We have opened the renovated art gallery.

On June 6th, after a long period, we reopened the renovated Strahov Gallery. The entrance is now through the Strahov Library. To mark this event, we bring you an interview with its curator, Mgr. Libor Šturc.

A glimpse into the newly opened Strahov Gallery.
A glimpse into the newly opened Strahov Gallery.

Created on: 25. 6. 2024

Through Art to God

Interview with Mgr. Libor Šturc, curator of the Strahov Gallery collections

Why was the gallery closed?

The first reason was technical. It was necessary to reconstruct the lighting, wiring, and implement new security features. All this took place in an extraordinarily valuable historical environment, requiring time, care, and sensitivity. The average visitor may not notice many details we focused on, which are technical in nature and ensure the safety of the gallery and its visitors.

The second, more important reason was to restore the passage from the library to the gallery, which indeed existed about 300 years ago. We managed to align the levels of the two floors using stairs that had been buried. Thanks to this, visitors to the Strahov Monastery can now simultaneously tour the library, gallery, and convent building.

The new entrance to the gallery necessitated a new chronological arrangement from the oldest exhibits of the 14th century to the newest ones. The gallery also includes a treasury where visitors can see our significant works of applied art.

What makes the Strahov Gallery unique?

It is unique, for example, because it is the oldest ecclesiastical gallery in Prague. The oldest was the Imperial Gallery at the Castle. Noble and bourgeois galleries followed, like the Czernin Gallery in their Hradčany palace, though many of them disappeared by the end of the 18th century. Conversely, monastic galleries were established at that time. In 1796, the Society of Patriotic Friends of Art, a precursor to the National Gallery, was founded. Just 30 years later, the then-abbot of Strahov, Jeroným Josef Zeidler, established the gallery. It was located on the second floor of the cloister, where the Premonstratensians now have a recreation room. The gallery was opened to the public as early as 1836.

We are not among the largest galleries in terms of scope. Nevertheless, historically, over 1000 paintings were inventoried here by the mid-19th century, which is relatively large. In later times, paintings were not acquired for the Strahov Monastery on such a large scale. The collection remained intact until 1950. After 1990, we managed to partially restitute its original inventory.

What is the focus of the gallery, and what can we find there?

The Premonstratensians have always emphasized that people can be elevated to God through art. The Strahov Gallery is non-state, belonging to the Premonstratensian order, and features various genres. It spans from the 14th century to the late 19th century. Adverse political circumstances of the 20th century, including the monastery's abolition in 1950, mean that 20th-century paintings are rare here. Unlike the painting collection, the set of sculptures could not be significantly reclaimed as the monastery lacked sufficient property evidence of their existence before 1950.

What are the three most valuable paintings in the gallery?

It's hard to determine because everyone has different views on what is valuable. Ultimately, everyone should choose their most beautiful and valuable painting themselves. It is more about which paintings are of interest from the perspective of world art. The Strahov Gallery is recognized not only domestically but also internationally. Some works are loaned to major world galleries like the Metropolitan Museum (New York, USA) or the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Among the most sought-after works are the Strahov Madonna and certainly the Resurrection of Christ by Bartolomeus Spranger or the Allegory of the Rule of Rudolf II by Dirk de Quade Ravesteyn. The latter is often loaned, most recently to France and Japan a few years ago. Next year, it should head to Germany. There is also interest in many other paintings, but these are the ones that attract the most international attention.

What are the new developments? Has anything changed?

Yes, because change is life, and life is change. We have installed some previously unexhibited paintings in the gallery, either newly restored or somehow returned to Strahov. These include items we loaned to the National Gallery long-term or newly acquired works. Each section has several new items. In the Gothic section, notable is the large panel painting of the Virgin Mary Protector from before 1450, restituted from the National Gallery and brought back to Strahov at the end of last year. Next to it, visitors will find a beautiful statue of the crucified Christ, the original from the Strahov Abbey Basilica, long exhibited in replica form. The original, restored a few years ago, now showcases its beautiful Gothic appearance. It's a magnificent piece, a major discovery for both experts and laypeople. Additionally, there is a set of six late Gothic panel altar paintings, newly restored and assembled into a single, albeit non-original, composition. These have not been previously exhibited.

Among other noteworthy items is a painting by David Norbert Altmann of Eydenburg depicting the Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist from the mid-17th century. The artist, along with his brother, contributed to the decoration of the Strahov area in the early 17th century. This painting, with a dedication to the then-Strahov abbot Kryšpín Fuka from Hradiště on its reverse side, somehow made its way to Vienna, where it was auctioned in the last decade. Fortunately, it was purchased back into the Czech Republic. We acquired it from its new Czech owner, and it is now part of the exhibition. Another highlight is the portrait of a Lady with her Son by Pietro della Vecchia, a copy of a painting by Paride Bordone, a significant Italian painter from the 1530s. The original is in the collections of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, with several copies existing, one of which we have. Also noteworthy is the large painting of the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem from 1681 by Andrea Celesti, once considered a work by Brandl. Speaking of Peter Brandl, three Strahov paintings were loaned to the recent grand Brandl exhibition, with one, Boy with Soap Bubble, fully restored for the occasion and becoming a celebrated exhibit.

Newly exhibited are also a few post-1990 acquisitions, after the resumption of monastic life at Strahov. One is a beautiful painting by Alén Diviš titled Crucifixion from 1954, and another is the previously unknown Garden of Gethsemane by Ludvík Kolek, a Brno painter and architect, created in the early 1960s.

Do you have a favorite painting?

Yes, several, including some not displayed in the exhibition. Of course, for me, it's the Strahov Madonna, a masterpiece one cannot overlook. Every time I pass by it, I feel very good. As a complete contrast, I like the painting Landscape with the Persian King Darius Fleeing after Losing the Battle with Alexander the Great by Gillis van Valckenborch. It's a large painting whose subject was unknown for decades. It wasn't until a chance discovery by Professor Slavíček about twenty years ago, while preparing an international Flemish landscape painting exhibition, that the subject was identified. This painting is listed in a 17th-century inventory with its exact theme. It's one of the hundred most beautiful Flemish landscapes in the world, a true gem with no parallel in the Czech Republic.

Have you ever been surprised by a painting?

Absolutely, often. The Strahov collection holds immense value for anyone interested in fine art, partly because some paintings were in the National Gallery from 1950 until restitutions between 1990 and 1992, allowing for scientific examination. Our top art historians at the National Gallery, if interested, scientifically examined the paintings. After 1992, many paintings gradually returned to Strahov, including from other depositories. For example, some paintings were unnoticed for decades in historic buildings. Sometimes only their size was known, and nothing about the subject or authorship. No one dealt with them, which is why we still discover new things today. Many paintings have gained completely new stories. Recently, for instance, the painting The Judgment of Paris by Luca Cambiaso, an Italian painter active in Genoa and at the Spanish court, decorating the Escorial Palace. Emperor Rudolf II admired his works and wanted some in Prague, ordering two paintings, one of which survived. This story might have ended here, but about fifteen years ago, a colleague and I noticed this large, interesting but poorly preserved painting in a depository. Restoration revealed its Italian origins, confirmed by a record in Rudolf's collections. This painting was exhibited in Genoa in a major Rubens exhibition, as Cambiaso inspired Rubens. Today, we have this painting at Strahov. This is just one of many stories in the Strahov collection.

How many paintings are exhibited in the gallery?

Currently, about 200 paintings are on display, with a total inventory of around 1600.

Can you take photos in the gallery?

Yes, you can take photos, but without flash. We recommend bringing smartphones as some labels have QR codes for more information. Labels are in Czech and English.

Are larger backpacks and luggage allowed in the gallery?

No, these can be left at the St. Roch Information Center, where the monastery's ticket office is located. Visitors can purchase tickets either for the Strahov Library alone or for the entire complex, including the gallery. Tickets can also be purchased online.

Is there anything visitors should prepare for?

Perhaps that the gallery cannot be toured in just a few minutes. The tour includes the treasury, showcasing a wide range of goldsmithing from the early 13th century. This includes the St. George's plenary, or reliquaries, from the Benedictine convent of St. George at Prague Castle, likely associated with St. Ludmila and Charles IV. But that is a story for another time.

Are there any non-liturgical items in the treasury?

Mostly, they are liturgical items, but there are rarities like the so-called Rooster Cross, used didactically during Passion Week. These items are not directly related to liturgy but are connected to the liturgical year.

Kategorie: 2024 believers public