The Four of Pentacles in The Tarot of Prague features details from three Prague buildings from different eras, but that speak to us across time.

The House at St. Luke (U sv. Lukáše) on Loretánské náměstí was built around 1730 as a Baroque townhouse, with a lot of attention paid to symmetry.

St. Luke is seen above the entry showing a painting of the Madonna and Child to his subjects.

While best-known as an author of a Gospel and patron of physicians, students and butchers, Luke is also associated with artists and by some accounts was a painter of icons. He is thought to have painted the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, now in Poland, and a few others that survive to this day. In the medieval era, painters were sometimes in a Guild of St. Luke.

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A house sign above the door shows St. Luke and an icon of the Madonna.

On the Four of Pentacles card in The Tarot of Prague, Luke has been repurposed from an Evangelist into a man holding too tightly onto his possessions, though his concern to protect his wealth may be justified, depending on the circumstances. In the historical section of Prague, older houses are known by the “door signs”, the pictures above the door, as actual street numbers came much later. The signs came into vogue in the 14th century. House numbers only started in the 1770s. The identity of the original owner of the townhouse shown on the card is not known, but his profession could have been related to one of the attributes of Luke, as house signs sometimes doubled as professional advertisements aimed at a largely illiterate population.

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On the background of the Four of  Pentacles is the door to the Old Town Hall in Old Town Square, built in the Gothic style and dating to the 14th century. The door sports sinister mystical faces, some made of vegetation and seashells. (One face coincidentally resembles the star of Creature from the Black Lagoon, a 1954 horror film.) Faces made of leaves are called Green Men, and can be found across Europe. They represent nature spirits. The lower ones look more like demons, and fanciful but fierce animals can be found in the carved tangle of vines on the stone frame for the portal.

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Detail of a door at the Old Town Hall.

These bosses and chimeras individually protect a building by scaring away potential evil spirits, sort of like a “Do Not Enter” sign. And if you get past the fierce animals, the thorny vines will trap you.

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Another view of the carving on Old Town Hall door.

It seems to have worked, as despite Prague’s turbulent history, there are no traditional legends of ghosts or spirits in Old Town Hall (though modern ghost tours do speak of spirits lurking in the cellars). There are some mystical tales associated with the Astronomical Clock and other buildings in the square.

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Fanciful animal on a door frame at Old Town Hall.

The House at St. Luke also has a variety of faces above the windows including some that seem to be not exactly human. One seems to be a spirit billowing softly out of the facade and another might be a Green Man, as it has some leaf details. Others look like soldiers or guards.

These faces seem more benign, as by the time the house was built such details had simply become standard decorations without as much magical significance as they once had.

The large coin that the man holds onto comes from another house sign. This building, called the House at the Golden Sun on Valdštejnská Street in Prague’s Malá Strana district, was home to Havel Oberšverder, a chamberlain and silver valet to Emperor Rudolf II, who ruled 1576–1612 and is remembered for his great interest in alchemy and the occult.

Little else is known about Oberšverder, but keeping track of the silver must have been quite a task as some of Rudolf’s dinner guests were rather dodgy.


Background

All three buildings are at least partly accessible to the public. The building House at St. Luke, located at Loretánské nám. 107/1, is now home to an old-school Czech pub, At the Black Ox (U černého vola). It is usually rather crowded.

Old Town Hall, located on Old Town Square, was the seat of Prague’s government since the 1338, but was replaced in the mid 20th century by a new building a few streets away. The original building, with its Astronomical Clock and Gothic tower is a major tourist attraction. The tower is open to the public and exhibitions and public events take place in various parts of the vast building. Weddings can also be arranged there.

House at the Golden Sun, at Valdštejnská 20, was built in the 16th century. A fire in 1541 destroyed many of the old buildings on Valdštejnská Street, and new ones were built. They became popular with royal staff.

Havel Oberšverder’s grandson, the painter Jan Kryštof Krystl, also later lived there.

Since 1892, the building has been the J. A. Comenius National Pedagogical Museum and Library.

The house was long ago caught up in a dispute as another homeowner also wanted to use the golden sun as his house sign, as both gold and the sun have positive attributes.

The local authorities ruled that it would cause confusion and that signs had to be unique.  The second homeowner had to chose either a different kind of sun or a different number of them. That second house is now the House at the Two Suns (U Dvou slunců), famous as the onetime home of poet Jan Neruda.

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An article by Baba Studio with Raymond Johnston. Copyright Baba Studio, all rights reserved. Please contact us if you would like to syndicate or otherwise use this article.

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