It was a crisp, cold November evening yesterday as we walked with our Czech guide through the dark windswept streets of Prague. Most sensible people were passive-smoking in the warm, crowded bars; we headed for the Old Town, then across Charles Bridge. On the parapet of the almost deserted medieval bridge we found our first cross: bronze, and set into the stone of the parapet. ‘Place your hand on it,’ I was told, ‘any wish you make will come true.’ The location was where, in 1393, the tortured body of Jan Nepomucký (John of Nepomuk), confessor to the queen, was thrown into the river on the orders of a suspicious Wenceslas IV for failing to divulge the confession of his wife. I placed my hand on the baroque cross with two horizontal bars: it was worn smooth by centuries of touch. I made a wish which will remain secret.
We moved on, descending the stone steps from the bridge down to Malá Strana (‘Lesser Town’), now the embassy district of Prague, but which centuries ago was controlled by the Knights of the Cross. Prague is the only city in the world where the Knights of the Cross have had a continuous presence from the 11th century, and after winding through the medieval back streets, past John Lennon’s graffiti wall, we found ourselves entering a courtyard. In the stone of the pavement was a Maltese cross – four slim arrowheads, points meeting, making a star. Across the threshold we found ourselves in a roofless medieval church (burned during the Hussite wars) with music playing gently into the cold night, at the end of which was the entrance to yet another church - Kostel Panny Marie pod řetězem (the Church of Our Lady under the Chain – the chain in question, apparently, being one stretched across the Vltava River so that boats could not pass without paying taxes).
We entered past the signs demanding ‘silence!’. The church, which was founded in the 12th century, was the place where Jan Nepomucký was arrested and which was later given to the Knights of the Cross as a chapel. We found ourselves surrounded by heavy baroque statutes, low lights and candles reflecting the gold leaf. The Knights of the Cross first fulfilled their duties by protecting medieval pilgrims as they made the dangerous pilgrimage to Jerusalem: here, unusually, the gold saints and angels surrounding us carried weapons, and above the altar a medieval painting showed the Madonna blessing the Maltese Knights before a battle.
Ten minutes later we were in a local pub serving some of the best beer in Prague (accompanied by pickled Hermelin cheese) being served by a surly waiter with tattoos and a black T-shirt, a cross dangling from one ear. Thus fortified, we climbed the cobbled street winding towards the castle, and then a path leading higher still; eventually we stood on the viewing point on the hillside. Behind us, Mary interceded for the city; on the hill below us, St Vitus’ Cathedral stood imperially in the castle grounds gazing at the city (frowning, it seemed, on her wayward children); and below that, stretching to the horizon, the lights of Prague twinkling in the frosty night and a hundred crosses reaching star-ward, piercing the night.
We descended the hill and entered the Kostel Panny Marie Vítězné (The Church of Our Lady Victorious), a Carmelite church containing an extraordinary statue, the sixteenth century Pražské Jezulátko (‘Infant Jesus of Prague’), an 18-inch statue of the Child holding a globus cruciger – a cross projecting from a globe – and beneath him, a small golden cross with a ruby and chalice below, speak of his destiny. Set within a stunning baroque marble-columned altar as high a house, the Child is surrounded by gold-covered human and divine beings: God, flanked by seraphim, points downward to single out his Child whose parents stand in adoration on either side. Around him, glory radiates and seems to press down as you gaze upwards.
As Christmas approaches and Prague children think of the presents that Baby Jesus will bring (Father Christmas does not come here), I wonder what people really think of the Child – and the cross?