The House of the Two Bears

Tucked into the entrance of an alley beside the road leading to Prague’s Old Town Square lies the House of Two Bears. The imagery, which suggests a link to alchemy, may not be what it seems. I investigate the legends behind it.

The background hum of tourist life buzzes around my head. I step aside as a tourist guide waves a dangerous umbrella around to shepherd her flock. The crows gaggles behind her and I weave my way along the cobblestones that have borne the weight of many a traveller.

The winding street from Prague’s Wenceslas Square to the Old Town Square is always packed with tourists. Few explore the side roads they pass which is a shame as there are some great sights to sample if only you knew were to look.

A photo of the portal for the House of the Two Bears - Prague, Czechia

The portal for the House of the Two Bears – Prague, Czechia

The House of the Two Bears is one of them.

The building is a fifteenth century one. [2] Someone joined two separate buildings together to form what is now one of the oldest buildings in Prague. It has a magnificent portal replete with imagery engraved into stone. It is clear the portal is a separate part of the building; in fact a century passed before the owner commissioned it. [2] The main image which captures the eye is the pair of bears on either side of the arch.

I stand in front of the portal, scrutinising the imagery on its surface. More people pass by; some wonder what I’m looking at but none stop to appreciate this door.

A photo of the detail on the door to the House of the Two Bears - Prague, Czechia

Detail on the door to the House of the Two Bears – Prague, Czechia

In alchemy, the bear is a symbol for primal matter, to obscurity and shadow. [1] It corresponds to the first stage of alchemy – nigredo. This links the bear with the initial stages of alchemy and to instinct which is the initial stage of thought. [4] I’ve written about the coronation route in Prague before which starts from the Powder Tower. The route guides the alchemist through the streets of Prague using the alchemical process. The imagery on this building has nothing to do with this route. The building is not far from the route but it is too far away from the beginning of the route for the symbology to make sense. It is more likely the owner was an alchemist of sorts. My guess is that he was starting his work in alchemy so imagery related to the first step would be appropriate.

The bears were once gilded [3] so some refer to this building as the House of Two Gold Bears.

The animals face two people. These bearded figures are distinguishable as knights given their armour. Each one of them holds out a branch, as if to offer something to the bear in front of him. This is not coincidental; the message points out that man can tame the bears, like he can tame the alchemical process.

A photo of the left panel of the portal of the House of the Two Bears - Prague, Czechia

The left panel of the portal of the House of the Two Bears – Prague, Czechia

I snap a few photos, ignoring my stomach rumblings that beg for lunch. I smile as I realise my mind is trying to tame the growling bear that is my stomach. We are all alchemists, I suppose; we eat and convert food into thoughts, creativity and emotions.

In Jungian psychology, the bear represents human duality. We have animal instincts which our rational brains should balance out. The duality is the fight between instinct and intellect. Jung portrays the bear as a symbol of the unpredictable dangerousness of our unconscious. [1]

I step closer to the side panels. The columns on either side of the door show a head with hop leaves sprouting from its mouth. This is a nod to the building’s heritage; one of the original fifteenth century buildings was a brewery. Had I not known about the brewery, I would have thought of them as green men – but that is a separate legend.

A photo of the right panel of the portal of the House of the Two Bears - Prague, Czechia

The right panel of the portal of the House of the Two Bears – Prague, Czechia

Have you spotted symbols on buildings during your travels? Leave a comment below and share it!

References

[1] Bear; Symbols; 2011-01-23
[2] House of Two Gold Bears; Hrady.cz; 2008-01-28 (Article in Czech)
[3] Two Golden Bears House; Prague.cz; (Retrieved 2017-10-07)
[4] Dictionary of Symbols, A, Cirlot, A. E.; Courier Corporation; 2013-05-27

 

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