Church of St John of Nepomuk steeped in symbolism
The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk is a unique work of Czech-Italian architect Jan Santini Aichel, who was known for using unlikely combinations of Baroque and Gothic styles. Such a marvel is it that in 1994 it was included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Its architecture was guided by symbols of the legend of the Czech St. John of Nepomuk, one of the foremost saints of Central Europe, but also by the disciplines of the Kabbalah.
"Václav Vejmluva was the abbot of the Cistercians monastery here. He was not only very much a man of God, but was also put to work a love of art and a talent for economic management. Once the abbot invited Santini to Žďár nad Sázavou and they got along very well. They found that they were both practitioners of the Kabbalah, and they apparently got to talking. What emerged from their collaboration was a work that is unparalleled anywhere. The church is devoted to St. John of Nepomuk, but also to his story, and symbols of that story are everywhere on these grounds."
"The appearance of the stars was St. John’s miracle, and they were said to have appeared above the church as well. The layout of the Pilgrimage Church is therefore also in the shape of a star, and there is a ten-pointed star on the vault. The number ten is a symbol of cosmic order, determined by divine providence."
St. John of Nepomuk was revered as a saint straight after his death, but was not canonised for 300 years. When his body was exhumed around the turn of the 18th century, something was said to have fallen out of the skull that, upon closer inspection, was found to be an intact tongue which then turned a vital pink. Jan of Nepomuk was made a saint, and work began on his church in Žďár nad Sázavou, replete with symbols of stars and tongues.
"Santini himself never saw the ten-pointed wall, which was completed four years after his death in 1723. Through the walls are five entryways and in them are five chapels. Above the gates there were once five statues depicting priestly purity, but only three remain. The church itself is built in the shape of a five-pointed star, also with five entryways, five chapels, five altars, and a pentagon on the original tile floor."
There are also symbols of a tongue and stars above the pulpit, which shows the scene recreated throughout Central European Renaissance art, with Jan of Nepomuk falling from Charles Bridge. On the altar then, angels are lifting him back up to heaven. You can probably guess how many angels there are, but it gets a little more complicated than that.
The fascinating inspection of the body of St. John, by the way, both corroborated and refuted legends about the famous martyr. His bones actually revealed signs of violence, likely the torture that had allegedly been inflicted on him. The bad news for believers was: the tongue wasn’t a tongue. It was indeed an oddity, but it was actually a preserved piece of brain tissue.
But back to the church, where symbols of brain tissue would likely have been mistaken for symbols of curving tongues anyway. There is not a single straight line anywhere in the floor plan. Everything is arranged in circular patterns. The light from the tongue-shaped windows leaves no part of the interior in shadow. And the radii of the circles are of course also not left to chance or simple pragmatism, but form multiples of a basic module of twelve cubits.
Numerology, symbolism and esoteric aside, the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk is a very beautiful, graceful work of architecture. It was almost lost in 1794, when the nearby monastery was set on fire and a windstorm, it’s believed, brought the flames to the church, destroying the roof. The same year, Emperor Josef II had the buildings closed down, and the church was left an unprotected ruin. What is now treated as a national treasure, not even the bishop wanted to repair the church at that time, saying there was no need for it.
Only now can we see how the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk was supposed to look in its surroundings. Once again it is a place of pilgrimage, with the main day of the year being the feast of its saint on May 16.