On the morning of our last day in Prague, I took a walk through the city and found it, as the guidebook had promised, all but deserted in the early morning hours. We had crossed the Charles Bridge many times in our few days in the city, but whether by coincidence or divine appointment, I had not previously noticed this statue.

Calvary on Charles Bridge

My initial response was to feel frisson of pride for understanding the inscription: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Hosts.” Then my stunted aesthetic sense registered a further satisfaction: a four-part title, corresponding to the four arms of the cross. The lighting was not exceptional that morning, and I did not look closely at the statue, but I paused somewhat before moving on.

Although my initial reaction did not promise much, the memory of the statue stayed with me, as I meditated on the juxtaposition of the crucifixion of Christ and the hymn of praise to the Lord in Isaiah 6 (which, aside from its general familiarity, has occasionally played a role in my devotional life). There is an ironic contrast between the exultation of the Lord in the Isaiah passage—the throne room scene—and the humiliation of Christ at the crucifixion. But it’s a Johannine sort of irony, where the apparent contradiction reveals the deeper truth: that God’s glory is revealed uniquely in the crucifixion, i.e., that it is expressed in mercy and sacrifice at least as well as in the praise of cherubim.

This is the only depiction of the crucifixion I have been able to find that uses the Trisagion, though given the number of depictions throughout history I can hardly be said to have made an exhaustive search. I can find two biblical precedents for the association.

The first association, very generally between the glory of God and the crucifixion, is the repeated use of the verb “to lift up” in the gospel of John (3:14, 8:28; 12:32). For instance, in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (NIV). By the canons of exegesis it is inappropriate to make much of ambiguity, but I believe that Jesus (and John) deliberately left it ambiguous whether He was thinking of the crucifixion or the resurrection and ascension. I think there’s at least a tease that even the crucifixion demonstrates God’s glory.

The other association is in Revelation chapters 4 and 5, which echoes of the throne room scene in Isaiah 6. The New Testament Trisagion is there in Revelation 4:8, and in chapter 5 the “Lamb, looking as if it had been slain” is present as well: the only one worthy of opening the scroll. So there’s a connection there, stronger or weaker depending on one’s interpretation of the passage. (Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified is a good book, which includes theological reflections on the throne of God and incorporation of Jesus into the throne.)

It also brought a fragment of a song to mind:

The beauty of the Lord is the suff’ring of the Lord,
is Christ upon a tree, stripped of dignity.
The glory of the Lord is the mercy of the Lord,
gives life for us to see a new humanity:

David Gungor

So the aptness of the juxtaposition struck with me, deepening even as weeks went by.

This would be an excellent place for this blog entry to stop. But it continues.

I conceived the idea of printing out a photograph of the statue and hanging it on my wall. Where to get a photograph? Wikipedia, of course. But there I encountered this sentence:

In 1696, a Jewish communal leader named Elias Backoffen was forced to pay for the inscription after being accused of blasphemy.

That was certainly a jarring statement—that the inscription could in fact have been an expression of antisemitism, rather than a theological statement. I confess that I recoiled against the suggestion that what had struck me as a deep theological reflection had in fact been intended as an insult. It also struck me as prima facie unlikely that a Christian would choose to insult anyone using on of the holiest symbols in Christianity. I also note that Wikipedia both describes the statue as a 17th century work of art, and attributes it to the 19th century sculptor Emanuel Max. Could Wikipedia have been wrong about the origin of the inscription?

I did what historical research I could, which was really not much. I discovered that there are various versions of the story, such as that Backoffen muttered something under his breath while passing the statue, rather than doffing his hat, and for that reason he was fined. Almost every tourist-oriented site has some version of that story (which is also cited by the AP; see below for what the “blasphemy” really was).

The most detailed account I could find of the inscription was from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in an article that was run around the time that contextualizing plaques were installed near the statue in the year 2000. Their description of the association between the inscription and the fine are as follows:

On March 20, 1694, Backoffen was fined 1,000 gold florins. To punish the Jews, the Czech government on Sept. 13, 1696 added to the statue a gold Hebrew inscription, paid for with Backoffen’s fine.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

As another web site remarked—though I cannot now find it to cite it—there was an interval of about eighteen months between the fine and the addition of the inscription. So one could ask whether there was an actual link, beyond the fact that the fine was 1,000 florins, and the inscription cost 1,000 florins.

A further complication of the story comes from an article published in the Jewish Quarterly, titled “Truth and legend on the Charles Bridge,” written by Paul Kriwaczek and published in 2007. Kriwaczek does not go into detail about the inscription, but does offer further insight into the charge of blasphemy. It appears that Backoffen was involved in a civil dispute with Abraham Aron Lichtenstadt, a fellow Jewish resident of Prague. It seems that what would otherwise have been a private financial dispute escalated rapidly. Evidently in an effort to move the venue of the trial to a higher court, Lichtenstadt accused Backoffen of blaspheming Jesus and the cross in a coded letter. (Ciphering business communication was standard practice in the day.) Incredibly, although Lichtenstadt could not provide an encryption key that proved blasphemy, and although Backoffen could produce a key that showed that the letter had no such meaning, the court still fined Backoffen 1,000 florins. (Kriwaczek speculates that this was to appease a public upset about a blasphemy accusation.) Regarding the inscription itself, after citing the court ruling that requires the fine “for charitable purposes,” Kriwaczek continues,

No mention here, or in any other of the court records, of the crucifix on the Charles Bridge, the Hebrew words affixed to them, or the reason for choosing the text from Isaiah. The bronze plaques on the statue merely state that the golden letters were paid for out of Backoffen’s fine, though they don’t actually refer to him by name. It could be that the court thought this the best way to appease the public’s outrage at the relatively light sentence, by humiliating the Jewish community as a whole.

The last sentence of that paragraph echoes the English text of the interpretive plaque added in 2000, which states that the addition of the inscription “was intended to humiliate the Jewish community.”

Although I certainly acknowledge that associating the Trisagion—used to worship YHWH—with Christ is offensive to Jewish people, it’s fair to say that there is an element of interpretation in saying that the intention of the inscription was to humiliate the Jewish community. That goes further than the documentary evidence allows. (That notwithstanding, I think the decision to contextualize the statue rather than, say, remove it altogether, was a good one: it makes it possible to acknowledge history without requiring us to celebrate it.)

In fact, given the lack of association between the fine and the inscription in the court records, and the 18-month gap between the events, I would be inclined to downplay association between the two. The most direct evidence for a link, however, comes from the statue itself. There is a plaque at the base of the statue (which Kriwaczek refers to in the passage quoted above), with the following Latin inscription:

Trisagion in honor of Christ crucified, placed by the royal court of appeals from the fine of Jew’s blasphemy against the holy cross, year of the Lord 1696, 14th day of the month of September.

Translated from the Latin original

(The inscription does indicate September 14; if this is the only source for that date, then the article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency was simply mistaken. Or, perhaps there is another source that gives September 13 as the date.)

I got about this point of the blog entry in September 2022, and I just stopped. It was such a beautiful theological insight, and then it felt so tained by anti-Semitism. It was deflating.

As it happened, that was not my last day in Prague. I went back on a business trip the following February, and saw the statue several more times. This time, I knew to stop and read not just the Hebrew, but also the ungracious Latin inscription, and the English inscriptions that contextualize the sculpture.

Speaking personally, I hope that there was a moment of theological and artistic inspiration that was distinct from the political decision to attempt to shame the Jewish community. On the balance, I think that is not unlikely. No one could have come up with the Hebrew without a certain level of theological education, and I still find it hard to believe that someone would choose to disparage anyone with the holiest symbols in one’s religion. I hope that the person who wrote the Latin plaque was a different person, just a bitter municipal bureaucrat. But I don’t know for sure.

I’m also not writing as a person with a perfect track record. My holiest and pious thoughts are intermingled with many more fleshly aspirations. If my life were a statue, there would be some ungracious inscriptions on it. I look forward to a day when all of that can be sorted out.

But for now, I have not printed out the photo to hang on my wall.