The Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk -an architectural masterpiece by Santini-Aichel

Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk

On a hill overlooking the sleepy industrial town of Žďár nad Sázavou stands one of the most beautiful churches in Czechia, the Church of St. John of Nepomuk on Zelená hora. Its architecture is a unique blend of Gothic and Baroque styles and was built in the 18th century to honour the most popular Czech saint. The church, which is the work of one of the best architects of the Baroque era, had to go through over two centuries of neglect before being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and restored to its former glory.

The history of the church dates to the beginning of the 18th century and is closely connected to the cult of St. John of Nepomuk, which was then in full swing in the Czech lands. Nepomuk was a 14th-century saint, who, according to legend, was thrown into the Vltava river and drowned for not revealing the confessional secrets of Queen Žofie, wife of Bohemian king Wenceslaus IV. The idea to build a church dedicated to the saint in the town of Žďár was supposedly had by the abbot of the local monastery, Václav or Wenceslaus Vejmluva, on the 16th of April 1719, one day after Nepomuk’s grave was opened. Local parish member Zbyňek Vintr explains:

Photo: gampe,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

“It started when they opened the grave of St. John of Nepomuk in the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, and a small part of undecomposed tissue fell out of St. John’s skull. And they thought that it was St. John’s tongue. We now know it was actually a part of brain tissue, but from the perspective of the histology of the 18th century, they could not tell that it was not a tongue. That matched with the legend of St. John as the confessor of the queen and the martyr of the confessional. The legend says that he kept his secret, and that’s why he was murdered by the king.”

The finding Nepomuk’s purported tongue inspired Vejmluva to have a church dedicated to the saint built on the hill that the locals referred to as Zelená hora (which in Czech means “Green Mountain”). That the opening of the saint’s grave directly led to the building of the church seems to be confirmed by the fact that construction began promptly in August of 1719, in the middle of the traditional building season.

Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International

To execute the project, Vejmluva enlisted Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel, a physically disabled but genius architect, who was one of the most prominent artists of his time. Santini-Aichel took to the task in an original way, creating a design that combined gothic with baroque elements and paid little regard to contemporary norms of how a church should look like. His design was greatly influenced by symbolism, as Vejmluva and Santini-Aichel were both believers in the Kabala, a mystic belief which postulates that there are certain magic relationships between numbers and geometric shapes. In his plans the architect combined the teachings of the Kabala with symbols that honoured St. John of Nepomuk. Zbyňek Vintr explains how the church and its star-shaped cloister reference the saint:

Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Magdalena Kašubová,  Radio Prague International

“According to legend, stars appeared in the place where St. John floated ashore on the banks of the Vltava, and where his body was found. So the five-pointed star is a symbol of Nepomuk. He is always shown with a halo of five stars. The number five is also very important, the latin word TACUI, ‘I was silent’, has five letters, and there are five chapels in the church. You can also see the tongue of St. John on the ceiling of the church. That is the main symbol of the martyr.”

The church’s interior also pays homage to Nepomuk. The pulpit shows the saint’s fall from the Charles Bridge. Guide Marie Dubová told Radio Prague about the meaning behind the altar, which depicts Nepomuk being carried to the heavens by angels:

Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk | Photo: Vít Pohanka,  Czech Radio

“It is not a coincidence that he is accompanied by five large angels and three smaller ones. The combination of those numbers symbolizes John of Nepomuk’s age when he died a martyr’s death. You can tell from the number of angels that he was supposedly 53. At least that is what we know from a sermon from his time. We do not really know when he was born, only when he died. But research done on Nepomuk’s remains in 1972 and 1973 by one of the foremost Czech anthropologists, professor Emanuel Vlček, confirmed that he was about 50. And his spine really shows signs of the violence described by his legend.”

Besides combining mystic and religious symbols, the architect also fused the contemporary Baroque building style with Gothic elements, such as pointed-arch windows. Santini-Aichel incorporated this unusual combination at the behest of the Cistercian order, which wanted to hark back to its golden age during the reign of King Charles IV, a time when Gothic architecture was in vogue.

Church of St John of Nepomuk in Žďár nad Sázavou | Photo: CzechTourism

The architect and his construction crew worked quickly, and the church was consecrated in 1722, although finishing work on the cloister continued throughout subsequent decades. The result, which Santini-Aichel did not live long enough to see, was one of the most unique churches ever built in Czechia. In the years after it was built, Zelená hora became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the land and experienced an initial heyday under the care of the local Cistercian monks. But tragedy struck in 1784 when the church was damaged by a fire that marked the beginning of an era of neglect.

“The fire started in the monastery below the hill, and strong winds transported it on the hill and destroyed the church. I think that resembled the history of the Cistercians, which had its highs and lows. So this was one of the lows, one of the periods when even the architecture was not really understood. Sheep even began to be herded in the chapels around the church. They almost destroyed the building.”

Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora | Photo: gampe,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

The same year as the fire, Zelená hora and the nearby monastery were closed by the decree of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. As Zbyněk Vintr points out, the area began to be used for farming, which took its toll. Permission to partially repair the fire-damaged church was only granted to a local monk after 8 years, on the condition that he convert the surrounding area into a cemetery. The church was then largely forgotten, and a dense forest sprouted up around it. In the 1950s, the monastery and church were nationalized by the communist regime, which saw little worth in preserving Christian historical heritage.

But Zelená Hora was able to persevere through nearly two centuries of hardship. In 1994, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site, and work began to renovate the church in accordance with Santini-Aichel’s original plans. Since then, the surrounding hillside has been cleared of trees, and the graves around the church are gradually being moved elsewhere. Zelená hora has again become an important religious site, a pilgrimage in honour of St. John of Nepomuk is held each year. And, thanks to UNESCO, it has also become an internationally renowned tourist destination.

But no matter if you are a devout pilgrim or just a tourist stopping by, it is plain to see that the Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk is a one-of-a-kind landmark. One that deserves to be preserved for future generations.