Gem on a hill: The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk in Žďár

The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk, photo: Vít Pohanka, Czech Radio

Built on a small hill called Zelená hora near Žďár nad Sázavou, it is one of the most spectacular and yet unassuming sights in the Czech Republic. The architectural significance of the church on the border of the historic lands of Bohemia and Moravia was officially recognized by UNESCO in 1994 when it became the third site in the country to be included in the World Heritage List – preceded only by Prague and the city of Telč.

The Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio
My guide, student Vojtěch (or Vojta) Kabrda, was brimming over with enthusiasm as he showed me around:

“I think it is the overall look of it. It is so unique when you first glimpse it. It does not look like any other church you can see in our country. The shapes are so unusual that you are totally captivated. It is all based on the symbolism of number five, and the structure of a five-pointed star and the stars themselves. So the first thing you see when you look at it, is that it does not look like anything you have seen before.”

The church really is unique. Not so much in its size as much as the shape and the impression it creates. But in order to really appreci-ate its singularity and learn about its roots you need to pay a trip to the New Generation Museum located just a few hundred meters away at the bottom of the hill. The prize-winning exposition there presents the story not only of the church itself, it goes much further, in that it helps you understand what moved and motivated the builders.

Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio
The Cistercians were sometimes referred to also as the White Monks be-cause of the white robes they wore. They put emphasis on manual labor, self-sufficiency, and simplicity of life. Their abbeys supported themselves through agriculture, forestry and by brewing excellent ale. But first and foremost their lives combined hard work and worship in these beautiful natural surroundings. They tended to ask for this simplicity to be projected in their churches and other places of worship. And that how their abbeys and churches looked – impressive by their shape rather than ornamentation.

Fast forward some four centuries: it is the beginning of the 18th century. The Cistercians managed to keep this traditional world outlook throughout many turbulent times. But they also started to mix this original simplicity with some more complex ideas. The man behind the architectural gem on Zelena hora was Abbot Vaclav or Wenceslas Vejmluva – a man of humble origin but great creative ambition. Vojta Kabrda:

Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International
“He was born in Brno as a son of an ale brewer. But even though he was „low born“ he got a good education. In 1705 he was elected abbot of the Žďár monastery and set about transforming it. He invited a lot of artists: sculptors, painters etc. But most importantly, he invited Jan Blažej-Santini.”

The abbot and the architect quickly became what you might call „spiritual consorts“. It is alleged that Vejmluva originally invited Santini only to do some organ restoration. But they quickly became friends and the abbot gradually entrusted the architect with more and more ambitious projects. So when it came to building a new Pilgrimage church of Saint John of Nepomuk, Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel was already the natural first choice architect. Especially given the fact that by that time he was already an artist with a considerable reputation.

The abbot decided to build the church on a nearby hill called by the locals, with some exaggeration, Zelená hora (the Green Mountain) as a symbolic place between the abbey and the heavens.

Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio
But what should the church look like? Here, Vejmluva and Santini drew inspiration from the Cistercian tradition of uniting seemingly contradictory principles of simplicity and complexity, but also closeness to Nature and the Universe. Moreover, they both believed in „Christian Kabala“ – a school of thought with roots in Jewish mysticism. Here, it might get a little complicated, but let us just say, that the architect relied on some basic and magic relations between numbers and geometric shapes.

The construction took only a little over three years. The church was consecrated in 1722. It experienced fire, neglect and even animosity of the authorities, especially under communism. But it always sur-vived and today is one of the main magnets for visitors, no matter if they are religious or not. Because whatever the inspiration of its builders, one thing is certain: the church never failed or fails to im-press and at the same time somehow provoke visitors wherever they come from. They are all captivated -whether they admire it from a distance, stand next to or enter its doors.

Vojta Kabrda, the young and enthusiastic guide summed it up best: the church just has a lot more to offer the eye, the mind and spirit than many other churches in this part of the world combined.