Czechs in History – St. John of Nepomuk

A Small Town Saint 

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Statue of St. John of Nepomuk in Telč.

Saint John of Nepomuk, or John Nepomucene as he is sometimes called, is one of the best known patron saints of the Czech lands. There is no shortage of statues and other artwork featuring him on display both within Czech borders and further afield. A visitor to the Czech Republic would have to go to great effort to not encounter a statue or other likeness of this saint while here.

Jan Velflín was born in the 1340s in the small town of Pomuk, later renamed Nepomuk, in the Pilsen region of Bohemia. Little is known of his childhood or adolesence; in the 1380s, he studied canon law in both the Universities of Prague and Padua. He was made a doctor of canon law in 1387.

He was appointed Vicar General of the Prague Archdiocese by Jan of Jenštejn, Archbishop of Prague from 1379 to 1396, in 1393. In the same year, Velflín met his death at the orders of King Wenceslas IV.

He was beatified in 1721 and canonized in 1729 by Pope Benedict XIII.

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Depiction of the saint’s death on display at Zelená hora

On the Wrong Side of the King

Velflín had the misfortune of serving the church at the time of the Papal Schism which lasted from 1378 to 1417. This event saw two distinct lines, Rome and Avignon, vying for papal legitimacy in the church. European rulers, nobility and clerics were forced to back one or the other line.

Velflín and the Archbishop of Prague were loyal to Rome while Wenceslas IV was a supporter of Avignon. This was only the beginning of friction between the king and the archdiocese.

Another point of conflict with the king was centred on the holdings of the very wealthy and influential Benedictine abbey at Kladruby in the Pilsen region. The king wished to possess the abbey’s wealth and land and intended to have the abbey recategorised as a cathedral upon the death of the abbot. To this end, he ordered that no new abbot be nominated when the one in place died.

Against the king’s orders, the archbishop and Velflín convinced the abbey monks to nominate a new abbot. The chosen candidate was confirmed by Velflín. This move angered the king to the point that he had Velflín imprisoned, tortured and eventually killed by drowning.

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This statue at Rajhrad Abbey is a very typical depiction of the saint

A Tale of Two Deaths

The above account of Velflín‘s death is supported by documents of the period which include a formal accusation against the king made by the archbishop of Prague and the new abbot of Kladruby directly to Pope Boniface IX in Rome shortly after Velflín was killed.

Of the two popular accounts of the saint’s death, it is the one taken as factual and closest to the truth.

A more romanticised account dates to 1670 and casts Velflín as the confessor to the king’s second wife, Sofia of Bavaria, and was put to death by the king for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to him. This tale casts the king as a very jealous man who suspects his wife of having an affair.

The fact that the second account was published nearly 280 years after Velflín’s death and contained little to substatntiate itself factually, there really is not much at all to lend credence to it.

Both popular accounts do share a common feature in that shortly after Velflín was drowned in the Vltava river, a group of bright lights was seen to float above the spot where his body entered the water.

Owing to this shared aspect of both accounts, the saint’s best known attribute is his halo of stars which symbolise the lights said to have appeared above the Vltava after his death.

Other attributes attached to the saint are the clothing of a priest, a crucifix and sometimes a palm leaf.

In accordance with the 1670 account, some depictions of the saint include an angel with a finger to their lips to represent the sanctity of the confessional.

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The UNESCO listed pilgrimage church dedicated to the saint in Zelená hora

Legacy and Monuments

St. John of Nepomuk is generally taken to be the patron saint of discretion and against slander. His death by drowning has also seen him taken as a saint of water and protector against floods

The first church dedicated to the saint was established in Hradec Králové in 1708. A much more famous pilgrimage church was established in his name at Zelená hora in 1719. the latter of these two churches was inscribed un the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1994 due to its very unique architecture.

The saint’s tomb can be visited at Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral.

Outside of the Czech lands, statues and other monuments to the saint can be found in Austria, Germany, Italy, Poland and Lithuania.

He is also the patron saint of three municipalities and one province in the Philippines.

A good source for further reading on the saint can be found through this link:

http://www.msjn.cz/en/