Navalis celebrations mark 300 years since beatification of St John of Nepomuk

Statue of John of Nepomuk on Charles Bridge in Prague

Hundreds of people gathered in Prague on Saturday to mark the 300th anniversary of the beatification of St John of Nepomuk, a court priest who died a martyr’s death after invoking the wrath of King Wenceslas IV. While in Prague, the traditional baroque festival of Navalis was held in his honour, around the world a symbolic 300 churches rang their bells to mark the occasion.

John of Nepomuk, the patron saint of Bohemia, is revered among the Catholic faithful as a protector from floods and drowning. Legend has it that King Wenceslas IV had him tortured, killed and thrown into the Vltava River because he refused to divulge the queen’s secrets, told to him in confession.

In fact, historical evidence points to King Wenceslas IV having had the court priest killed for siding with Rome in a political dispute over who would become the next Abbot of Kladruby. Be that as it may, John of Nepomuk is still considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional, a patron against calumnies.

Navalis procession on Charles Bridge in Prague | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

Statues of John of Nepomuk, such as the one installed in 1683 on the north side of the Charles Bridge in Prague, were erected long before he became a saint, notes historian Jiří Louda.

“At the beginning of the 18th century, John of Nepomuk was already quite popular in Bohemia as a patron of confessional secrets. But he was beatified only in 1721 and canonized in 1729.”

Navalis – the traditional baroque-era festival in his honour – was revived in the Czech capital in 2009. Since then, it has begun with a mass in St Vitus’ Cathedral, delivered by Cardinal Dominik Duka, the Archbishop of Prague.

From there a festive procession – including many dressed in sailors’ outfits – proceeds across Charles Bridge on to Křižovnické Square. Festivities culminate in the evening with a baroque concert and a fireworks display over the Vltava River.

Dominik Duka serves mass in Nepomuk | Photo: Miroslav Chaloupka,  ČTK

In a normal year, pilgrims from all across Europe would also gather in Prague on the feast of St John of Nepomuk to honour his memory. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, few foreigners took part this year. Due to days of rain and dangerously elevated river levels, one of the most popular aspects of the Navalis festival, a regatta including gondolas and warships from Venice, was also called off.

Vojtěch Pokorný, chairman of the St. John of Nepomuk Association, which organises the present-day Navalis festivities, explained the connection to Venice in an earlier interview for Czech Radio.

“The first Navalis festivities linked to St John of Nepomuk took place in Prague in 1715. They were inspired by the city of Venice, where the tradition had been established already in the Middle Ages. For the inhabitants of Prague, May 15 was one of the most important days and the festivities were the biggest and most spectacular celebrations of the year.”