Let’s take a closer look at the Slav Epic – extraordinary series of paintings depicting the history of Slavs which have been the object of legal wrangling and the reason for bad blood between two cities.
Slav Epic is a cycle of 20 monumental paintings by the Czech Art Nouveau painter Alfons (Alphonse) Mucha. The canvases made in 1910 – 1928 depict the mythology and history of the Slavic nations.
Mucha’s Slav Epic is full of interesting details which show not only the author’s great sense of Slavic patriotism but also his talent for symbolism.
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Alfons Mucha, the author of the Slav Epic, donated his work to Prague in 1928. This act was based on a contract that stipulated one condition – that the capital would have to use it’s own financial resources to build an exposition hall for the Slav Epic. However, the fact that there was no deadline established gave Prague a free hand. The city never built the exposition hall and in 2010 started the work ultimately leading to the moving of the paintings from the château in Moravský Krumlov to Prague.
This caused an enormous response of both general public and the art community as Prague was blamed of “stealing” from a small Moravian town their biggest tourist attraction while not complying with the condition established in the contract. After moving the paintings and still without any plans for building a pavillion for them Prague sent them on a tour in Asia despite the warnings of the art community pointig out that such a tour is a very high risk for the canvases.
At the end of 2020 the court of Prague 1 ruled that the city of Prague is not the owner of the Slav Epic because the housing for the work has never been built, therefore, the donation offer hasn’t been accepted. The ruling isn’t enforceable yet.
However, as of 2021 it looks like the canvases will find their permanent home in the Thomas Heatherwick-designed venue. And while the project is under construction the work of Alfons Mucha will return to its previous home in Moravský Krumlov (close to Ivančice, Mucha’s birthtown).
Slav Epic – the Cycle
Let’s take a closer look at what these 20 canvases represent.
Slavs in their Original Homeland (1912)
Subtitle: Between the Turanian Whip and the Sword of the Goths
The first picture of the Slav Epic cycle portrays the Slavic Adam and Eve hiding from the raiders while the village behind them burns, a scene which is set between the 3rd and 6th century. The white clothes they’re wearing symbolize their innocence. The levitating trio on the side represents a pagan priest in the middle who prays for mercy for his flock, a girl with a wreath under his left arm – a symbol of peace and under his right arm a young warrior symbolizing a fair war. The message of this canvas is that the Slavs will have to fight for their freedom in the future.
The Celebration of Svantovit in Rügen (1912)
Subtitle: When Gods Are at War, Salvation is in the Arts
This picture from the Slavic mythology shows the harvest celebrations dedicated to the deity Svantovid. The scene is set in the Baltic island Rügen and its capital Arkona. In Mucha’s time Arkona was the symbol of the original glory of the Slavs. It was a place of pilgrimage in the 8th to 10th century before it was plundered by the Danish warriors.
The temple on the left side is filled with treasures and the sun setting over the people – most prominently the mother and child in the front – predicts the upcoming plundering as well as the Nordic god Thor in the upper left corner. Svantovit is the figure in the center of the upper part of the canvas (with leaves around him) and he is taking the sword of the dying Spavic warrior infront of him to protect the future of Slavs.
And have you noticed the three musicians? They are the symbol of the importance of the arts in war times.
The Introduction of the Slavonic Liturgy (1912)
Subtitle: Praise the Lord in Your Native Tongue
The third canvas shows the deeds of the Saints Cyril and Mehodius, the bysantic priests invited in the 9th century by the Moravian prince Rostislav to translate the Bible and other literature.
We see the pope’s bull being read to prince Svatopluk (Rostislav’s successor) infront of the gates of Velehrad, the capital of Great Moravia. Methodius as an archbishop and his ministrants are standing in the center of the canvas and Cyril is soothing the weeping women on the upper left side.
The efforts of the Moravian ruler to establish an independent language for his people angered the German bishops and the dark soldiers on Methodius’ left symbolize their revenge. Prince Rostislav himself is over Cyril and the women together with the patriarch of the orthodox church.
The four figures on the right are the Bulgarian and Russian rulers who supported the Slavonic liturgy. And the person in the front with his arms up is a young man rousing the Slavs to being united. The unity is symbolized but the circle in is hand.
The Bulgarian Tsar Simeon (1923)
Subtitle: The Morning Star of Slavonic Literature
The Slavonic liturgy did prevail but not for long. After Methodius death his followers were forced to flee and they looked for rescue in the court of the Bulgrian tzar Simeon. He was a priest and a scholar who facilitated the translation of many bizantine text into the Slavic language.
The tzar is situated in his basilica, radiating nobility and authority. Around him are the philosophers and scholars. The books and scrolls are the symbol of the past and futures of Slavs.
King Přemysl Otakar II, the Iron and Golden King (1924)
Subtitle: The Union of Slavic Dynasties
Přemysl Otakar II ruled as a king in the 2nd half of the 13th century. He reached great success as a warrior and was also a capable and generous politician. The painting show the wedding of his niece Kunhuta of Brandenburg and prince Béla to which all the nearby Slavic rulers were invited by the king in order to create a great coalition that would ensure the piece among the Slavic nations.
The scene takes place in a tent infront of the wedding chappel with the picture of Přemysl’s coat of arms. The king himsef is the center of the painting, he is pictured welcoming new guests while the other rulers stand around him.
Stefan Dušan of Serbia and His Coronation (1926)
Subtitle: The Slavic Code of Law
One of the more colorful canvases of the cycle show the procession after the coronation of commander Stefan Uroš IV Dušan who expanded the Slavic territory to the south and was crowned tzar of Srbia and Greece in 1346. The Tzar is in the center of the painting with his court holding his red coat.
The procession is lead by young girls in traditional clother (kroj) and behing them the patriarchs with the crown and the sword of the tzar. The fact that the young people are more prominent than the older ones symbolises Mucha’s belief that the Slavic youth is the hope.
Jan Milíč of Kroměříž (1916)
Subtitle: A Brothel Converted to a Convent
The scene shows a brothel being rebuilt as the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in 1372 thanks to the efforts of Jan Milíč of Kroměříž. He gained many followers by moving to Prague where he helped the poor and criticized the behavious of the church.
Milíč can be spotted infront of the church on the right preaching to a group of women who change their clothes for white robes of nuns. The pureness of the scene is symbolized by the white snow around them.
Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel (1916)
Subtitle: Magic of the Word. Truth Prevails
Jan Hus is the most important figure of the reform movement at the turn of the 14th and 15th century. He criticized the church for its greediness and hypocrisy for which he was burnt in 1415. His execution started the so called Hussite wars and the movement was called after him.
The painting shows Hus preaching in the Betlem chappel in Prague attended by his disciples taking notes. Among other figures we can see queen Sophia on the right, the merchant Kříž – founder of the chappel and also a priest taking notes for the prosecution of Hus.
The Meeting at Křížky (1916)
Subtitle: Magic of the Word. Utraquism.
The ninth canvas pictures the situation after Hus’ execution. The new leader of the reformists, Václav Koranda sr. is preaching to his followers in Křížky in 1419 and reminds them that weapons should be used to defend one’s faith.
After the Battle of Grunwald (1924)
Subtitle: The Solidarity of the Northern Slavs
The Slavic victory at the battle of Grunwald in 1410 was the result of the alliance between the Polish king Władysław II Jagiełło and the Lithuanian gran duke Vytautas. They united in the fight against the knight of the Teutonic Order who organized regular attacks in the Northern Slavic countries. The tenth canvas of the Slav Epic shows the Polish king regretting the loss on both sides.
After the Battle of Vítkov Hill (1923)
Subtitle: We Praise You, Lord
When in 1420 the Roman emperor Sigismund decided to occupy Prague, little did he know what was coming. Jan Žižka, the commander of the Hussite army of the peasants, came from the town of Tábor to help the people of Prague. Though his army was much smaller in numbers, therefore, they decided to fortify themselves on the Vítkov hill. They resisted the superiority of the German army until the common people of Prague came to their aid.
The center of the painting is a priest holding a monstarnce on the battlefield. He is followed by the faithful people and right infront of him there’s Jan Žižka himself. Although the silhouette of Prague’s Hradčany behind him is rather clouded, the sun shines upon the commander which symbolizes God’s grace granting the Hussites their victory. The woman in the lower left corners thinking about what the fate of her child would be as the Hussite wars are just beginning.
Petr Chelčický at Vodňany (1918)
Subtitle: Do Not Repay Evil with Evil
The WW I was culminating when Mucha worked on this piece of the cycle. Lead by his pacifist nature he decided to pay tribute to the philosopher Petr Chelčický. The citizens of the town of Vodňany found themselves in the middle of the rage of the Hussite wars. Their homes were burnt to the ground. They seeked refuge at Chelčický’s and were enraged by what was happening. He, however, is painted approaching them with the Bible offering them consolation and support and discouraging them from taking vengeance.
The Hussite King Jiří of Poděbrady (1923)
This canvas represents the loss of the power of Rome over what is now the Czech territory. You can see a young boy in the lower part of the painting who closes a book called Roma finita.
In 1430 Rome had to end the crusades and recognize the Hussite’s victory. The newly elected king (1458) George of Poděbrady set off to Rome in 1462 to have his rule confirmed by the pope. However, feeling the opportunity to force the people to come back to the “right” faith the pope refused the king. An embassador of the pope was sent to Prague to deliver the pope’s demand that the people obeyed Vatican once again. The kind didn’t yield though saying: “There is noone on this earth who could judge my coscience.”
Defense of Sziget against the Turks by Nicholas Zrinsky (1914)
Not long after the Slavs broke free from the power of Rome they had to start fending off the attack from the opoosite direction. In 1566 the Turks started their invasion into the Slavic territory along the river Danube. The people of Szigetvár defended their city until they realized they weren’t to going to win. The canvas shows an explosion which was the suicide attack of the people in their last attempt to defend their land. The smaller portion of the canvas pictures brave women of Szigetvár setting the tower on fire rather than yielding it to the Turks.
The Brethren School in Ivančice (1914)
Subtitle: Cradle of the Bible of Kralice
The Unity of the Brethren was an Evangelical movement inspired by Petr Chelčický (canvas 12). In the 16th century the Brethren moved from Bohemia to the Moravian town of Ivančice, Mucha’s birthplace. It’s here that they started printing the first Bible in Czech. The process was finalized in the nearby town of Kralice and therefore the first complete translation of the Bible bears the town’s name. The Bible of Kralice became of of the most important symbols of the Czech and Moravian national identity.
The painting shows a Moravian nobleman coming to inspect the first prints. While the other disciples gathered around him, one of them – young Mucha was a model for this figure – stays at the side of an old blind man reading to him from the Bible.
After 1620 the Brethren were forced to move abroad. This is represented by the common swifts flying around the tower and preparing for their departure.
Jan Ámos Komenský, the Teacher of Nations (1918)
Subtitle: A Flicker of Hope
Jan Ámos Komenský was a Czech scholar, philosopher and the leader of the Unity of the Brethren and as such a passionate defender of education. After the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 people had to convert back to catholicism or go in exile. The latter was the fate of Komenský who is shown in the picture as a dying and abandoned in Naarden, Netherlands, where he was in exile. His disciples mourn his passing on the left and the tiny flicker of hope for the Slavs is represented by the lantern.
Mount Athos (1926)
Subtitle: The Vatican of the Orthodoxy
The Mountain Athos is the holy place of the Orthodox Christianity and this canvas pays tribute to the Orthodox Church which was the connecting element between the Slavs and the Byzantine culture.
Most of the figures in the paintings are pilgrims bowing before the holy artefacts which are guarded by priests. The figures above them are the patrons of four Old-Slavonic monasteries and they symbolize charity and faith. Behind them are the superiors of those monasteries and looking down on them is the Virgin Mary.
The Oath of Omladina Under the Slavic Linden Tree (1926-1928)
Subtitle: The Slavic Revival
The end of the 19th century was a time of national awareness and revival movements. One of them – Omladina – was founded in 1894 and this movement was heavily prosecuted for being liberal and anti-church. The canvas shows members of Omladina taking an oath under a linden tree. The model for this tree was an actual linden tree in the village Lukavice. The legend says that Slavie, the mother of all Slavs, lives in it. The models for the two children sitting on the wall were Mucha’s children Jaroslava (playing the harp) and Jiří (on the right).
Two people on the right side were painted just with white tempera which for some is the proof of the Slav Epic remaining ufinished.
The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia (1914)
Subtitle: Work in Freedom – Foundation of a State
The Serfdom in Russia was abolished in 1861, much later than in the rest of Europe. The scene shows the act of declaration on the Red Square in Moscow. However, the people’s faces still reflect fear of the future.
The sumptuous St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background contrasts with the poverty of the people and symbolizes the difference between the ruling class and the common people.
Apotheosis of the Slavs (1926)
Subtitle: Four Seasons of the Slavs in Four Colors
The final painting of the Slav Epic series shows Mucha’s vision of the Slavic triumph and portrays it in four colors in representation of different aspects of the history of Slavs: blue is the mythology, red represents the Hussite wars, black symbolizes the enemies of the Slavs and their oppression and yellow stands for freedom, peace and unity.
Very prominent are the members of Omladina bearing the linden tree twigs in honor of the Slavic heroes above them (among which are also the soldiers of WW I). The main figure, however, is the man with the naked torso representing the oppression the Slavs had to endure during centuries but also the new republic. You may remember the girls holding the circle/wreath as the symbol of unity. The dove symbolizes peace, of course, the rainbow luck and Christ represents blessing.
Did we inspire you to go and see the Slav Epic in person? If so, hurry up if you want to see it in Moravský Krumlov, its home for more than 50 years.