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Bare Ruined Choirs : A Western Hunger for Gothic Madonnas and Renaissance Angels Has Fueled the Sacking of Eastern Euopean Churches--and Limited Attempts To Save Them.

August 14, 1994|Jonathan Kandell | Jonathan Kandell is a former New York Times European corresondent. His last article for the magazine was on matador Juan Antonion Ruiz's return to the ring after an injury

Father Tomas Konarik is convinced the devil has run amok in the Bohemian countryside. The slim, 43-year-old Roman Catholic priest presides over eight small parishes with 33,000 souls, but he is no simple-minded backwater cleric. Previously, he had been posted in cosmopolitan Vienna. Yet even that modern-day Gomorrah, he asserts, can't match the evil that lurks in these villages some 100 miles west of Prague.

Hardly a week goes by without another robbery in one of Konarik's churches--a Gothic Madonna, a Renaissance marble saint, Baroque angels of polychrome wood, silver chalices, gold crucifixes and brass candleholders. The pilferage and desecration happen so often that Konarik can sometimes sense when Satan's accomplices are about to strike again. "One Saturday, just before midnight, there was thunder and lightning," he recalls. "As I climbed into bed, I said to myself, 'They will surely come tonight.' The next day, someone phoned to tell me that one of my churches had been desecrated."

The intruders failed to break down the heavy oak door with a pick and ax, so they burrowed through a two-foot-thick wall in the back of the church. Among the several artworks they stole, the most valuable was a Baroque statue of a saint. "That evening, I held services at the church and told my parishioners to pray for the return of the saint," says Konarik. "I never expected God to answer so quickly." Precisely 24 hours later, the police captured the thieves at the German border, just as they were about to hand over the statue to a German accomplice believed to be acting on behalf of an antiquarian. "It was miracle," insists the priest.

Konarik has on occasion personally battled the devil's agents. On another stormy night, the prescient priest and several policemen tackled two thieves--a 50-year-old man and his teen-age son. "We were hiding in the bushes and surprised them before they could break into the church," says the clergyman.

But neither miracles nor bravura could save the most beautiful of Konarik's churches, the Gothic structure that looms majestically on a hill over the village of Horni Slavkov. Thieves deliberately set it on fire to keep away parishioners. Before repairs could be done, the vandalism began. "Now, it's as you see it--a total ruin," says Konarik, standing below the vaulted ceilings in the 200-foot-long nave, with dust and ashes soiling his black cassock. "Everything has been stolen. Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque statues and paintings--dozens of them." Even chunks of the ornately carved altar and pieces of the stained glass windows are missing.

Konarik offers his own theological spin on the wave of robberies that has ravaged his country's cultural patrimony--and a theory about when it will stop. "We are living at the end of a millennium," he explains. "Back around the year 1000, there was a rise in paganism and the church had to fight the devil. It's the same now. Satanic forces are taking hold of ordinary people. Only after the year 2000 will evil spirits subside and religion and morality rise again. Whether there will still be art left in our churches by then, well, that's hard to say."

THE OFFICIALS IN CHARGE OF SAFEGUARDING Czech cultural treasures share Father Konarik's doubts that the art thefts can be brought under control before the next millennium. But they offer more secular explanations for the tragic phenomenon. With the fall of Communism, the country's borders have been flung open, making smuggling easy and giving collectors and dealers in the West access to long unavailable artworks. Less fearful of the police, criminals are more brazen, often operating as a version of the more notorious Russian mafia. And unprotected churches, castles and museums make inviting targets.

Czechs are not the only victims. All of Eastern Europe is being stripped by bands of thieves operating on orders from Western collectors and dealers, or using middlemen to place their booty abroad. "These countries are rich in artifacts," says Constance Lowenthal, executive director of the New York-based International Foundation for Art Research, which keeps track of stolen artifacts around the world. "Western European dealers are interested in new merchandise--or merchandise new to their market--and not terribly concerned about how it comes to them. And people in these countries desperately need hard currency. Put it all together and you have today's disastrous situation."

Experts such as Lowenthal believe the looting in Eastern Europe has reached proportions comparable to the ransacking by the Nazis and the Soviet army. Estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the spoils include sacred art ripped from church altars, as well as paintings, sculptures, tapestries, manuscripts and rare coins raided from museums and castles.

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