Life of Saint Wenzel

Codex Ser. nov. 2633 - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek (Vienna, Austria)

Alternate Titles:

Life of Saint Wenzeslas, Vita des heiligen Wenzel, Icones historici vitam et martyrium sancti Wenceslai principis Boemiae designantes

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Codiology

Alternate Titles

Life of Saint Wenzeslas
Vita des heiligen Wenzel
Icones historici vitam et martyrium sancti Wenceslai principis Boemiae designantes

Type
Extent / Format

66 pages / 22.6 x 15.8 cm

Origin
Date
1585
Style
Genre
Language
Patron

Ferdinand II from Tyrol, Archduke of Austria

Artist / School

Martin Hutský

Illustrations

23 miniatures with gold

Short description

St. Wenzel is one of the most important figures in Czech history, and the story of his life and death are indicative of a time of aggressive Christianization. After succeeding his mother Drahomíra as the sovereign ruler of Bohemia in 925, her anti-Christian measures were reversed and Prince Wenzel set about making Christianity the state religion. Like their mother, his younger brother Boleslaw saw Christianity as a threat to their power and sovereignty and was covetous of his brother’s title. So it was that Wenzel was martyred while on his way to morning prayers, murdered by his own brother in a plot that involved their mother. Wenzel is now venerated as a saint and remembered every September 28th, and he is also commemorated in a splendid 16th century manuscript by the great Martin Hutský, a master painter from Prague.

Facsimile editions available

Description

The March of Christianity in the Middle Ages

The triumphal march of Christianity had progressed greatly by the 10th century, but the extensive consequences of Christianization are still not known to us today. Since the only religious-seeming attitude of a ruling house lead inevitably to very worldly conflicts: in reality it was always about power, influence, and dependencies. St. Wenzel is an ambassador for the devastating effects of Christianization in the then still small principality of Bohemia. He has lost none of his significance for Czechia today.

Resistance to the Christianization of Bohemia

Wenzel of Bohemia was born ca. 908 and was the oldest son of his father Wratislav I and his wife Drahomíra. His father was a Christian. His mother, on the other hand, was not baptized, as was a large portion of the population of his principality. When Wratislav I died in 922, his mother Drahomíra assumed the reign for the still underage Wenzel. Wenzel was handed over to his very Christian grandmother Ludmilla and was educated to that effect. There naturally lay a high potential for conflict in this constellation: above all else, ** in Christianity, Drahomíra saw a loss of power** because Christianization would weaken the independence of the then small principality, in which they must bow to the kings of the Romans. In order to demonstrate her power and to make an example of the Bohemian Christians, Drahomíra took a drastic measure: she had her stepmother Ludmilla murdered and banished all missionaries. In this way, every external influence of a Christian monarch was to be hindered in the principality.

A New Christian Prince

Everything changed when Wenzel came to power in the year 925. He provided for the return of the missionaries and with inter alia the construction of the so-called St. Veit’s Rotunda – over which the foundation walls of the famous St. Veit’s Cathedral today – made a clear sign to Christendom. Wenzel’s goal was the implementation of Christianity as the state religion within his realm. With his efforts, the young prince reversed the machinations of his mother. Now Boleslaw, the younger brother of Wenzel, came into play: he too was suspicious of the new religion. To that effect, he wanted to take the place of his brother as sovereign, and so he forged a murder plot with his mother Drahomíra: he would be invited to Altbunzlau under the pretense of a family gathering, since Wenzel was unassailable in Prague. On the way to morning prayers on September 28th in either 929 or 935, Wenzel was killed by his brother and his henchmen in a struggle. Boleslaw achieved what he wanted. Nevertheless, he was not able to maintain the independence of his territory in the long run, even though he expanded and consolidated the position of Bohemia. Boleslaw had to submit to King Otto I in 950, and as a result the sought-after independence of the small principality could not be maintained.

Wenzel the Saint

His brother Wenzel already had a particular reputation as a Christian during his lifetime. Thus his grave has become a pilgrimage site, and Wenzel was venerated as a saint shortly after his death. Miracles and cures are supposed to have occurred at his grave. The veneration of Wenzel has remained unbroken since that time: Prague’s Wenzel Plaza was used in recent history for special occasions and demonstrations, e.g. in the course of the so-called “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. Today, the 28th of September is solemnized as the official holiday of St. Wenzel. Wenzel is depicted as an exemplary Christian in his legends: he baptized children and saw personally to their Christian upbringing; soup kitchens and the freeing of prisoners demonstrate his brotherly love, the healing of the sick is supposed to indicate a particular proximity to God already during his lifetime. Historically documented military victories were justified in the legends by the appearance of angels. Wenzel dispensed with the subjugation of his enemies. He left them with kind gestures and saw the true victory in the conversion of the opponents of Christianity.

The Manuscript

In 1585, Martin Hutský, Prague’s master of painting, dedicated this manuscript to his sponsor and patron Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol. The Archduke’s incredible, splendidly colored and designed escutcheon on fol. 1 introduces the manuscript. It is followed by a two-page dedication by Hutský to his patron. The historic life story of Wenzel was written down before the legend with its miniatures. The legend of the saint is rendered on 23 pages as such: a thin gold strip forms the frame wherein image and text are interlinked, since what is depicted in the miniature is outlined underneath it. The artist not only designed the illumination, he also wrote the explanations in the manuscript himself.

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