Pictures selection of best architectural portals and doors in Prague of all times by Pierpaolo Riccio / L’ombrello italiano
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Bestpraguedoors / Pražské prahy

The old signages and symbols above the doorsways in Prague

Even if you don’t have a great sense of observation, if you live or you have been in Prague at least one time, you cannot help noticing the wonderful symbols placed on the doors and facades of buildings and above their entryways. These house signs were a popular method of identifying palaces, families, businesses, before the numbering system of city planning was implemented.  In the old town centre of Prague, there are 264 buildings with symbols on their facades. Of these, the oldest date back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 

Maybe I tend to have a great obsession with photographing doors, windows and architecture in general. The historical center of Prague is full of architectural wonders whose artistic details reveal, through the silent language of symbols and decorations, stories of times gone by and echoes of ancient knowledge and doctrines that were skillfully painted and carved on the facades of its buildings. 

Some of the earliest signs were used informally to denote the membership of specific groups. Early Christians used the sign or a cross or the Ichthys to denote their religious affiliations, whereas the sign of the sun or the moon would serve the same purpose for pagans. The practice of using signs spread to other types of commercial establishments throughout the Middle Ages when the use of signboards was generally optional for traders. This intent made public houses easily visible and recognizable even by people who were unable to read.

Large towns, where many premises practiced the same trade and where these congregated in the same street, a simple trade sign was insufficient to distinguish one house from another. So traders began to employ a variety of devices to differentiate themselves. Sometimes the trader used a rebus on his own name; sometimes he adopted a figure of an animal or other object, or portrait of a well-known person. Other signs used the common association of two heterogeneous objects were in some cases merely a whimsical combination. 

Around this time, some manufacturers began to adapt the coats of arms or badges of noble families as a type of endorsement. These would be described by the people without consideration of the language of heraldry (for example Red Lion, the Green Dragon, etc). By the 17th and 18th centuries, the number of commercial houses actively displaying the royal arms on their premises, packaging and labelling had increased, but many claims of royal endorsement were fraudulent. From 19th century the rules surrounding the display of royal arms were tightened to prevent false claims.

The oldest house signs were made of stone and carved with various reliefs. In the baroque age, these signs were made of stucco and plaster. Baroque designs were also painted onto plaster cartouches or tablets and placed onto the facade. During the 19th century, some artists specialized in the painting of signboards, such as the Austro-Hungarian artist Demeter Laccataris. 

This system was kept in place until 1770, when Bohemia finally adopted the official numbering system. [ Read: Why do houses in Prague have two orientational numbers? ] 

We will publish in future other articles related to this topic and learn more about the deep meaning of some of them.

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