The statue of an Iron Knight at City Hall relates to a gruesome ghost story.
Prague City Hall is certainly the only administrative building in the world with a statue of a cursed ghost.
The current building is near the site of an old tragedy that took place back in the era of knights in shining armor. On the left corner as you face the entrance to City Hall is a statue of a knight by sculptor Ladislav Šaloun. (The right side has Rabbi Löw, also the subject of legends.)
The statue of the knight appears on the Five of Cups in The Tarot of Prague deck, and symbolizes loss and bereavement. Fittingly, his legend is a sad one.
One of the less chivalrous knights, Jáchym Berka, who served King John of Luxembourg, often let his jealous rage get the best of him. He was known as the Iron Knight because of his black armor.
He was to get married to a sweet young woman who was devoted and pure of heart. She was the daughter of a blacksmith who made armor and lived at Platnéřská street 119/19, not far from Old Town Square.
The knight had been off to fight some battle in one of the many wars that raged in that era, and when he returned he heard slanderous rumors that his girlfriend had been unfaithful.
The fiancée had been expecting a joyful reunion with her beloved, and was waiting for him on Good Friday. Instead, he showed up with eyes reddened by rage and stabbed her to death. With her last breath, the woman cursed the knight and he turned into stone. He can be freed from the curse, but only once every hundred years if a virgin pure of heart takes pity on him and gives him a kiss.
The stone statue was long displayed in the street as a reminder against jealous rage and murder, but where it is now nobody can say.
One year, some people say 1909 but most say the date is unknown, the knight appeared as a ghost to a young woman and told her his sad tale. He said that if she showed up the next day of her own free will, he would take her to the stone figure and so she could break the curse. She agreed, but somehow her mother found out. The mother had planned that she would marry a tram driver from a good family, and thought her involvement with a ghost, no matter how well-intentioned, would jeopardize the marriage. The young woman was locked in her room, and the mother showed up instead. As she was not a virgin of pure heart, the curse remained unbroken.
There has been no news that he was freed in 2009, so the next chance may be Good Friday in 2109, if indeed that is even the correct date.
The exact circumstances of the young woman’s death vary in different versions of the legend as do the dates when it happened. One makes the knight out to be a jealous stalker who was rejected by the blacksmith’s daughter. He killed her after seeing her flirt with other men who he considered unworthy of her.
Yet another says the maiden drowned herself when the knight rejected her due to the gossip, and he married a drunken barmaid instead. The girl’s father, heartbroken that his only daughter was gone, jumped from a tower. The knight realized his mistake and killed his drunken wife and then hung himself in the basement. In this gruesome version, nobody is left to utter the curse.
The original Gothic house at Platnéřská street 119/19 was torn down long ago. It had a house sign of an Iron Knight above the door, one of the oldest such signs in the city. The sculptural figure is now at the Municipal Museum. House signs were used before houses were numbered, and each house had a distinct name and symbol. This house was called At the Iron Man (U železného muže), and the spot is now occupied by a hotel and steak house. Prague City Hall, built between 1908 and 1911, is across the street.
It is easy to miss, but at the back of the base of the statue one can see the unfortunate slain maiden, depicted as a nude figure.
Šaloun also designed the Jan Hus Memorial on the Old Town Square, which has long divided critics.
His other work includes sculptures and designs for the Municipal House and for Hotel Europa on Wenceslas Square.
The Municipal Museum, which houses the original Iron Knight house sign, was coincidentally also designed by Šaloun. His former workshop is now a small studio for a private film-related company, and still has some of his designs on the facade.
The new Prague City Hall stands on the site of a Romanesque church that was torn down in 1798. The building was meant to be a tax office, but has been City Hall since 1945.
The statue of the knight appears on the Five of Cups in The Tarot of Prague deck, and symbolizes loss and bereavement. Fittingly, his legend is a sad one. The companion statue of Rabbi Löw can be found standing in for The Hierophant in the Major Arcana.