The pilgrimage church of St. John of Nepomuk – an architectural masterpiece by Santini-Aichel

The history of the church dates back to the beginning of the 18th century and is closely linked to the cult of St. John of Nepomuk, 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 of ​​building a church dedicated to the saint in the city of Žďár would have been had by the abbot of the local monastery, Václav or Wenceslaus Vejmluva, on April 16, 1719, a day after the opening of the tomb of Nepomuk. Local parish member Zbyňek Vintr explains:




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

“It started when they opened the tomb of St. John of Nepomuk in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, and a small part of undecomposed tissue fell from St. John’s skull. And they thought it was the language of Saint John. We now know that it was actually part of brain tissue, but from an 18th century histology perspective, they couldn’t tell it wasn’t a language. This corresponded to the legend of Saint John as the queen’s confessor and confessional martyr. Legend says he kept his secret, and that’s why he was assassinated by the king.

The discovery of the alleged language of Nepomuk inspired Vejmluva to build a church dedicated to the saint on the hill that the locals called Zelená hora (which in Czech means “Green Mountain”). That the opening of the saint’s tomb directly led to the construction of the church seems to be confirmed by the fact that construction began quickly in August 1719, in the middle of the traditional building season.




Pilgrimage Church of Saint-Jean-de-Népomucène |  Photo: Magdalena Kašubová, Radio Prague International

To execute the project, Vejmluva enlisted the help of Jan Blažej Santini-Aichel, a physically disabled but brilliant architect who was one of the most prominent artists of his time. Santini-Aichel took on the task in an original way, creating a design that combined Gothic with Baroque elements and paid little attention to contemporary standards of how a church should look. Its design was greatly influenced by symbolism, as both Vejmluva and Santini-Aichel believed in Kabbalah, a mystical belief that postulates that there are certain magical relationships between numbers and geometric shapes. In his plans, the architect combined the teachings of Kabbalah with symbols that honored Saint John of Nepomuk. Zbyňek Vintr explains how the church and its star-shaped cloister refer to the saint:




Church of Saint-Jean-de-Népomucène |  Photo: Magdalena Kašubová, Radio Prague International

“According to legend, stars appeared at the place where Saint John floated on the banks of the Vltava and where his body was found. The five-pointed star is therefore a symbol of Nepomuk. He is always represented 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 language of Saint John on the ceiling of the church. It is the main symbol of the martyr. “

The interior of the church also pays homage to Nepomuk. The pulpit shows the fall of the saint from Charles Bridge. Guide Marie Dubová explained to Radio Prague the meaning of the altar, which represents Nepomuk transported to heaven by angels:




Pilgrimage Church of Saint-Jean-de-Népomucène |  Photo: Vít Pohanka, Czech Radio

“It is no coincidence that he is accompanied by five big angels and three smaller ones. The combination of these numbers symbolizes the age of John Nepomuk when he died as a martyr. You can tell from the number of angels that he was supposed to be 53 years old. At least, that’s what we know from a sermon in its day. We don’t really know when he was born, only when he died. But research carried out on Nepomuk’s remains in 1972 and 1973 by one of the foremost Czech anthropologists, Professor Emanuel Vlček, confirmed that he was around 50 years old. And his spine really shows signs of the violence his legend describes.

In addition to combining mystical and religious symbols, the architect also merged the contemporary Baroque building style with Gothic elements, such as pointed arch windows. Santini-Aichel incorporated this unusual combination at the request of the Cistercian order, which wanted to recall its golden age under 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 team worked quickly and the church was consecrated in 1722, although finishing work on the cloister continued over the following decades. The result, which Santini-Aichel didn’t live long enough to see, was one of the most unique churches ever built in Czechia. In the years following its construction, Zelená hora became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country and first enjoyed its peak under the leadership of local Cistercian monks. But tragedy struck in 1784 when the church was damaged by a fire that marked the start of an era of neglect.

“The fire started in the monastery below the hill, and strong winds carried it up the hill and destroyed the church. I think it sounded like the story of the Cistercians, which had its ups and downs. So it was one of the lowest, one of the times when even architecture was not really understood. Sheep have even started to be herded in the chapels around the church. They almost destroyed the building.




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

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

But Zelená Hora was able to persevere through almost two centuries of difficulties. In 1994 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the renovation work on the church began according to the original plans by Santini-Aichel. Since then, the surrounding hill has been cleared of trees and the graves around the church are gradually being moved elsewhere. Zelená hora has once again become an important religious site, a pilgrimage in honor of Saint John Nepomuk is organized every year. And, thanks to UNESCO, it has also become an internationally renowned tourist destination.

But no matter if you are a devoted pilgrim or just a tourist, it is obvious that the pilgrimage church of Saint-Jean-Népomucène is a unique landmark of its kind. The one that deserves to be preserved for future generations.


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