By: Andrea F. Pagliai
This had never happened before. My curiosity grew more and more as I transgressed through this museum’s particular Gothic collection. Normally, a museum with this caliber of art has a reputation, which precedes it; but this one did not.
This collection, housed in the St. Agnes Convent is one of the most famous and oldest convents in all of Europe. The Old Master’s collection of Prague’s National Gallery contains art pieces and sculptures ranging from the 12th to the 15th centuries. It effectively traces the evolution of styles throughout Bohemian history, artistically depicting how the city became an intellectually prosperous and thriving cultural center.
However, few even know that this convent–founded in the 13th century by the sister of Prague’s great King Charles the IV–even exists, or that it houses one of the Czech nation’s greatest collections, since it lies hidden among the winding cobble stoned streets in the far depths of Prague’s Old Town–Staré Město.
Separately and together, the convent and the collection are both historically weighty players in the greater scheme of the other historical monuments in Prague. This must be one of the most non-famous historical monuments I have ever seen.
The convent does not scream out like the other more overdone Gothic buildings. There is a certain simplicity, humility, and reverent factor to the structure that suits the essence of the collection perfectly. The sanctuary seems to shrink back at the thought of large crowds– the galleries are so small that they themselves would probably buckle with a group of more than 50 people at one time; a fraction of what a museum will take in a day.
While tourists and art-goers do trickle in-and-out of its pale stone pointed archways daily, Simon North, a Czech art and architecture professor at NYU in Prague confesses, “sometimes I see no one there at all.” North believes the collection is deserving of more attention.
“What is special about this collection,” says North, “is that is an uniquely Bohemian work. It shows the coming to maturity of Gothic art in Bohemia and the flourishing of a local style,” later known as the Beautiful Style.
Given the significance of the art– why such a low profile?
Possibly a consequence of the Czech Republic’s closed off communist days, or maybe due to a lack of internal publicity, this collection fails to attract the same celebrity as other branded medieval collections– such as Musée du Cluny’s in Paris, or the Uffizi’s in Florence– renowned throughout the world.
Pavel Antoš, the head of the presentation and promotion department, explains the three main promotion strategies of the National Gallery. He writes, in an email interview that, “one [strategy] is to promote the National Gallery as a brand, the second is to promote each of our seven buildings separately, and the last is the promotion of actual events and exhibitions.” Antoš says the main portal of promotion is the website, but adds that, “we use posters, city lights, flyers and advertisement in magazines and newspapers,” as well. However, as I walk along the streets of Prague, I feel that the presence of the National Gallery’s advertisements are lost in the sea of posters announcing concerts and films.
Additionally, a point of contention is that the National Gallery’s website is hard to use. The website looks unofficial, almost blog-like. There are only Czech and English versions of the website and the later contains noticeable grammatical mistakes. The website is slow and not very user-friendly– frustrating for potential museum-goers pressed for time; i.e.: me.
Finally, in 2006, the collection –and the convent as its resting place– received due international recognition when the MET brought the collection overseas to New York City and exhibited the Bohemian Gothic art along side that of its Italian, French, Byzantine and British counterparts, sending a message cementing its place in the international canon of Medieval art.
Professor North remembers how surprised the Czechs were to receive this honor. He explains, “to the Czechs, this collection was important already, because it was theirs, something inherently Czech, but they were astonished to see others giving it that type of prestige.”
When asked about their national significance, Anton replies, “My personal opinion is that it is always possible to show more pride in our galleries.” In contrast to other international collections, Antoš writes, “I think the main difference comes from the fact that Eastern Europe has been secluded by the communist regime for so long, [and] that the tradition of visiting certain places hasn’t had a chance to set up.” He adds, “but I believe it will in due time.”
The convent and the collection housed within it deserve to be visited. Not so they can be marked off a check-list–but so they may be captured in a memory, or written about in a travel journal that documents the highlights of a culture whose prominence has long remained in the shadows of more well-known artistic centers.
Such discoveries make a museum aficionado, like myself, feel unprepared. Yet, it simultaneously endows me with an impression of genuine discovery– a sensation often unattainable, due to the vast number of guidebooks and online gallery reviews available today.
Feeling like I had discovered something turned out to be significantly more gratifying than already knowing what was to come, as is the instance with the Louvre’s, Mona Lisa; or, L’ Accademmia dell’ Arte’s, The David.
The sense of stumbling upon something foreign and mysterious; a hidden treasure of sorts is appealing and is especially fitting in a city like Prague. Its winding cobblestone streets will never fail to provide new surprises and discoveries at every ancient, yet all the while, unfamiliar turn.
The St. Agnes Convent of Bohemia