John of Nepomuk

John of Nepomuk
Born c.1345
Died March 20, 1393(1393-03-20)
Beatified May 31, 1721
Canonized March 19, 1729 by Benedict XIII
Feast May 16
Attributes halo of five stars, palm, priestly dress, cross, angel indicating silence by a finger over the lips
Patronage Bohemia, San Juan, Batangas, Malibay, Pasay City, Alfonso, Cavite, Moalboal, Cebu

John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) (Czech: Jan Nepomucký; German: Johannes Nepomuk; Latin: Ioannes Nepomucenus[1]) (c. 1345 – March 20, 1393)[2] is the saint of Bohemia (Czech Republic), who was drowned in the Vltava river at the behest of Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia. Later accounts state that he was the confessor of the queen of Bohemia and refused to divulge the secrets of the confessional. On the basis of this account, John of Nepomuk is considered the first martyr of the Seal of the Confessional, a patron against calumnies and, because of the manner of his death, a protector from floods and drowning.[2]

Basic biographical information

Jan Velflín (Welflin, Wölflin) z Pomuku came from the small market town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk) in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, which belonged to the nearby Cistercian abbey. His surname is a diminutive of the German name Wolfgang.[3]

Born in the 1340s, he first studied at the University of Prague, then furthered his studies in canon law at the University of Padua from 1383 to 1387. In 1393 he was made the vicar-general of Saint Giles Cathedral by Jan of Jenštejn (1348–1400), who was the Archbishop of Prague from 1378 to 1396. In the same year, on March 20, he was tortured and thrown into the river Vltava from Charles Bridge in Prague at the behest of King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia.

Martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk by Szymon Czechowicz, National Museum in Warsaw.

At issue was the appointment of a new abbot for the rich and powerful Benedictine Abbey of Kladruby; its abbot was a territorial magnate whose resources would be crucial to Wenceslaus in his struggles with nobles. Wenceslaus at the same time was backing the Avignon papacy, whereas the Archbishop of Prague followed its rival, the pope at Rome. Contrary to the wishes of Wenceslaus, John confirmed the archbishop's candidate for Abbot of Kladruby, and was drowned on the emperor's orders on March 20, 1393.

This account is based on four contemporary documents. The first is the accusation of the king, presented to Pope Boniface IX on April 23, 1393, by Archbishop John of Jenštejn, who immediately went to Rome together with the new abbot of Kladruby.[4]

A few years later Abbott Ladolf of Sagan listed John of Nepomuk in the catalog of Sagan abbots, completed in 1398,[5] as well as in the treatise "De longævo schismate", lib. VII, c. xix.[6]

A further document is the "Chronik des Deutschordens"/Chronik des Landes Preussen, a chronicle of the Teutonic Order compiled by John of Posilge, who died in 1405.[7]

In the above accusation, John of Jenštejn already calls John of Nepomuk a "saint martyr". The biography of the bishop (written by his chaplain) describes John of Nepomuk as "gloriosum Christi martyrem miraculisque coruscum" (in English: "a glorious martyr of Christ and sparkling with miracles").

Thus, the vicar put to death for defending the laws and the autonomy of the Catholic Church became revered as a saint directly after his death.

Later accounts

The prototypical statue of John of Nepomuk at Charles Bridge in Prague, at the site where the saint was thrown into Vltava. Made by Jan Brokoff upon a model by Matthias Rauchmiller in 1683, on the supposed 300th anniversary of the saint's death, which was until the mid-18th century presumed to had happened in 1383. It was the basis for a number of statues of the saint all across the Europe.
St. John of Nepomuk Fountain in Kranj. It was made in 1911–13 by Franc Berneker.
St. John of Nepomuk in Buchach, Ukraine. Made by Johann Georg Pinsel, 1750 (copy)

Much additional biographical information comes from Bohemian annalists who wrote 60 or more years after the events they recount. Although they may have taken advantage of sources not available today, their contribution is considered legendary by many historians, particularly by the Protestant ones.

The mistake of John of Krumlov crept into the Annales Bohemorum[11] of Wenceslaus Hajek of Liboczan (Václav Hájek z Libočan), the "Bohemian Livy". He suggested that two Jan di Nepomuks may have existed and have been killed by King Wenceslaus. The first one is the queen's confessor, who died in 1383; the other the vicar of the archbishop, who disagreed with the king on the election of the abbot of Kladruby and was drowned in 1393. As Hajek's annals enjoyed a wide success, they influenced all subsequent historians for two centuries, up to the Latin edition, critically annotated by the translator, which considerably reduced Hajek's credit as a reliable historian.

Further and less reliable details about John of Nepomuk come from the annalists of the 17th and 18th centuries. Boleslaus Balbinus, S.J., in his Vita b. Joannis Nepomuceni martyris[12] gives the most rich account.

Although the theory of Hajek of Liboczan has no credit today, some historians believe the vicar's refusal to betray the seal of the confessional might have been the secret reason why Wenceslaus took vengeance on John of Nepomuk as soon as a credible excuse provided the opportunity.

A controversial figure

1732 monument on Cathedral Island in Wrocław, by Jan Jiři Urbansky

Catholics see John of Nepomuk as a martyr to the cause of defending the Seal of the Confessional, romantic nationalists regard him as a Czech martyr to imperial interference, and most historians present him as a victim of a late version of the inveterate investiture controversy between secular rulers and the Catholic hierarchy.

The connection of John of Nepomuk with the inviolability of the confessional is part of the transformation of an historical figure into a legend, which can be traced through successive stages. The archbishop, who hastened to Rome soon after the crime, in his charge against Wenceslaus, called the victim a martyr; in the vita written a few years later miracles are already recorded, by which the drowned man was discovered. About the middle of the 15th century the statement appears for the first time that the refusal to violate the seal of confession was the cause of John's death. Two decades later (1471), the dean of Prague, Paul Zidek, makes John the queen's confessor. The chronicler Wenceslaus Hajek speaks in 1541 (perhaps due to an incorrect reading of his sources) of two Johns of Nepomuk being drowned; the first as confessor, the second for his confirmation of the abbot.

The place on the bridge parapet where John of Nepomuk was thrown into the Vltava.

The legend is especially indebted for its growth to the Jesuit historiographer Boleslaus Balbinus the "Bohemian Pliny", whose Vita beati Joannis Nepomuceni martyris was published in Prague, 1670. Although the Prague metropolitan chapter did not accept the biography dedicated to it, "as being frequently destitute of historical foundation and erroneous, a bungling work of mythological rhetoric", Balbinus stuck to it. In 1683 the Charles Bridge was adorned with a statue of the saint, which has had numerous successors; in 1708 the first church was dedicated to him at Hradec Králové; a more famous Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk was founded in 1719.

Meanwhile, in spite of the objection of the Jesuits, the process was inaugurated which ended with his canonization. On May 31, 1721, he was beatified, and on March 19, 1729, he was canonized under Pope Benedict XIII. The acts of the process, comprising 500 pages, distinguish two Johns of Nepomuk and sanction the cult of the one who was drowned in 1383 as a martyr of the sacrament of penance.

According to some Protestant sources, the figure of St. John Nepomuk is a legend due to Jesuits and that its historical kernel is really Jan Hus, who was metamorphosed from a Bohemian Reformer into a Roman Catholic saint: the Nepomuk story would be based on Wenceslaus Hajek's blending of the Jan who was drowned in 1393 and the Jan who was burned in 1415. The resemblances are certainly striking, extending to the manner of celebrating their commemorations. But when the Jesuits came to Prague, the Nepomuk veneration had long been widespread; and the idea of canonization originated in opposition not to the Hussites, but to Protestantism, as a weapon of the Counter-Reformation. In the image of the saint which gradually arose is reflected the religious history of Bohemia.

A coincidental drought in the region a year later helped the legend along; the church convinced the peasants that the drought represented God's punishment for the killing of Jan Nepomucký. Building on that success, they attempted to paint the king as even blacker, with certain clerical circles spreading reports of John's courage, saying that as confessor to the Queen he had refused to reveal her secrets, and that was why he had been murdered. Belief in John's supernatural powers culminated with the discovery of the saint's supposed tongue when three centuries later his tomb was opened and a piece of reddened tissue fell out of his skull.

The cult

The figure of Saint John of Nepomuk is often encountered in Central Europe, including the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Italy, Poland and Lithuania, rarely Ukraine. He is usually portrayed with a halo of five stars, commemorating the stars that hovered over the Vltava River on the night of his murder. Other attributes useful to identify his pictures are: a priestly dress, the palm of martyrs, carrying a cross, an angel indicating silence by a finger over the lips. His tomb, a Baroque monument cast in silver and silver-gilt that was designed by Fischer von Erlach, stands in St Vitus Cathedral, Prague. A statue of Saint John of Nepomuk has often been erected on bridges in many countries, such as on the Ponte Milvio in Rome. There is also a commemorative plaque on a bridge leading out of Obergurgl, Austria depicting Nepomuk holding a finger to his lips, as if protecting a secret. Nepomuk's was extremely popular as late as the 19th Century people when people traveled from Tyrol, Hungary, and particularly Bohemia to Prague to celebrate his feast day, May 16. [13] Amongst English Bellringers there is a tradition that at the midpoint of Spring, on the feast day of St. John Nepomuk, an apprentice bellringer will "shear" the hair from the head of his ringing master. It has been suggested that this tradition may stem from an influx in the seventeenth century of refugees from Malta, who settled at the Western end of Cheapside, and who brought with them the cult of Saint John of Nepomuk. This practice has now generally fallen out of use, except in the parish of St Vedast Foster Lane in London, at the West end of Cheapside, in the shadow of St. Paul's Cathedral, where it is still upheld. [14]


John of Nepomuk mass in G-major [15] by Gerald Spitzner.

See also


  1. Sanctus Johannes Nepomucenus Christi Heiliger Blut-Zeug. 1723.
  2. 1 2 Krčmář, Mgr. Luděk. "Saint John of Nepomuk". If in 1369 John of Pomuk was a notary public, he must have been more than twenty years old. Thus he was probably born sometimes between 1340 and 1350 [1349].
  3. Bernard L. Fontana, A Gift of Angels: The Art of Mission San Xavier Del Bac (Tucson 2010), p.298.
  4. Pubitschka, Gesch., IV, app.; Pelzel ed., "Geschichte König Wenzels", I: "Urkundenbuch", 143-63
  5. l'ed. Stenzel in "Scrittura. il rerum Silesiacarum", I, 1835, pp. 213 sqq.
  6. Archiv für österreichische Geschichte, LX, 1880, pp. 418 sq.
  7. "Scriptores rerum Prussicarum", III, Leipzig 1860 -, 87
  8. cf. Schmude in "Zeitschrift für kathol. Theologie", 1883, 90 sqq.
  9. St. John of Nepomuk official website,
  10. The first queen was Johanna of Bavaria; the second one was her cousin Sofia of Bavaria.
  11. Kronika česká, first printed in Bohemian, Prague 1541; then translated in German and after two centuries also in Latin by Gelasius Dobner (6 volumes., Prague, 1761-83).
  12. Bohuslav Balbinus. Vita beati Joannis Nepomuceni martyris, Praga, 1670; It was reprinted in the Bollandists' Acta sanctorum III, May, pp 668-80.
  13. Chamber's Book of Days, 1871, p. 640.
  14. Festa Anglo-Romana: or, The feasts of the English and Roman church, with their fasts and vigils. Being an exact and concise accompt of their various etymologies and appellations, with the reasons and grounds of their celebration, By a true son of the Church of England.1678, p. 126.
  15. "Johannes Nepomuk Messe in G-Dur" (in German).
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Saint John Nepomucene.
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/12/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.