and was published between 1579 and 1593. The Unity of the Brethren was formed in Bohemia in 1457 and were followers of the teachings of Jan Hus and Petr Chelčicky. The Brethren deemed that education was the key to true faith. The translating of the Bible into the Czech language occurred in the Bohemian town of Ivančice, which coincidentally was Alphonse Mucha’s birthplace. It had a two-fold importance. Firstly, it kept the Czech language alive and secondly, it brought the teaching of the holy book to those people whose mother tongue was Czech. In this painting, Mucha has depicted his hometown of Ivančice on a beautiful sunny autumn day. The Brethren are hard at work, gathering around the printing press to inspect the first printed pages.
Look to the couple of figures in the left foreground. One is a young student who is readings to an elderly blind man. The young man looks out at us with a grim expression. It could well be that his dour countenance is seemingly foretelling the forthcoming persecution of the Hussites and the Unity of the Brethren in the seventeenth century.
The persecution of the followers of Jan Hus and the Unity of the Brethren came about around 1619 when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II became King of Bohemia. Once in power, he set about reinstating the Roman Catholic Church in the predominantly Protestant region, prompting a revolt which culminated in 1620 with the Battle of White Mountain near Prague. Thirty thousand Bohemians defending religious liberty were crushed by King Ferdinand’s large and powerful imperial army of 25,000 soldiers. Twenty-seven noblemen involved in the insurrection were executed and Protestants were given the order to either convert to Catholicism within three days, or they must leave Bohemia. In Alphonse Mucha’s sixteenth painting in the Slav Epic cycle, entitled The Last days of Jan Amos Komenský [Comenius] in Naarden, which he completed in 1918, he has featured one of the country’s most celebrated religious exiles.
Komenský was one of the Bohemian Unity of the Brethren’s spiritual leaders. His belief was that education was the answer to true faith and his pioneering approach to teaching gained him a reputation throughout Europe, above all among his fellow exiles. Komenský spent the last years of his exile in the Dutch town of Naarden. He would spend his days walking along the coast, and when he was unable to walk any more, he asked friends to carry him in a chair down to the coast. In Mucha’s gloomy depiction we see Komenský slumped in his chair, facing the sea. It is all about loss. Loss of freedom, loss of his beloved Bohemia and he is well aware that death is imminent. Around him we see his followers, his fellow exiles who realise their leader will not be with them much longer. They just need to comfort each other at this sad time. The flickering light of their lamp offers them a vague hope that one day they will be allowed to return to their beloved homeland, Bohemia.
The Holy Mount Athos features in Alphonse Mucha’s seventeenth work in his Slav Epic cycle which he completed in 1926. Mount Athos has been inhabited since ancient times and is known for its long Christian presence and historical monastic traditions, which date back to at least AD 800 and the Byzantine era. It is a sacred, monastery-dotted peninsula in north-eastern Greece. From 1342 until 1372 Mount Athos was under Serbian administration. Mucha was moved by the temple’s spirituality when he visited the peninsula himself in 1924.
In this painting, we see depicted a crowd of Russian pilgrims paying homage in one of the peninsula’s temples. Floating above the weary pilgrims who have climbed the mountain are angels, some of whom are holding images of other Mount Athos monasteries in the nearby area. The pilgrims in the procession move in a semi-circle towards four high priests at the rear of the temple. In the hands of each of the priests is a relic which the pilgrims are allowed to touch. The darkness of the temple is lit up by a stream of light, which is filtering through the apse from the left, highlighting the figures of angels. On the ceiling of the temple, we see the figure of the Virgin Mary.
In the foreground, a young boy props up a blind old man. The pair have a striking resemblance to the two figures in the foreground of his 15th painting of the Cycle.
The eighteenth painting Alphonse Mucha’s Slav Epic’ cycle No.18: The Oath of Omladina under the Slavic Linden Tree which he completed in 1926 is all about the Omladina society, a Bohemian radical organisation. This Bohemian (Czech) nationalist youth organisation was created in the 1880s. The group was looked upon as being anti-Austrian and anti-clerical and was part of a fast-growing nationalistic revival that was being whipped up at the turn of the century. Gatherings became more violent and in December 1893. The Governor declared a proverbial martial law and, after a political murder on the 23rd of December, Omladina was connected to the murder of police informer Rudolf Mrva. With a carte blanche to prosecute, the government arrested 76 Omladina “conspirators” aged 17–22 and charged two working class Omladina members with the actual murder. The trial began on January 15, 1894 in a closed military tribunal and the leaders were arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to prison.
Alphonse Mucha chose to depict the group of youths in a less violent and confrontational way. We see them kneeling in a circle and holding hands as they pledge allegiance to the goddess Slavia. Slavia sits in a linden tree in the background symbolising divination. The young people are surrounded by members of patriotic and political organisations, and beyond them sit figures dressed in folk costume representing the Czech people. Look at the foreground and you will see a male and female figure sitting on either side of the wall. These figures are modelled by Mucha’s children, on the left, his daughter Jaroslava and on the right, his bare-chested son Jiří, in front of whom is his mother. The figure of Jaroslava is seen playing a lyre and Mucha uses this image of his daughter in his poster advertising 1928 exhibition at Prague’s Trade Fair.
It is strange to consider that the nineteenth painting in the Slav Epic, The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia is the most contemporary of Alphonse Mucha’s works and yet it was first of the twenty painting cycle that he completed, in 1914. Mucha, during his various visits to countries to collect information for his series of paintings, visited Russia in 1913 and to his horror, he found that the great Slavic nation of Russia, a nation he had so admired, was in fact overwhelmed with poverty and suffering and considerably less progressive than the countries in the rest of Europe. Tsar Alexander II had been crowned ruler in 1855 and set about trying to improve the conditions of all the people. He introduced the Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia which was the first and most important of the liberal reforms passed. The reform effectively abolished serfdom throughout the Russian Empire. The people were unsure whether things would improve for them and, in this painting, Mucha has depicted a subdued crowd of Russian peasants looks on anxiously as the official reads the edict. In the hazy background we can see the iconic buildings of St Basil’s cathedral and the Kremlin. The sun is barely visible in this foggy atmosphere. Maybe this was Mucha’s way of symbolising a glimmer of hope for a happier and sunnier future for the Russian people. In the left foreground Mucha has depicted a mother cosseting her child which symbolises both the fear and hope associated with future generations.
The last painting, the twentieth, in The Slav Epic cycle, The Apotheosis of the Slavs, was completed by Alphonse Mucha in 1926. It was to be the culmination of the project and he sought to bring together all the themes addressed in the previous nineteen works and celebrate the independence of the Slav nations. It is an unusual work comprised of four different parts, each characterised by four different colours. Each of the sections represent a successive period in Slav history. In the bottom right-hand corner of the work which comprises of shades of blue we have the early years of Slav history. The top left-hand corner bathed in reds denotes the bloodshed of the Hussite wars during the Middle Ages. Below the figures in the red shaded area we see other figures which are in shadow and they represent the enemy and the repeated merciless attacks inflicted on the Slavic tribes. The final-coloured quadrant is a band of yellow in the centre of the painting which lights up the Czech and Slovak soldiers returning from World War I, which signalled the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the dawn of a new age for the Slavic people. In the bottom left foreground, we see young boys who wave green branches at them. It is a painting of hope for the Slav nation and the bare-chested figure at the centre of the work is the personification of the new, strong, and independent republic, guided and protected by a Christ figure which we see in the central background.
In 1928 the complete cycle was displayed for the first time in the Trade Fair Palace in Prague. Alphonse Mucha died in July, 1939. Shortly before his death he was interrogated by the Gestapo, as he was an important exponent of public life in Czechoslovakia. During World War II, the Slav Epic was wrapped and hidden away to prevent seizure by the Nazis.
Following the Czechoslovak coup d’état of 1948 and subsequent communist takeover of the country, Mucha was considered a decadent and bourgeois artist, at odds with the principles of socialist realism, (not to be confused with the term, social realism). Socialist realism was a form of modern realism imposed in Russia by Stalin following his rise to power after the death of Lenin in 1924, characterised in painting by rigorously optimistic pictures of Soviet life painted in a realist style.
After World War 2, the paintings were moved to the chateau at Moravský Krumlov by a group of local patriots, and the cycle went on display there in 1963. Recently, the city of Prague has waged a decade-long legal battle over the work which intensified in early 2010. Much consideration has been given to relocating the Slav Epic from Moravský Krumlov where it has been on show for almost fifty years, to the Czech capital, Prague. The works would be seen by many more people in Prague with the influx of tourists but the city does not have a suitable venue which could accommodate all twenty monumental works. Notwithstanding that problem, the city of Prague requested the return of the Slav Epic for restoration work and subsequent display.
After a lengthy court battle between John Mucha (the painter’s grandson) and the city of Prague, it was confirmed that the capital held rights to ownership of The Slav Epic. It would therefore seem unlikely that the city would relinquish the paintings and move them back to the Moravian town. On January 22nd 2021, Prague City Museum Director Magdalena Jurikova said that the canvases are being stored in a “secret location” in Prague after a temporary exhibition from 2018 to 2020. Jurikova says the paintings will be moved to the town of Moravsky Krumlov in the spring of 2021 for another temporary display while the Prague government builds a final resting place for the Slav Epic. It is intended that the works will be displayed in the Thomas Heatherwick-designed Savarin development, a new regeneration project in the historic centre of Prague, which is due to open in 2026.
I would be interested to hear from anybody who has actually seen the Slav Epic collection of paintings.
Much of the information for the last five blogs regarding the life of Alphonse Mucha and his Slav Epic series of paintings came from the excellent website The Mucha Foundation