The Prague Assembly by a narrow majority approved placing a copy of a Baroque victory column on the spot on Old Town Square where it stood before it was toppled by a crowd November 3, 1918. This looks like it may be the final approval needed in an issue that has bounced around like a yo-yo for two decades.
The Marian Column was meant to commemorate Prague being rescued from Swedish invaders at the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. Opponents claim it marks the start of Habsburg occupation and Catholic domination of Bohemia, and that replacing the monument is divisive.
The restoration of the column was supported by 34 out of 65 members of the Prague Assembly. The proposal was supported by most members of the Civic Democrats (ODS), the United Force for Prague, ANO, and Praha sobě. On the contrary, three members of the United Force and none of the Pirates gave their approval.
The 16-meter sandstone column will be topped with a sculpture of St Mary surrounded by golden stars. That piece is currently displayed on a metal pillar next to the Church of Our Lady before Týn, just beyond the square. The column also includes four angels fighting evil, a balustrade and stone steps.
“I do not feel happy to strongly push this sensitive subject and affect the most prestigious place in Prague. On the contrary, I consider it more important to consider the completion of the Old Town Hall,” Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib (Pirates) said before the vote.
The approved proposal revoked a resolution of the City Council from the previous parliamentary term, which froze the already concluded contracts for the installation of the copy. In an explanatory memorandum, the promoters of the approved material declare their belief that “the restoration of the column will be a symbol of tolerance, reconciliation and cooperation.”
The white stone Catholic statue would stand a few meters away from a bronze statue of religious reformer Jan Hus designed by Ladislav Šaloun, built in 1915. The two monuments stood side by side for three years.
Arguments against the re-installation of a column were also raised by atheists and representatives of Protestant churches. The Czech Republic has one of the highest atheist populations in the world.
Some people favor placing the column elsewhere. “A new symbol for such an exposed place should come from an open competition, not from a unilateral decision. The creation of [sculptor] Petr Vaňa could easily stand in another, quieter place,” theologian Pavel Černý, the former chairman of the Ecumenical Council of Churches, said.
Czechoslovak Hussite Church representative Hana Tonzarová called for a different monument on the spot. “Historians, art historians, politicians, churches and citizens disagree. What can be the way out of this waste of energy? Let’s put a real symbol of reconciliation there — perhaps a statue of Jesus,” she said.
Sculptor Jan Jiří Bendl is considered the main creator of ithe original monuments’s sculptural decoration. It functioned as a sundial, since at noon the column’s shadow crossed the Prague meridian.
Thanks to financial donations and the work of volunteers, a replica of the original Column and the top statue were made.
The dispute over restoring the column has been going on since the 1990s. Permission to place the replica was granted in 2013. Prague’s then-mayor Bohuslav Svoboda (ODS) said that the Catholic statue of Mary next to the Protestant statue of Jan Hus in Old Town Square would show Prague was a multicultural city.
The administration that followed Svoboda’s, though, was cool to the idea and backtracked on it. The issue arose again in 2017, with permission once again being granted and then soon after taken away when opponents filed a petition.
The Society for the Restoration of the Marian Column had hoped to have it back in place in October 2018 for the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, but were unsuccessful. Sculptor Petr Váňa last year brought 200 carved stone pieces weighing 60 tons to Prague on a barge, and attempted to erect the statue but was stopped, as he lacked all of the permits.
The replica was made without funds from the city, and the installation will been paid for with private funds. The broken fragments of the original are owned by the National Museum and stored in the Lapidarium at Holešovice.