St. Vitus
In place of a museum, the Professor offered to show us St. Vitus's Cathedral. We climbed to the hill of Hradcany once more, labouring up the shallow granite steps, "each one the width of four bodies laid head to foot," the novelist Gustav Meyrink notes in his accustomed cheery fashion.

The sun was gone now, and a sky bearing a bellyfull of snow lowered over the afternoon. The great church reared above us, "ornate and mad," in Philip Larkin's fine description of churches in general, like a vast, spired ship run aground and sunk here in the midst of the castle complex, clamoured about on all sides by the reefs of Baroque palaces coral-coloured.

Here is the Golden Portal, held aloft on the delicate webbing of Peter Parlér's three Gothic arches. When one looks up, the entire building seems to be speeding massively through the brumous air, going nowhere...

I am always surprised to think that churches should be considered places of comfort and sanctuary. On the contrary, they seem to me, especially the big, Catholic ones, soulless memorials of anguished atonement and blood rites, gaunt, unwarmed, and unwelcoming, heavy with Wallace Stevens' "holy hush of ancient sacrifice." Years ago, in Salisbury Cathedral, eavesdropping one twilit eve on the cathedral choir at rehearsal, I was appalled to notice that beside me my seven-year-old son was weeping silently in terror. As I tried to comfort him I looked about --- I, who was compelled by a devout mother to spend extended stretches of my childhood in places such as this --- and saw it all suddently from the perspective of a little boy born to godless parents; the grimacing statues, the cross-eyed martyrs in stained glass, the shot-torn regimental banners, the maniacally carved pulpit, all quite mad --- Larkin was right --- and hideously menacing.

What frightened my son most, he later confessed, were the sotto voce comments and encouragements that the choir master breathed into his microphone in the pauses between the verses; they must have sounded like the celestial chidings of weary, terrible old Yahweh himself. Yet it occurs to me that a few centuries ago my son in that place would not have been frightened at all, only awed, and dazzled too. We easily forget that ours is a world permanently lit, that we live in a garish, practically nightless present in which our senses are assailed from all sides, by small flickering screens and huge adverisement hoardings, by public music, by a myriad perfumes, by the textures under our hands of rich stuffs and polished hides. The world out of which the cathedral grew was another place entirely.

In the opening pages of The Autumn of the Middle Ages, John Huizinga writes:

    When the world was half a thousand years younger, all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child.

Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger then than in our present lives, so was the difference between the light and dark, quiet and noise. The modern city hardly knows pure darkness or true silence any more, nor does it know the effect of a single small light or that of a lonely distant shout. What an aspirant marvel St. Vitus must have been long ago, with its Golden Portal glowing, its great doors flung open and its rose window angling down God's celestial light. The colour, the sonorities, the incense, the thousand candles burning. And the bells. Huizinga again:

    The bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits who, with their familiar voices, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation.
--- From Prague Pictures
John Banville
©2003 Bloomsbury
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH