Day 5 Prague

Hit the Jewish Quarter today. Saw the remnants of Prague’s formerly flourishing community, and the site of the Third Reich’s planned Museum to an Extinct Race. It’s a melancholy and moving experience to explore the various synagogues and see the list of victims, to look at treasures looted from other places in Europe and brought here, to see the old Jewish cemetery with its haphazard rows of leaning stones. Particularly harrowing are the examples of children’s art from Terezin concentration camp: I’d used a book of these artworks in my middle school Humanities classes last fall while teaching about Hitler and the Holocaust, so I’d seen reproductions of some of these works. There’s no comparison between that little picture book and seeing the real thing.

We wandered up toward the Vltava and found the St. Agnes Convent, which houses a collection of Medieval art from the National Gallery. It’s a remarkable collection if you like paintings of that era, and I was particularly struck by the work of Master Theodoric, whose canvases hover between the flat 2-dimensional representational style of the old manuscript illustrators and the newer more modern techniques of the upcoming Northern Renaissance. Theodoric struggles to show depth in his work, often using the frame itself to convey three dimensions, and huge globs of paint adorn the jewelry and medals on his saints. The effect is charming. Also noteworthy are a spectacular Lucas Cranach the Elder called Lady With a Fern, with its Vermeerish subject dressed to the nines in a pearl-laden orange suit and jaunty hat. And a series of etchings by Albrecht Durer showing scenes from the Apocalypse were a fitting climax to our tour. The building itself is interesting, a Gothic structure which reeks of old candle and incense smoke and decay.

Walking back toward Old Town for lunch I saw a sign advertising an alchemical museum in Latin. This was not in any of the guidebooks I’d read. We approached the arched doorway and found an art glass shop with a tall and elegant blond of a certain age. She approached and greeted us. “it’s just a shop,” I told Cha. “They tricked you,” she replied. There were fine examples of Bohemian glass and crystal, including a few striking vases in red and blue. I examined these closely. I’d seen such glass before, but only in the vitraux at Chartres, or Saint Chappelle…and in the remaining original glass in small pockets in churches like Reims, Amiens, and Bourges. I lokked over at the blond and she smiled enigmatically. And then I noticed one high shelf in the rear of the shop to the left with a collection of three very small and elegant glass alembic vessels of esoteric function. As soon as I moved to examine these, the woman approached me and made a very curious movement of her left hand. I acknowledged her gesture with what I hoped was a knowing smile and a nod. “There is a tour in 30 minutes,” she said, nodding towards a door at the rear of the shop. I thanked her and we left for lunch, but we returned after bagels 45 minutes late. The glass shop was gone. There was a kitschy candle vendor selling unremarkable wax figurines of Hollywood and sports celebrities with wicks in their heads. I missed my chance to be initiated, the chance granted Rudolf Steiner on a train after he published his work on Goethe’s color theory, the chance Schwaller de Lubicz gave Fulcanelli more than a century ago. Oh well. In the words of that great modern esotericist Erykah Badu, “I guess I’ll see ya next lifetime.”

Last night we had a quality Indian meal at the Indian Jewel in Ungelt, and then we saw Czech guitar god Lubos Arndst tear up a Les Paul in the cellar of a jazz hole just around the corner. The final song of the second set featured blues shredding of the highest quality. It’s amazing how the Czechs have embraced American music–and specifically black American music–and made themselves devout students. The quality of live jazz and blues and Dixieland here is at least on a par with, and perhaps superior to, anything I’ve seen in New Orleans, New York, or Chicago. The audience in a pub does not talk and watch sports on TV while musicians perform the way they do in the States. Everyone is attentive to the music.

Sadly, our time here is winding down. We’re making arrangements for departure Wednesday and a final night in Frankfurt before returning to BWI. Today we plan to chill out a bit, shopping, writing post cards, perhaps strolling around on the west side of the river some more. We’ll see…

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