The sculptural decoration of the high altar in the basilican church of the Nativity of the Virgin in Doksany is a superb example of Franz Preiss’s graceful, exuberant and intensively personal manner, already fully High Baroque in style. The figural woodcarvings were commissioned for the new retable by the provost of Doksany, Bruno Matthias Kunovský, who also entrusted Peter Brandl with creating the titular painting of The Nativity of the Virgin and the oval image featuring The Assumption of the Virgin for the extension of the future altar. In accordance with the customary practice of the time, the sculptor first submitted to the patron a demonstration model (originally comprising the now missing sketches of Brandl’s paintings), in which he presented the overall architectural setting and colour scheme of the large retable and arranged the individual poses, gestures and drapery patterns of its meticulously carved statuettes of saints. However, the modelletto did not include the statues of the Bohemian patron saints, St. Vitus and St. Wenceslas, now mounted in the Doksany church above the side entrances to the back of the altar. Between the altar’s high columns, the Hradčany master placed over-life-size woodcarvings of St. Augustine, whose rules the Premonstratensian nuns followed, and St. Norbert, founder of the Order. The statues of St. Adalbert and St. Bruno were installed on the ledge of the altar’s extension. Its huge volutes were then graced with two angels, arranged to generously fill the space, holding Brandl’s painting of the Assumption and pointing it out to the viewer. Ultimately, Preiss crowned the altar’s monumental portal-type architectural framework with a splendid carving of the Holy Trinity group surrounded by cherubs. Upon completion, the magnificent work, displaying surprising dynamism and a sensitive handling of light, was consecrated on August 22, 1703, by the abbot of Strahov, Vitus Seipl.
The complex restoration of the high altar of the church in Doksany took place within the context of the Programme for the Restoration of Movable Cultural Monuments, with the generous financial support of the Czech Ministry of Culture. As a result of the concerted conservation and restoration project, carried out from 2001 to 2005 by a large number of specialists under the guidance of Milena Nečásková, the original High Baroque appearance of the entire ensemble has been fully rehabilitated. A detailed technical examination has brought new findings that have facilitated the understanding of the methods of craftsmanship established in the Hradčany woodcarving studio. The new evidence has corroborated the validity of the traditional attribution of the Doksany masterpiece, while extending our knowledge of the artist’s mature work. Careful inspection of the restored statuary from the Doksany church substantiates the evaluation rendered in the more recent specialized literature, according to which Franz Preiss was Bohemia’s most outstanding sculptor prior to the emergence of Matthias Bernhard Braun.
The exhibition presently on view at the Convent of Saint George is the collaborative effort of the National Gallery in Prague and the Royal Premonstratensian Canonry at Strahov. This is yet another in the series of “working exhibitions“ held by the National Gallery’s Collection of Old Masters that presents to the public the latest results of contemporary art restoration practice.