Hilary Fannin: Dire warnings and heavenly promises in Prague
Three days of walking under a pale sun and red rooftops, necks craning, as instructed by the guidebook, to note the Baroque, the Rococo, the Art Nouveau
Prague: a monumental city, giddy with architectural treasures
Our procession, along the gravelled walkway, to the entrance of the 18th-century Loreto church was littered with stone carvings: gargoyles and cherubs, soot-black, bug-eyed devils lining up along the path next to coy, mossy-green angels, the mythic cast guiding us towards the door.
Each effigy offered dire warnings and heavenly promises. Travel in the footsteps of the almighty, they seemed to whisper, and you too will soar with the stone-nappied seraphs. Be good, be very very good, and you will find your place among the chubby angels and bearded saints. Slip off the beaten track, however, lose yourself in sin, sorcery and salaciousness, and you’ll be pinned in the jaws of torment.
We were visiting the church during a three-day trip to Prague, three days of walking under a pale sun and red rooftops, necks craning, as instructed by the guidebook, to note the Baroque, the Rococo, the Art Nouveau. We had walked earlier in the day under the black arch of the gothic Cathedral of St Vitus. I was dizzied by the feat of it, the endeavour, the will, the craftsmanship, the breath and bone of the men that built that great ark to God, that mad, gargoyle-iced ship to divinity.
Prague is a monumental city, a city giddy with architectural treasures. I’d never been there before. I remember when it was one of those boom destinations, when, in the early noughties, the dogs on the street seemed to be heading there, to sip cocktails on castellated walls and pack amber trinkets into their cabin luggage.
I was dead grateful for the break; it’s been a long year. At home, someone else volunteered to turn the key on the flat car battery, to negotiate the cough bottle and the festering laundry basket. Someone else offered to get up to let the indignant, pelt-soaked cat in through the bedroom window at 2am. We didn’t hesitate, and the no-frills airline obliged.
We tripped past the carved assembly outside the Loreto church, paid the modest entrance fee to a benign-looking elderly woman, a woman who would not have looked out of place behind the counter of an iced caramel store or a haberdashery. She certainly didn’t look like the keeper of the wild zoo of saints and martyrs lurking in the cloisters behind her booth.
Most of the saints honoured in the cloisters, which ran the length and breadth of the courtyard, were women; wildly observant, hotly pious, fervent young women who clung to their virginity and the love of God, forsaking all temporal bonds, only to be smashed apart by earthly fathers and angry spurned lovers.
The martyred women, we read, were variously made to walk over burning coals and stretched out on medieval racks for having the temerity to say no, no thanks, I don’t want you or your hairy-bottomed advances, no matter how big a noise you are in the principality.
Forgive the liberal liturgical interpretation by the way, but you get my drift.
My favourite saint resdies in the very last little chapel, where she hangs, crucified by her elbows to a small wooden cross. She is St Wilgefortis, patron saint of unhappily married women. (I don’t know if there is a patron saint of the oh-you-know-we-have-our-ups-and-downs-like-everyone-else women.)
Wilgefortis, daughter of the the king of Portugal, was betrothed to the king of Sicily, despite having chosen to dedicate her life to God. God, in his wisdom – and, to be fair, thinking well outside the box – organised things so that Wilgefortis grew a serious beard, at which point the king of Sicily said “arrivederci” and her father promptly had her crucified.
Her image hangs there in the chapel, a strange, doll-like representation. She hangs, perched on the hillside, overlooking the city’s spires and rooftops, its domes and towers and turrets. She hangs looking at the gargantuan, righteous efforts of men to honour their God. She’s not a particularly pretty sight; a big puppet in a pale-blue dress, elbows rusted from the nails that hold her to her cross, her beard flowing over her virginal chest. She has, however, a certain grandeur, defiance, humanity maybe, despite her feet of stone.
I lit a candle at her shrine, for my old friend who we lost earlier this year. Like me, this friend was a cradle Catholic who had rocked far beyond her faith. But she would have admired St Wilgefortis, admired the gallantry of her great beard, admired her ingenuity in the face of such lousy, terrifying odds.