While travelling, you sometimes come across things that seem obvious because you’ve seen something similar somewhere before. However, it’s only when you’re back home and want to find additional information by looking at photos that you discover the item has its own symbolism and was a widely practiced tradition. This is especially true when your last history lesson was a very long time ago. This year in Olomouc (Czechia) , I took a closer look at the tradition of erecting votive columns.
Votive columns, also known as votive pillars, are religious or symbolic structures that are erected as an expression of gratitude or devotion to a deity or higher power. These columns are typically set up to commemorate a vow or to give thanks for a favor granted, a prayer answered, or a miracle received. The tradition of erecting votive columns has ancient roots and can be found in various cultures and religions around the world. The votive columns themselves vary widely in design and construction. They can range from simple wooden or stone pillars to more elaborate structures adorned with carvings, inscriptions, or religious symbols. In some cases, votive columns may be placed in or near religious sites, such as temples, churches, or shrines. While the specific practices and customs associated with votive columns may vary across cultures and religions, the underlying theme remains a desire to express gratitude and devotion through the creation of a physical structure dedicated to the divine.
In Europe, Marian columns and Holy Trinity columns are distinct forms of religious monuments that flourished in Catholic countries, particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries. While both share the columnar structure and serve as expressions of faith, they have different emphases in terms of symbolism and purpose.
Marian columns, also known as plague columns, are religious monuments depicting the Virgin Mary at the top. They were often erected in response to the devastating impact of plagues as a gesture of thanksgiving for the end of the plague and as a means of seeking solace and divine protection. The Virgin Mary atop these columns symbolizes hope, intercession, and divine intervention during times of crisis.
Holy Trinity columns, while sharing the columnar structure with Marian columns, serve a broader purpose. They are erected to celebrate the Christian faith and the church, emphasizing the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holy Trinity columns are manifestations of public faith, affirming the importance of religious devotion in the community.
Examples of both a Marian Column and a Holy Trinity Column may be found in the Czech city of Olomouc.
Located at the Lower Square (Dolní náměstí) in Olomouc, the Virgin Mary Column was built between 1716 and 1720. It was erected in gratitude for the protection of the city during the plague. In the 18th century, Olomouc, like many other European cities, faced several devastating plagues. One notable epidemic was the plague that struck in 1713. This outbreak was part of a larger pandemic known as the Great Northern War plague, which occurred during the conflict between the Northern European powers. The column features a statue of the Virgin Mary on a Corinthian column.
Following the construction of Virgin Mary Column, a much more bigger and elaborate column was errected in the Upper Square (Horní náměstí). The Holy Trinity Column was built between 1716 and 1754, besides gratitude for the end of the epidemic serving a broader expression of religious faith and gratitude within the context of the Counter-Reformation – a period marked by efforts to strengthen Catholicism in response to the Protestant Reformation.
The column is an elaborate Baroque structure designed by the architect Wenzel Render and the sculptor Ondřej Zahner. At its zenith, the column boasts gilded copper sculptures of the Holy Trinity, presided over by the Archangel Gabriel, with the poignant scene of the Assumption of the Virgin beneath.
The base of the column unfolds in three levels, each adorned with stone sculptures and reliefs of saints. The uppermost stage pays homage to figures integral to Jesus’ earthly life. Saints Anne and Joachim, representing Mary’s parents, join St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist, accompanied by St. Lawrence and St. Jerome, patrons of the Olomouc town hall chapel. Descending to the second stage, the focus shifts to Moravian saints St. Cyril and St. Methodius, pioneers of Christianity in Great Moravia, alongside St. Blaise and patrons of neighboring Bohemia – St. Adalbert of Prague and St. John of Nepomuk. The lowest stage introduces further series of saints: Austrian patron St. Maurice and Bohemian patron St. Wenceslas, guardians of significant Olomouc churches, alongside St. Florian, protector against disasters, and St. John of Capistrano, an eloquent preacher in Olomouc. The stage concludes with St. Anthony of Padua, associated with the Franciscan Order’s monastery, and St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a patron of students, reflecting the city’s pride in its university. The column, when viewed up close, impresses with its grandeur and attention to every detail.