22 April 2023

Why do tourists in
Prague rub the panels
beneath a saint’s statue
on the Charles Bridge?

The statue of Saint John of Nepomuk is the oldest statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

There are 30 statues lining the balustrade in two rows on the Charles Bridge in Prague, one on each side the bridge crossing the River and linking the Old Town and the Lesser Quarter.

Because of damage to the statues over many years, many of the original statues have been replaced by copies.

The statue of Saint John of Nepomuk was placed on the north side of the Charles Bridge in 1683, and is the first of the many Baroque images of saints on the bridge. It shows a bearded priest leaning to one side, wearing a biretta, holding a crucifix and a martyr’s palm, and his head surrounded by a halo of five stars. A separate monument on the parapet with an image of the saint in a recumbent position, with a cross and five stars is said to mark the exact point where the priest was thrown in the water.

The bronze statue is based on a clay model made in 1681 by the Viennese sculptor Matthias Rauchmiller (1645-1686). The sculptor Jan Brokoff made a large wooden sculpture based on Rauchmiller’s clay model, and this was then cast in bronze by the bell-maker Wolfgang Hieronymus Heroldt in Nürnberg in 1683. Brokof’s wooden statue, which is now gilded, has been on display since 1819 in the Church of Saint John of Nepomuk on the Rock in Prague.

John of Nepomuk (ca 1345-1393) was drowned in the Vltava River on 20 March 1393 on the orders of King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia. Later stories of his life claim he was the confessor of the Queen of Bohemia and refused to reveal the secrets of the confessional. Because this, John of Nepomuk is considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional, a patron against calumnies and, because of the manner of his death, a protector from floods and drowning.

Jan z Pomuku was from the small town of Pomuk (later Nepomuk) in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, which belonged to the nearby Cistercian abbey. He first studied at the University of Prague, then studied canon law at the University of Padua (1383-1387). In 1393 he was made the vicar-general of Saint Giles Church, Prague, in 1393 by Archbishop Jan of Jenštejn of Prague. But on 20 March that year, he was tortured and thrown into the River Vltava from the Charles Bridge on the orders of Wenceslas IV.

The events leading up to his death begin with the appointment of a new abbot at the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby. The abbot was a territorial magnate whose role was seen as crucial to Wenceslas in his struggles with the nobles. At the time, Wenceslas was backing the Avignon papacy, while the Archbishop of Prague supported the rival Pope in Rome. Against the wishes of King Wenceslas, Saint John confirmed the archbishop’s candidate for abbot, and he was drowned on the king’s orders on 20 March.

This account of his death is based on contemporary documents, including against the king, made to Pope Boniface IX on 23 April 1393, by Archbishop Jan of Jenštejn, who had travelled to Rome with the new Abbot of Kladruby. Archbishop Jan of Jenštejn calls John of Nepomuk a ‘saint martyr.’

So, from an early stage, it was accepted that Saint John was put to death for defending the laws and the autonomy of the Church, and he was revered as a saint immediately after his death.

The statue of Saint John of Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge is said to stand close to the site where he was thrown into the Vltava Rudolf. It was made by Jan Brokoff in 1683, on the supposed 300th anniversary of the saint’s death. Until the mid-18th century, his death was presumed to have been in 1383.

Much of his biographical information comes from Bohemian annalists who wrote 60 years or more years after his death. Their accounts are considered embellishments or legends by many historians.

A panel below the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk shows the priest hearing the queen’s confession … a friend has asked jokingly whether the dog is a golden retriever (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

However, Thomas Ebendorfer (d. 1464), in his chronicle Chronica regum Romanorum (1459), claims King Wenceslas had the priest drowned for hearing the queen’s confession. Saint John, or Magister Jan, refused to betray the seal of Confession, and declared that only the one who rules properly deserves the name of king. This is the first source to give this refusal as the reason for the death of John of Nepomuk.

In his Instructions for the King (1471), Paul Zidek says King Wenceslas suspected his wife had a secret lover. As she was used to confessing to Magister Jan, King Wenceslas ordered him to reveal the name of the lover. John refused, and the king ordered him to be drowned. In these chronicles neither the date of his execution nor the name of the queen are provided.

John of Krumlov, writing as Dean of Saint Vitus Cathedral in 1483, says John died in 1383, a decade earlier than the date previously accepted. This may have been due to a transcription error. As the first wife of Wenceslas died in 1386, this change of date also raised questions about the name of the queen.

This mistake entered the Annales Bohemorum by Wenceslas Hajek of Liboczan, the ‘Bohemian Livy.’ He suggested there many have been two Jan di Nepomuks and that both were killed by King Wenceslas. The first Jan is the queen’s confessor, who died in 1383; the second is the vicar of the archbishop, who disagreed with the king on the election of the Abbot of Kladruby and was drowned in 1393.

The connection of John of Nepomuk with the inviolability of the confessional transformed an historical figure into a legend. Catholics came to see him as a martyr to the cause of defending the Seal of the Confessional. Romantic nationalists see him as a Czech martyr to imperial interference. Most historians see him as a victim of a late version of a clash between secular rulers and the Catholic hierarchy.

Further but less reliable details about John of Nepomuk come from writers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The legend is especially indebted to the Jesuit historiographer Boleslaus Balbinus the ‘Bohemian Pliny’, whose Vita beati Joannis Nepomuceni martyris was published in Prague in 1670. A statue of the saint was first placed on the Charles Bridge 13 years later, in 1683, and has had numerous successors.

A panel below the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk shows the priest being thrown from the bridge into the river (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Despite objections from the Jesuits, a process began leading to his proclamation as a saint. He was beatified on 31 May 1721, and canonised by Pope Benedict XIII on 19 March 1729. The process identifies two Johns of Nepomuk and recognises the one who was drowned in 1383 as a martyr of the sacrament of penance.

Some Protestant sources suggest the figure of John Nepomuk is a legend due to Jesuits and that its historical kernel is really Jan Hus, who was metamorphosed from a Bohemian Reformer into a Roman Catholic saint: the Nepomuk story would be based on Wenceslas Hajek’s blending of the Jan who was drowned in 1393 and the Jan who was burned in 1415.

The resemblances are certainly striking. But when the Jesuits came to Prague, the veneration of John of Nepomuk was already widespread. The idea of his canonisation originated in opposition not to the Hussites, but to Protestants, as part of the Counter-Reformation. In the image of the saint which gradually arose is reflected the history of religious divisions in Bohemia.

Saint John of Nepomuk is usually portrayed with a halo of five stars, referring to the stars seen above the Vltava River on the night of his murder. His tomb is in Saint Vitus Cathedral, Prague, and there are statues of Saint John of Nepomuk on bridges in many cities, including one on the Ponte Milvio in Rome.

People stop constantly, by day and by night, to touch the bronze relief plaques beneath the statue and make a wish. The panels are now highly polished, but the truth is that this tradition is a recent invention, perhaps in 1991 by a tour guide who started to encourage tourists to touch the panels and to wish to return to Prague. Other sources suggest the practice was begun by a group of students, who polished the bronze plaques purposefully.

But who is going to tell tourists that what visitors and local people are doing in the middle of Charles Bridge has no historical background … or that they should not miss out an opportunity to wish to return to Prague?

A panel and cross are said to mark the point where Saint John of Nepomuk was thrown from the bridge into the river (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

No comments: