Church of St John of Nepomuk steeped in symbolism

The church of Saint John of Nepomuk on Zelená Hora

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.

The church of Saint John of Nepomuk on Zelená Hora | Photo: CzechTourism
Jan Santini Aichel had the good fortune of being a much sought-after artist of repute within his short lifetime. He only lived to the age of 46, but in that time he saw 60 of his designs constructed. Many of these structures can be found near the pilgrimage church in Žďár nad Sázavou, on the border of Bohemia and Moravia, and all of them are identifiable by their originality and masterful structural techniques. Santini was an expert in playing with contrasts of light and shadow, and he had an exceptional sense of spatial geometry. All of these skills were brought together in the pilgrimage church on Zelená Hora (Green Mountain), which is perhaps first noticeable for its unique, encircling wall in the shape of a ten-pointed star. As guide Marie Dubová says though, sources show it was the local abbot, rather than Santini, who came up with that idea.

"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."

Jan Santini Aichel
The saint in question was born Jan Velflín, sometime in the 1340s, in the Bohemian town of Pomuk, still called that in German but renamed in the negative, Nepomuk, in Czech, for some reason.) While celebrated throughout Central Europe from Italy to Lithuania even today, one of the only things we know about the life of Jan Velflín of Nepomuk is his death. As a middle-aged man he became the vicar-general to the Archbishop of Prague, and got caught up in a political dispute – willingly or unwillingly no one knows – between the archbishop and King Wenceslaus IV, and the popes of Rome and Avignon. For siding with the archbishop and the Roman Pope, he was tortured and tossed over the side of Charles Bridge in Prague. A crown of five stars was then said to appear over the river.

"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 church of Saint John of Nepomuk on Zelená Hora,  photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
"It is not by accident that St. John is being carried off by five large angels and three cherubs. The combination of these numbers gives the age at which they believed Jan of Nepomuk died as a martyr, that is, 53, according to sermons from the day that have been preserved. We don’t actually know when he was born. His remains were last examined in 1972 and ’73 by a leading anthropologist, who determined that they belonged to a man around the age of fifty.”

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.

The church of Saint John of Nepomuk on Zelená Hora,  photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
"The number 12 is a divine number that was used for measuring things of God. There are twelve houses of the zodiac, which are ruled by the 12 most powerful angels. There were 12 stones in the ring of the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, 12 stones garnishing the foundations of the Holy City, 12 apostles chosen by the Lord. The measurements of the pilgrimage church symbolise nine celestial spheres, making the grounds themselves celestial, brought up by the hill above the earth."

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.

Photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová
"It was only eight years later that a former monk named Bonifác Procházka began repairing it. After much tribulation, he was finally given permission, but only on the condition that he establish a cemetery on the grounds. Until then there had never been a cemetery and the entire area was only for pilgrims. Now once again there are no funerals here, the graves are gradually transferred to a new cemetery and by 2016 there should only be a park here. The church also looks as it first did because the hill has been deforested. If you saw it 60 years ago you wouldn’t be able to see the church at all; it was hidden by the woods and only a bit of the cross peaked out."

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.