The Nave or Main Body of the Church

It would be good to situate all this art within its historical time frame. The Protestant reform injected profound changes in society at the beginning of the sixteenth century. At first dismayed and thrown into disarray by frontal assaults on such commonly accepted Catholic teachings as the Mass, the intercession of Mary, the saints and the teaching authority of the Church, Catholics in Bohemia particularly after the Battle of Bela Hora on November 08, 1620 responded with confident vitality. Such momentum was sustained in no small part to the vigorous implementation of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) whose decrees were enforced by a series of “in charge” pontiffs. Clearing away the cumulus of theological confusion and blatant abuses gave embattled Catholics a new sense of direction in a confessionally divided Europe. Poland, Hungary and Bohemia where the old faith had been so challenged now became the testing ground for new and often successful missionary endeavors spearheaded both by older reformed Orders such as the Capuchins and Discalced Augustinians and newer groups such as the Jesuits, the Piarists and the Ursulines. Encouraged by such Tridentine bishops as Antonin Brus of Prague (1561–+1590) the entire range of the arts – music, oratory, theater, architecture and the plastic arts was ably mustered into Catholic service in what has been called the Catholic Reformation or Catholic renewal. At once presented and as ably defended, orthodox teaching (now defined at Trent) encompassing the entire gamut of Catholic belief and practice: the sacraments, particulary the Holy Eucharist, the Mass in its symbols and ceremonial, the depiction and the intercessory role of the saints and papal authority was twice impressed on the mind and senses via classic peroration and sumptuous art. Often called “the quintessential Catholic creation” Baroque art much like its Gothic predecessor at once defined as “an artistic catechism of the senses”, intentionally lifted, as it were, the worshiper into the very presence of the heavenly glory. For clarity it might be said that as Gothic art raised the believer up to heaven, Baroque art brought heaven down to the believer. It is against such a historical and artistic tableau vivant that one can begin to understand the spiritual intent or force motivating the Augustinians at Saint Thomas. This is not, of course, to exclude extraneous political factors. By the beginning of the seventeenth century the Augustinian Church become an oasis of the ancient faith for the imperial court, the ambassadors of the Catholic powers, the Italian merchants, the Irish soldiery, the English recusants and all who professed Catholicism in a predominantly Calixtine and Protestant majority in Prague. Upon entering the Church the beholder would have been (and still is) struck both by its Catholic atmosphere of quiet grandeur reflecting in some fleeting way the infinite majesty of God. It is in only in such an attitude of acceptance we appreciate the significance of the Church and its artistic endeavors.

One of the most striking of such pieces is the grand pulpit situated to the left of the sanctuary and choir. Designed by the artist Philip Quittainer pere and the workworker Christian Kovar already noted for the construction and essential décor of the main altar of the church this triumphal masterpiece was completed in 1739. The baldechin is graced with the four “Fathers of the Church” and their symbols. Ambrose of Milan holds the episcopal insignia with an accompanying beehive indicative of his “honeyed eloquence”; Gregory the Great is portrayed with the pontifical cross and a dove which purportedly alighted on his head during a papal election; Jerome, the ascetical monk holds a deathshead, a symbol of passing vanities. The very pinacle is graced with a mitred Augustine of Hippo offering a flaming heart. Adorning the sides of this structure are gospel-inspired panels depicting the “sowing of the seed/the word of God” and “the Good Shepherd” themes very dear to orthodox baroque Catholicism.

The confessional on the left wall of the side aisle dates from the eighteenth century and is surmounted with an oval portrait of the penitent Peter as a patron for the repentant.

Adjacent to the confessional stands the altar of Saint Ann and the Holy Family which was built in 1731 with some decorative pieces by Michael Bruderle. As the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the grandmother of Jesus, Saint Ann enjoyed a particular veneration from the early fourteenth century on particularly as patroness of mothers, grandmothers, motherless wives and miners. Her intercession was widespread particularly in central Europe during the late medieval period as evidenced by the young Martin Luther, the son of a copper miner, who had invoked her aid during a fateful thunderstorm in 1526. Such devotees as Princess Ann, the daughter of Vaclav II, the founder of St. Thomas monastery, Empress Ann, the second wife of Emperor Charles IV, their gentle daughter of the same name and Ferdinand I’s dead Empress Ann, were connected with the Church and remembered throughout its long history. Astride the patronal picture are two dramatic statues of Saint Augustine and Saint Vojtech-Adalbert executed by Andrew Quittainer as working models for the silver statues originally destined for the main altar. Augustine holds aloft the heart, a symbol of unity based on the love of Christ. Vojtech originally held in addition to his crosier or pastoral staff, an oar, the instrument of his martyrdom at the hands of enraged Prussian pagans in 997.

Across the aisle is the altar of the Nativity of the Lord. Of special interest are the four figures of the “Wise Men”, (called variously “Three Kings”, “Magi”, or “Astrologers” see Matthew 2) by Quinttainer. However, the Moor is so similar to one such figure in the Saint Francis Xavier group on the Charles Bridge that some would trace this work to the atelier of Ferdinand Brokoff. The patronal picture of the Madonna and Child dates from about 1731 and just below it in front of the tabernacle is a picture of Saint Anthony of Padua by an unknown artist also dating from the 18th century.

Moving across the aisle is the altar of Saint John Nepomuk from the atelier of Jan Unmuth dating from the year 1731. Executed by the same artist as a companion piece to the previously mentioned altar of Saint Ann, it was probably erected in the wake of John Nepomuk’s canonization on March 19, 1729. The theme – better, the themes – of the patronal picture so dramatically elaborated depict the saint’s “taking up the cross,” the palm of martyrdom and his attitude of prayerfulness. As vicar general of Prague and personal representative of the Archbishop Jan Jenstejn at the imperial court, John Nepomuk was commissioned to rebuke the Emperor Wenceslaus IV for inappropriate behavior. Some later writers even assert that John was unsuccessfully challenged to reveal confidential confessional material here symbolized by an angel with a finger to his lips. Once he incurred imperial displeasure it was only a matter of time. After praying (it was said) in Saint Thomas Church he was ambushed on the Charles Bridge, viciously beaten, murdered and thrown in the Vlatava River in 1392. The iconographic attribute of five stars (held aloft by a putti), according to the hagiographers, appeared at the time and over the place of his death. This very “busy and vivid” picture attempts to incorporate all these elements – with some success.

Again Andrew Quittainer’s “model statues” of Saint Vit (on the left of the viewer) with the rooster “of vigilance” and Saint Vaclav (on the right) holding the national banner with the shield of the Premyslid Eagle give further examples of the baroque aesthetic. The tympanum or alcove above the central patronal picture contrives in such limited space to render a moving Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, accompanied by an angelic audience. The picture on the altar table iconographically described as “the loving image of the Blessed Mother of help” (or “of Passau” or “Mariazell” from the places of origin) and represents a long history of Marian devotion in Saint Thomas Church. During the reconstruction of the Church after the excesses of Hussite iconoclasm, the “loving image of Our Lady of Consolation,” executed in late gothic style (dated 1480), was sold by the Augustinians (c.1650) to Daniel Heiden, the pastor of Klasterec nad Ohri. This isolated town in the Chomutov region of the diocese of Litomerice fast became a pilgrimage center for those suffering from eye infections. Miracles (including the healing of the local military leader, Jan Egermann) were soon reported and the existing Church, housing the image of Our Lady was repeatedly enlarged from 1670 through 1760 to accommodate the large concourse of pilgrims. For many years this beautiful icon even in its new sanctuary was known as the “St. Thomas Madonna”.

Crossing the side aisle once more and the mood changes. Encased on the altar within a glass reliquary are the remains of a Saint Boniface drapped, as was the current fashion, in court dress. The present macabre appearance of these relics had been formerly (and mercifully) relieved by a deathmask that has long since disappeared. Unfortunately, despite the name and prayer inscribed over the reliquary the precise identity of the Saint still remains a mystery. The Roman Martyrology (or Official List of Recognized Saints) published in Venice (1759) lists ten saints with the name Boniface. The two most famous stand out through popularisation of their cult: the first, Boniface of Tarsus, commemorated on May 14 died as a mere youth in the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian (ca. 307).

The second is the Benedictine bishop, Boniface of Fulda, the “Apostle of Germany” martyred on June 05, 754. Both of whom, however, on the basis of contemporary evidence cannot be convincingly identified with the above mentioned relics. In the 16th century prompted by the Renaissance fascination with ancient monuments and spurred by the pioneer investigations of the Augustinian polymath, Fra Onofrio Panvinio (+1568), the “Father of Christian Archeology,” interest was enkindled in the early Christian catecombs of Rome. These ancient cemetaries soon became the source of of a multitude of relics much to the disgust of the Protestant reformers. Partly in response to such Protestant objections addressed by the council of Trent (1545–1564) the veneration of the saints and the public cult of their relics, was once more reaffirmed by the Church. Early Church history now magisterially chronicled by Caesare Baronius approved and an enthusiastic wave of devotion to the saints, Mary and those sacred moments in the life of Jesus now swept the Catholic world. Of course, this devotional surge surported by churchmen was abetted by many baroque artists, who, it seemed, vied with each other in portraying the most wrenching aspects of hagiographic murder and mayhem under the rubric of martyrdom. Ruben’s splendid altarpiece portraying the dramatic circumstances of St. Thomas’s death is such an example of baroque “realism.” The aesthetic fashion of the day combined many aspects. On the glass relic case there is the inscription:

Beate Boniface, Martyr subscribe votisque tibi servi fundunt.
Blessed Boniface, the Martyr, listen to the prayers your servants pour forth to you.

The four female saints (from right to left) are Rosalia of Palermo, Clare of Montefalco,OSA, Bridget of Sweden and Veronica of Binasco, OSA.

The last altar in the left nave of the Church was dedicated in 1725 with a portrait of Saint Charles Borromeo, who as archbishop of Milan, did much to relieve his people during the episodic plagues that struck his see city. He died in 1584 and after his canonization in 1610 he was widely venerated in the 17th and 18th centuries as a patron against epidemics. The figures of the four female saints attributed to Jan Michael Bruderle from right to left are Barbara, Veronica with the traditional veil imprinted with the face of Christ, Mary Magdalene and Thecla. A contemporary picture of Rita of Cascia (+1457), the “Saint of Impossible Cases,” is in front of the tabernacle. Above the main or patronal portrait is a painting of St.Michael, the Archangel dating from the 17th century.

The Altar of All Saints to the left of the main portal dates from 1725–1730. Mounted above the main portrait is the symbol of the Most Holy Trinity surrounded by Adoring putti. The central painting (artist unknown) representing the principal saints venerated in Bohemia is flanked by two life-sized images (attributed to Jan Michael Bruderle) of Saint Roch with a dog that reputedly brought him food and Saint Sebastian as a young soldier pierced with arrows. Both of these saints as noted before were invoked against famine and plague. In the space below the central painting is set a baroque crystal cabinet containing a copy of the Bela Pieta from about 1740 by an unknown artist. The original now in St. Thomas monastery is the work of Franciszek Pacak. This case is surmounted by three symbols of the evangelists, “the head of St. Matthew”, “the ox of St. Luke,” and “eagle of St. John”. The fourth “lion of St. Mark” has been stolen. Below the Altar is situated the crypt of the recusant Ogilvie family.

To the right of the main entrance under the choir loft, is the altar of St. Thomas of Villanova dominated by the portrait of the Augustinian saint distributing alms to the poor. The painting (ca. 1671) is attributed to Karel Skreta who frescoed the Church. Erected in 1730 the altar is flanked by two statues of Saint Norbert and Saint Thomas Aquinas, the work of Francisek Ignac Weiss; Ignac Raab, SJ, executed the smaller rococo style portrait of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga sometime before 1740.

On the pillar opposite the Villanova altar is a 19th century copy of the famous Panna Maria Svatotomskla in a massive 18th century rococo acanthus frame. Of Italo-Byzantine provenance, the original 13th century icon donated by Emperor Charles IV in 1356 to the Augustinians of Brno, is still venerated as the Patroness of Moravia in the Order’s Abbey of the Assumption.

The altar of Saint Apollonia, (mistakenly identified by some older authors as “of Saint Otilia”) dedicated to a very popular saint invoked against toothaches and jaw infections was constructed in 1725. At the feet of the Saint lies a pair of pliers that according to her martyrdom account were used to extract her teeth. Four statues ranging from right to left represent Saints James the Greater, Paul, Peter and Thomas are the work of Jan Michael Bruderle. Above the altar is the framed portrait of Saint Francis Borgia, SJ. canonized in 1671 and on the altar table is a rather”busy” portrait of Saint Agnes of Prague painted in commemoration of her canonization in 1989. The picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that previously occupied this space had been stolen.

The next altar “of the most Holy Cross” is dominated by a Crucifixion scene, a veritable masterpiece executed by Jan Jakub Stevens of Steinfels (+1730) that darling of eighteenth century artistic scene. On the altar table is situated a glass casket containing the remains of Saint Justus with the inscription:

Sanct Juste Martyir exaudi Vota Precesque nostras = 1734.
Saint Justus, Martyr, hear our vows and prayers = 1734.

The four female saints from right to left representing Saints Ursula of England, Dymphna of Ireland, Casilda of Seville (Spain) and Catherine of Alexandria (Egypt), probably the work of Jan Slanzovsky, date from about 1730.

The last altar situated against the last pillar of the Church bordering on the edge of the sanctuary is dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Tolentine with an excellent portrait of that saint by Jan Jakub Stevens of Steinfels. On the pinacle of the altar is an enframed picture of a priest possibly Saint Francis Xavier. The four statues (from right to left) are tentatively identified as Saints Elizabeth of Hungary, John Sahagun, Sigismund and Monica. On the altar platform is a smaller delicate painting of Our Mother of Good Counsel in a rococo frame formerly accompanied by two angels one which had been stolen in 1998. Augustinian devotion linked to the picture of Our Mother of Good Counsel is traditionally traced back to Scutari in Albania whence it (according to legend) was brought to Genazzano, Italy, in 1467. Devotion to Our Lady under this title stands within the ancient Marian tradition of the Augustinian Order. From the mid-thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries Mary, the Mother of Jesus was greatly venerated among the Augustinians with the title “Our Lady of Grace” especially in their monasteries of Portugal, France and England. A “second stage” of Marian devotion was initiated toward the end of the sixteenth century in 1580 when Pope Gregory XIII reorganized and even enrolled himself in what was to be known as “the Archconfraternity of the Cincture of Our Mother of Consolation” in Bologna. This title characterized baroque Augustinian devotions and was soon propagated wherever the friars settled and preached. So much so that by 1700 one could say that almost every Augustinian Church had its Altar and Archconfraternity “of Our Mother of Consolation of the Cincture.” In 1783, however, Emperor Joseph II arbitrarily outlawed all such religious brotherhoods with the “Third Orders” on May 22, 1783 and baroque Catholicism passed into history.

But, we are jumping ahead of ourselves. Once the Thirty Years War had formally concluded in 1648 and roads to and from Italy and its shrines were once more relatively secure, the Augustinians brought back to their various provinces the devotion to Our Mother of Good Counsel. Unlike the two previously mentioned devotions “of Grace” and “of Consolation” there was an identifiable picture. Further, the picture from about 1681 became the center of some captivating stories. Transported “by angels” or “by a cloud” from Albania to the mountain hamlet of Genazzano just 16 km southeast of Rome to escape Muslim profanation “it alighted” on the wall of an unfinished Augustinian Church on April 25, 1467. A later Pope, Blessed Innocent XI, crowned the picture in 1682 under the title “Mary of Good Counsel.” Other popes particulary those named Pius were most generous to the Shrine. Pius V sent a votive offering before his death in 1572; Pius VI extended the feast of Our Mother of Good Counsel to the entire Order of St. Augustine in 1779. And to step out of our time frame for a moment, Pius XII consecrated his pontificate in 1939 under the patronage of Mary, Mother of Good Counsel and three of the last four popes (John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II) visited Genazzano. Such Saints as Aloysius Gonzaga (+1591), Benedict Joseph Labre (+1783) and Alphonsus Ligouri (+1787) were deeply devoted to Our Mother of Good Counsel and highly venerated her picture. Incidentally, the oldest picture of Our of Good Counsel in the Czech Republic is a fresco painted by Vacvlav Reiner in the former Augustinian Church of Saint Catherine, Prague. Once the strictures of Emperor Joseph II lifted, an Archconfraternity of Our Mother of Good Counsel was organized and widely popularized throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the zealous Augustinian preacher, p. Bernard Hejhal (+1927). In 1950 with the advent of the Communist regime all such religious activities were banned.

The small votive Altar of the Blessed Virgin Mary or of the Infant Jesus stands against the sidewall of the Church before the entrance to Saint Dorothy’s Chapel. The Blessed Virgin holding the Child Jesus looks upon the donor, Compagnonus de Corlis of Mantua. The Madonna resembles “the Saint Vitus Madonna” so named from a Marian picture in the Prague cathedral. The inscription in tribute to Our Lady and the donor’s generosity is translated:

In honor of Almighty God and the most pure Virgin Mother Mary
The Help of all who take refuge in her Compagnon de Corlis of Mantua cared to have this painted in the Year of the Lord 1619.

The rococo image of the Infant Jesus scuptured for the altar executed in 1760 was flanked by two adoring angels one of which was stolen in 1998.

Before the entrance to Saint Dorothy’s Chapel is situated the splendid marble altar of Our Mother of Consolation, designed by the master architect, Ignac Dietzenhofer in 1744. The actual sculptor, Josef Lauermann had most likely executed similar pieces for the Norbertine Abbey in Doxany. Above the tabernacle the central picture of Our Lady giving the cincture to St. Monica, has been variously attributed to the Jesuit, Ignac Raab, and to Heinrich Beris, a Belgian artist, who had spent a short time in the Order’s monastery in Bela. This Marian depiction was a characteristic devotional piece in most Augustinian Churches particularly after Pope Gregory XV richly endowed the Archconfraternity of the Cincture for the Augustinian Order in 1580. This altar is partricularly rich in marble worked with an inlaid silver tabernacle executed by Jakub Ebner in 1768 surmounted with a striking Ecce Homo (“the Man of Sorrows”) from the hand of Antonin Stevensen of Steinfel in 1670. Two adoring angels hold banners inscribed with appropriate biblical quotations proclaiming the redemptive power of Christ’s death frame the altar.