Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk – Sanctity and Symbolism

Looking up at the church.
Looking up at the church.

A Church Apart

Started in 1719, three years before John of Nepomuk was officially canonized, this church was intended from it’s conception to be a point of pilgrimage to honour its namesake’s martyrdom in 1393.

In the typical style of its architect, Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel, the building’s design was a fusion of Gothic and Baroque styles; it also broke many conventions of traditional holy building design of the period. While most churches were typically built on a crucifix floor plan, Santini designed this church around a five pointed star shape.

Some of the many graves between the church and surrounding ring.
Some of the many graves between the church and surrounding ring.

Symbolism and mathematical complexity were hallmarks of Santini’s many designs and both aspects are in plain evidence in this particular church. The numbers five and three were used extensively in the design as John of Nepomuk was 53 years old when he was murdered. The number five and the star floor plan reflect the legend of five stars seen floating over the Vltava river in Prague on the night he was drowned in its waters; a halo with five stars is also one of the saint’s attributes.

The full scope and breadth of the architectural and symbolic intricacies that Santini wove into this building are far too numerous to mention in a simple blog entry. It is, however, largely because of those aspects that of the many buildings he designed, this one is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Those aspects also saw the building inscribed on the UNESCO list in 1994.

The main church building.
The main church building.

Rise, Decline and Recovery

The church enjoyed great popularity as a pilgrimage location in its early years, this trend was abruptly interrupted when a fire destroyed part of the building in 1784 and the church was ordered closed shortly after with its equipment hastily redistributed to other churches. The building sat unused until late 1791 when local citizens took it upon themselves to attempt to repair and reopen the church.

By the early 1800s, masses and pilgrimages were again taking place here, though the pilgrimages of this period were much smaller and more subdued affairs than those of the church’s heyday.

The church, due to its exposed location, has always required high maintenance in order to keep the elements from completely ravaging it. Through the 1800s until the outbreak of the First World War, the church received a variety of renovations and repairs of greater and lesser degrees.

Church dome interior.
Church dome interior.

The years following the outbreak of the First World War saw the church enter into decades of decline. Though the state did take control of it in 1953, it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that serious restorative work to the structure was embarked upon.

Visiting the Church and Locale

Zelená Hora (Green Mountain) is the name of the precise location of the church and is part of the small city, Žd’ár nad Sázavou which is in the north eastern reaches of the Vysočina highlands that make up the border region of southern Bohemia and Moravia.

Žd’ár can be reached by train or bus, it’s approximately one hour by train from Brno, and a short ride on local public transit will get you within close walking distance of the church. The city’s bus station is directly outside the train station’s main entrance.

The main church building can’t be entered other than by guided tour. Tours, in Czech language (English and German texts available), last about 25 minutes and start on the full and half hour. Photography is permitted with no issues.

While at the top of the hill, do take a moment to look out across the local countryside. Vysočina is considered one of the most beautiful parts of the country and the vistas are certainly worth sparing a moment to take in.

Useful Links

A triangular stained glass window, demonstrating the number three in the building's design.
A triangular stained glass window, demonstrating the number three in the building’s design.

The church’s official website will give you particulars of visiting hours, admission prices and so forth:

http://zelena-hora.cz/en

To learn more about the namesake of this church, please visit my article on St. John of Nepomuk:

https://beyondprague.wordpress.com/czechs-in-history/czechs-in-history-st-john-of-nepomuk/

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