The Most Famous Person You’ve Never Heard of: St John of Nepomuk
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You’ve Never Heard of:
St John of Nepomuk, Statue of St. Nepomucen in Ścinawka Średnia, photo: Jacek Halicki / Wikimedia Commons / CC-By-SA, center, #000000, posag_sw._jana_nepomucena_w_scinawce_sredniej_fot_jacek_halicki_wiki02.jpg
The first statue of Saint John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) I took note of was in Vienna several years ago. Soon, I started to notice them all over the Czech Republic, then in Poland. At some point, it became so repetitive I started to wonder who this guy was. As I looked into him further, it became an obsession.
After some quick internet research, it turns out there are 12,000 Nepomuk statues across central and eastern Europe, with almost half of them on the territory of Poland. There are Nepomuk chapels and monuments in Spain, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland and a dozen other countries around the world. In a weird twist of fate, the rather obscure St John of Nepomuk – a priest who died in Prague in 1393 – has a truly global presence. Be warned: once you learn how to recognise him, you’ll start to see him everywhere!
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Most statues show a plain figure, holding a palm and cross, wearing a biretta hat, with five stars floating above him in a halo. Maybe you’ve even seen him in the middle of the Charles Bridge in Prague. If you look a little bit closer, along the edge, you’ll find an inscription commemorating the spot where John Nepomuk was tossed into the river and drowned. But why did this humble Bohemian priest become such a popular symbol? Why did people all over Europe, indeed all over the world, decide to create images of this particular man?
It turns out that Nepomuk got caught up in some palace intrigue, and the fact that he stayed faithful to his role as Catholic priest has captured the imagination of millions. We know little about his origins, but he came from the town of Nepomuk, a small town near Plzeň in the present-day Czech Republic. John studied canon law in Padua before returning to Prague, where he was a respected vicar priest at St Giles’ Cathedral, close to Male Namesti.
At that time, most of modern-day Czechia was located in the Kingdom of Bohemia, which was itself dependent to the Holy Roman Empire. Confusingly, this polity had little to do with Rome itself, but was actually a confederation of Germanic principalities.
King Wenceslaus IV, who ruled Bohemia at that time, fell into a power struggle with the Catholic Church. Against his wishes, the Church pursued its own policies, and the two sides stayed firm. This may be the reason why St John Nepomuk ended up in the Vltava River. Some chroniclers assert that he even had the audacity to criticize the king.
A more scandalous version of events claims that he served as confessor to the Queen – 20-year-old Sophia of Bavaria. The king had become jealous and suspicious of his young (second) wife and went to her trusted priest to find out if she had been unfaithful. Nepomuk rebuffed these attempts, but in return, the King arrested and tortured John in a Prague dungeon. Sources say the king himself burned the vicar’s flesh, with relish.
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Despite these trials, the priest refused to break the sacred seal of confession and reveal Queen Sophia’s secrets. For this, he was tossed into the river. Devoted townspeople gathered his mangled corpse, where it washed up along the banks of the Vltava. Performing all the appropriate rites, they laid Nepomuk to rest in St Vitus Cathedral. The Archbishop of Prague, fearing for his life, escaped to Rome and declared John a martyr for the faith.
Something beautiful and tragic about this tale continued to fascinate and inspire people from Prague and its surroundings. Various chronicles featured the life and death of Nepomuk, codifying the traditional fables into a history of martyrdom. But in the centuries following his death, it was very much a local tradition, celebrated in Prague and Bohemia alone.
The budding Nepomuk cult took on a much wider audience in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, thanks to the spread of a Latin-language biography or Vita by Bohuslav Balbín (Vita S. Joannis Nepomuceni sigilli sacramentalis protomartyris, 1670). Vitae from the previous centuries had assigned miracles to Nepomuk, but Balbín wrote a particularly rich – if mostly fictional – account. The story spread quickly throughout Catholic central and eastern Europe. By 1721, news of its popularity and widespread veneration had reached Roman ears, and Nepomuk was beatified, and then later canonized a saint in 1729 by Pope Benedict XIII.
It is not exactly clear what made this story so popular. The most likely explanation, however, is that the Nepomuk legend worked on several levels: for laypeople, for the clergy and for the elites.
For the peasant masses and townspeople, Nepomuk was a symbol of unwavering faith, an inspiring model to follow. But also, because of the manner of his death, he became seen as a protector against floods and drowning. For this reason, he can be found on bridges or near rivers in many small towns and villages.
The clergy could find much to be pleased with this tale too. From their perspective, the honourable priest carried out his duty, making the ultimate sacrifice. While a powerful king attempted to extract information from him that would violate his covenant with God to maintain the secrecy of confession, Nepomuk stubbornly refused and lost his life for it.
In any version of the story, either involving Nepomuk as the Queen’s obstinate confessor or as an opponent of the king, the main line of hostility is between the Church and the state. This, of course, resonates well beyond the Middle Ages, when Nepomuk lived. In the 16th century, many Germanic princes and kings broke ties with the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. Thus, they could assert their power independent of the Church – in the same way that Nepomuk’s murderer, Wenceslaus IV, had intended. Echoes of the Reformation carried on well into the future, and just as the Nepomuk cult was picking up steam, the Habsburg dynasty was engaged in efforts to stamp out any rising Protestant dissent amongst the nobility.
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For elites then, Nepomuk’s death was a cautionary tale about what a conflict with the Church can lead to, and the evil acts that can be committed in the name of these power struggles.
The Catholics asserted their superior moral position by remembering this figure who was killed by a wicked king who wished to free himself of the Church. Therefore, they claimed, the path outside the Church is one of evil and sin.
Habsburg counter-reformation efforts perfectly aligned with Nepomuk’s rising popularity, and the dynasty supported its spread throughout their territory. A key element of the propaganda effort was the spread of statues and paintings – based on Balbín’s Vita – that appeared all over these lands under Habsburg rule. We find remnants of this campaign everywhere the Habsburgs had influence: Spain, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, Hungary and in Austria itself, where there are more than 1,000 Nepomuk statues. In the first half of the 18th century, that also included the city of Wrocław, located today in southwestern Poland.
Along the Oder River, near the centre of Wrocław, we can find one of the most magnificent representations of Nepomuk and his legend. This towering statue features four relief engravings around its base, with a narrative of his life and death. One of them shows Nepomuk listening carefully to Queen Sofia’s confession. Another depicts his torture at the hands of King Wenceslaus IV. And finally, at the front of the statue is the fateful moment when a crowd of soldiers tossed Nepomuk off the Charles Bridge in Prague.
The Wrocław statue was completed in 1732, around the height of the Nepomuk craze, when many other similar statues were built. This fashion lasted until the 1760s, by which time there were thousands of Nepomuk statues and engravings. While the highest concentration of these memorials and shrines can be found in the former Bohemian lands, encompassing Czechia and Silesia, the cult also spread across the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the island castle of Trakai (Polish: Troki) in Lithuania, we can find a Nepomuk Chapel and statues. In Ukraine and Belarus too, Nepomuk statues dot the landscape, a reminder of their former Catholic inhabitants.
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Reproduction from book ‘The Mermaid and the Messerschmitt: War Through a Woman's Eyes, 1939-1940’ by Rulki Langer, photo: nepomuki.pl
In Warsaw too, before the Second World War, numerous Nepomuk statues accented the city streets. Sadly, many of them did not survive the wartime destruction or were not repaired after the war. For example, before the war, the distinct rotunda church at Three Crosses Square featured a noteworthy statue directly in front of the entryway, but both were badly damaged. While the church was reconstructed in the 1950s, the statue of John Nepomuk was ignored. One surviving statue from 1733 stands out amongst the communist-era buildings near Bank Square on Senatorska Street.
If we step into the National Museum in Warsaw, we also find another famous representation of Nepomuk. The prominent Baroque painter Szymon Czechowicz (1689-1775) devoted one of his masterful works to the subject, the Martyrdom of St. John Nepomucene. In his rendering, the priest is shown calmly giving in to his fate, to highlight his status as a martyr. Below him, angels hover in wait, holding all the elements that would come to characterize Nepomuk in statues: a palm, a halo with five stars (representing the five stars visible in the sky as he drowned), the biretta hat, and keys.
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‘Martyrdom of St. John Nepomucene’ by Szymon Czechowicz, ok. 1750, oil on canvas, 61 x 86,5, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
As modern viewers of these statues and paintings, the magnitude of sacrifice and devotion that went into creating such objects should not be lost on us. In small towns and villages, local aristocrats donated huge sums of money in order to have their own Nepomuk figures, to direct their prayers towards and to admire. Therefore, each Nepomuk statue contains a history of its own, separated from the larger macro-narrative of the Catholic Church or any dynasty. These represent individuals who established a religious experience for generations to come.
Don’t forget – Nepomuk is everywhere! No matter where you may be in the world, you can probably find a Nepomuk near you.
Written by Zachary Mazur, Oct 2020