Vienna, 17 September, 2019
I had never heard of this particular saint until my wife and I came to this part of the world, but once here we saw him repeatedly, not only in Austria but also in the Czech Republic, in Slovakia, and in Hungary (and Wikipedia informs me that we could come across statues of his in Germany, Poland, Lithuania, and even further afield). Here is a photo of a typical statue of him.
This particular photo comes from a web site devoted to statues. The site has listed a little over 200 photos of statues of John of Nepomuk, mostly from the catholic lands of Central Europe but with a smattering from elsewhere, which gives some idea of the saint’s popularity in this part of Europe. The photo shows a “typical” statue of John: bearded, clothed as a priest, wearing the priest’s three-peaked biretta, holding a cross, and with a halo of five stars around his head (what is also often found, but is missing from this particular statue, is a martyr’s palm). The statues are often found on bridges or close to them, for reasons which will become clear in a moment. They often look lost and forlorn, engulfed by modern expansions of what were once little villages.
I suppose John of Nepomuk really came into focus for me when, relatively soon after our move to Vienna, my wife and I decided to visit Prague with the children. As anyone who has been to that city knows, no visit is complete without a crossing of the Charles Bridge.
The most striking thing about the bridge (apart from the fine views it affords of both the old and the less old parts of the city) is the thirty or so statues which line both parapets.
For the most part, they are of various saints who presumably were important to the city – or to the donors who paid for them. One of them – actually, the oldest of them all – is a statue of St. John of Nepomuk.
The reasons why some of the other saints got a privileged position on the bridge may not be entirely clear, but in John’s case it is crystal clear. He is the patron saint of the Czech Republic (and, before the Czech Republic existed, of Bohemia). As if that weren’t enough he was killed by being thrown off this very same bridge, which was nearing the end of its construction when he was summarily tipped over the parapet.
Well! It’s not every day that you stand on the very same spot (more or less) from which a saint was dispatched to his death. And such an interesting death! I don’t want to sound too morbid, but the way he was killed – according to my guide-book, sewn into a goatskin bag before being heaved into the river below – was considerably more quirky than most run-of-the mill deaths of saints I’ve come across. Thoroughly intrigued, I began asking myself what John of Nepomuk had done to deserve being declared a saint (being killed isn’t enough, otherwise we would have millions if not billions of saints).
After reading various accounts of his life, I’m afraid I have to conclude that he did nothing to deserve his title of saint. His sainthood was an act of pure politics.
Perhaps it is time for me to give a thumbnail sketch of John’s life and times. He was born in the 1340s in the Czech (Bohemian) town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk). I would guess that his father – a burgher of the town – decided that his son should make his career in the Church. John must have been a bright lad because after the usual schooling he was sent to the University of Prague, completing his studies of theology and jurisprudence in 1374. Somehow he caught the eye of John of Jesentein, who later became archbishop of Prague. Here is a statue of the good Archbishop on the cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague (if this is a true likeness, he seems to have been a merry fellow).
John of Jesenstein became Archbishop in 1378 and made John his first secretary. Presumably the Archbishop decided that John needed to further his studies and he went off to the University of Padua in 1383, returning home in 1387 with a doctorate in canon law in his pocket. Upon his return, he received – no doubt from the Archbishop – various positions: canon in the church of St. Ægidius in Prague, canon of the cathedral in Wyschehrad in 1389, Archdeacon of Sasz and canon of the Cathedral of St. Vitus in Prague in 1390, president of the ecclesiastical court shortly afterwards, and finally the Archbishop’s vicar-general (a sort of deputy for administrative matters) in 1393. It all sounds like the very rapid ascent of a very able fellow in the Church hierarchy. No doubt a brilliant career beckoned.
All this was taking place against a turbulent political background. Wenceslaus IV was King of Bohemia at the time. We see him here with his wife Sophia (more of her later), in a miniature from his bible.
From what I read, he was a rather weak man. He certainly didn’t seem able to control his overweening family members, who were constantly undercutting him. His nobles, perhaps already restive but perhaps sensing his weakness, spent their time being obstreperous. He made matters worse by relying on favourites, something which nobles everywhere have always disliked; they feel that by reason of their birth they should be getting the positions being doled out to lower-born favourites. I have to say, Wencelsaus reminds me a lot of Richard II of England.
It was Wenceslaus wanting to reward a favourite which brought him on a collision course with the Church. The crisis came to a head pretty much immediately after John took up his post as the Archbishop’s vicar-general. Wenceslaus wanted to found a new bishopric for one of his favourites. His eyes fell on the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby, an abbey which still exists. This picture gives us an idea of what a juicy piece of real estate it must have been.
It so happened that its abbot was dying. Wenceslaus ordered that upon his death no new abbot was to be elected. Instead, the abbey’s territories were to be turned into a bishopric and his favourite installed as its bishop (his idea was that the bishop could then return the favour, using the abbey’s resources to support the King in his struggles with family and aristocracy). Now, if there was one thing the Church hierarchy really objected to, that was having Kings telling them who should fill what Church posts, especially when those posts carried with them rich benefices which would be lost to the Church. So when the old abbot finally copped it, the monks of Kladruby held an election post haste and chose one of their own monks to be the new abbot; John, as vicar-general, promptly confirmed the election.
When he heard the news, Wenceslaus blew his top; I am reminded of Henry II of England who, driven to distraction by his Archbishop Thomas à Becket, cried out “Will no-one rid me of this turbulent priest?”, a cry which led four knights to travel to Canterbury and slaughter Thomas on the steps of the cathedral’s high altar. In this case, Wenceslaus had John and three other top Church officials who had played some role in the decision arrested and thrown into gaol. In good medieval fashion, they were all tortured to get them to change the decision. The three others cracked and agreed. But John of Nepomuk held firm. So finally Wenceslaus ordered that he be placed in chains, paraded through the city with a block of wood in his mouth, and thrown from the Charles Bridge into the river. His executioners added the bit about being sewn into a goatskin bag. This fateful final event in John’s story occurred in March of 1393.
I’m not quite sure what the fall-out of all this was. The Archbishop certainly hot-footed it down to Rome, accompanied by the new abbot of Kladruby, to make a formal exposition of all that had happened (thus giving us the earliest written account of John’s death). In that exposition, he wrote of John being a martyr, presumably wanting to clothe in holiness a death that was really about quarrels between Church and State and who was more powerful, swirling around what was – let’s face it – a nice juicy piece of real-estate.
Regardless of what went on in the corridors of power, John’s death caught the imagination of the “little people” of Bohemia. A cult gradually grew up around him. By 1459, so some 70 years after John’s death, a more fanciful – and somewhat more holy – story appeared about the reason for his death; I suppose grubby little arguments about power and money didn’t seem suitable. It was now said that John had been Queen Sophia’s father confessor, that Wenceslaus had pressured him to tell if the Queen had confessed to having a lover, that John had refused to spill the beans citing the secrecy of the confessional, and that the King had lost it, leading to John being tossed into the river. This story is why John is quite often shown with his finger on his lips, as in this painting in the Church of Santa Maria Anima in Rome.
When, after Emperor Ferdinand II smashed the Protestant forces of Bohemia at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620 and the forces of the Counter-Reformation were in full flow to forcibly turn Bohemia back into a Catholic state, it was decided to build on John’s popularity with the little people and push for his canonization. A very thick report was put together which emphasized the fanciful story of his death over the real reason for his death, and it was forwarded to the relevant authorities in Rome. The Roman Curia was happy to comply, so John was beatified in 1721 and canonized in 1729.
John’s sainthood of course drove the creation of art. Some of this was what we could call High Art. For instance, the years between his beatification and canonization saw the building of the Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk, a church that is famous in the Czech Republic and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (its rather fanciful shape is apparently based on an interpretation of the Cabbala).
My wife and I have never seen this church, although it looks like a good candidate for a visit; I shall talk to her about it. On the other hand, I am firmly of the opinion that John’s Baroque tomb in the cathedral of Saint Vitus in Prague can be skipped.
Not only does it have in spadefuls all that I dislike about Baroque art – all flash and no substance – I really disapprove of the fact that two tonnes of silver were used to make the tomb; the money used to purchase the silver should have been distributed to the poor.
That’s the High Art. The Low Art generated by John are all those thousands of statues of him scattered around Central Europe and beyond. As readers can imagine, based on the fanciful explanation of his death, John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of good confession, confessors and penitents. But – more interestingly, to my mind – because of the way he died, he is also believed to protect against floods and troubled waters, and so is considered a patron saint of bridges and fords. Certainly the latest statue of him that my wife and I came across was in Lilienfeld during our walk along the so-called Via Sacra between Vienna and Mariazell. The statue was situated on the bank of a river, next to a bridge.
This statue is somewhat more exciting than most statues of this type, showing John in the act of being thrown over the bridge’s parapet by a fellow who looks quite mean and nasty.
The river itself flowed quite placidly when we crossed the bridge.
But the news is often filled with stories of rivers which have flooded and killed tens or hundreds of people. Why, only a few days ago we were treated to pictures of extreme flooding in Spain.
I can imagine that the little, humble people have always had great respect for the power of rivers. They bring life-saving water to the crops, but they also unleash death and destruction when angry. I’m sure rites to propitiate the river gods are as old as civilization itself. The Greeks and Romans had their river gods and goddesses. So did the Celts. In fact, so did just about every other culture: Wikipedia has an entry on all these deities. I’m sure that the medieval Bohemians used John as a way of christianizing their age-old river gods.
Of course, if you have a saint to whom you pray to stop floods and the heavy rain which creates them, it is not a great step to also ask him to intercede in the opposite case, the case of drought. That’s why you will also find statues of John in the middle of farmland, like this one from a place called Burlo in Germany (although the field behind looks rather sodden in this case).
So there we have it. An actor in a Shakespearean drama of power and money who was, over the centuries and for various political reasons, turned into a saint. But below the official Catholic radar, a man who by chance became the means for a mostly rural population to officialize their magic to try to manage water, one of their most precious resources.
P.S. After reading this post, my wife began to see statues of John of Nepomuk everywhere we hiked. They really are common in this part of the world!