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Reviewed by:
  • Castle and Cathedral in Modern Prague: Longing for the Sacred in a Skeptical Age by Bruce R. Berglund
  • Andrew Lass
Bruce R. Berglund, Castle and Cathedral in Modern Prague. Longing for the Sacred in a Skeptical Age. Budapest & New York: Central European University Press, 2017. xvi, 372 pp. $60.00 US (cloth).

Between the book's title and the cover photograph you would think that this hefty volume is about architecture, about the Hradčany castle and the cathedral of Saint Vitus, rising majestically from within its third courtyard, that overlook the city of Prague as they also dominate the historical skyline of the Czech lands. It offers a discussion of the modernization that this large complex had undergone in the interwar years of Czechoslovakia's First Republic (1918–1938) but it is so much more than that: "This book is about Something. Something sacred. Something eternal. Something higher" (1). An engagingly written and carefully argued study in cultural history, it offers a finely woven discussion of spirituality with the castle and its cathedral as one of its key pivots, the other being the book's primary protagonists, a visionary president, his daughter the activist social worker, and the religiously informed modernist architect. This is a revisionist history in the very best sense of the term. The Castle and the Cathedral, a title that references two very concrete sites portends to address their other senses, [End Page 562] the secular site of a new political order and the sacred site in need of a new religious fulfillment in a society deeply suspicious of religious dogmatism.

The trope that dominated the selective public perception of the Hradčany site was that of ancient history, the nation's heroic foundations and the Dark Ages or the Counter Reformation with its oppressive Catholicism that followed. That the first president of Czechoslovakia Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850–1937) initiated the site's reconstruction and had invited a devout catholic, the Slovene born pioneer of modernist architecture, Jože Plečnik (1876–1957) to spearhead its design, is typically seen as yet another layer of its architectural history. The author unveils a deeper, spiritual significance behind the renovations. He also draws attention to Alice G. Masaryková's pivotal presence in modern Czech history. The daughter of the president and his American wife, she had studied in Chicago and was taken by the Settlement Movement. She became an activist social worker and founder of the Czech Red Cross. Berglund writes, "I look at the major architectural project as an expression of the three principal character's beliefs about God, art, politics, and the future of Europe" (9). The biographical portraits that make up the volume's first part lay the groundwork for understanding their combined sense of mission; the second part explores the heated debate over the fate and place of religion in the early decades of the country that had embraced the progressivist and highly secular world view. The author introduces a broad range of voices — from secular authors to religious pamphleteers — engaged in a heated exchange that was complex for its variety of positions and expressive forms.

There is an important case to be made for Masaryk's wish to offer his country a new religion.

In contrast to much of the received scholarship, this book takes a bold step in showing a deeply religious side of Masaryk and to the short and finally tragic history of a modern democracy that had arisen, full of optimism, out of the ashes of World War I only to be abandoned by its allies and gobbled up by the Nazis in the preamble to World War II. It is important to note, however, that this sense of periodicity is not, in principal, new to Czech/Slovak history. If anything, it is a guiding principle of its popular self-perception and role in its tragicomic history. Innovative and rebellious, tolerant and overly adaptive, complacent and, finally, cynical. Yes, you need to believe in something. The author's embrace of somethingism, the observation, made by Czechs, that Czechs, regardless of their predominantly secular posturing will acknowledge that "one must believe in something," deserves a qualifier "sort of." He...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2292-8502
Print ISSN
0008-4107
Pages
pp. 562-564
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-12
Open Access
No
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