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Dostatni, Tomasz: St. John of Nepomuk, the Icon of Central and Eastern Europe




I come from Poznań, a Polish city about 300 km from the Czech border. Since my childhood I have always remembered the monument of St. John Nepomucene, which stands in the middle of the market square. After one of the biggest floods in the history of our town, a monument to St. John Nepomucene was raised in 1724 as a patron who had saved his people from even worse flooding.

St. John Nepomucene is sometimes called the saint from the bridge, as his first incarnation is situated on the Charles Bridge in Prague. Crowds of tourists passing over the bridge stop under St. John to touch the worn relief under his monument. Few know that St. John Nepomucene died only several meters away after being thrown into Vltava River. A small bronze cross on the stone balustrade marks the spot. Impressions of the Prague statue of St. John, showing the priest in a surplice, holding a cross in his hand and often with an aureole made of stars, can be found not only in the Poznań market square but in practically every corner of the world.

St. John Nepomucene stands next to rural footpaths and bridges, in squares and in front of churches in the Czech Republic, Moravia, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, Bavaria, and Hungary. This is to be expected, but the outcome of the return to the Catholic faith after the Trident Council was that the Czech saint can now be found in both Americas and in Asia. The image of St. John Nepomucene has become an icon of Central Europe, recognised by Catholics all over the world, even though his life and death are not so well known.

St. John Nepomucene is often presented as the patron of the mystery of confession. As a priest he did not reveal to the king what his wife had confessed, despite being tortured. However, historians now say that the main reason the martyr was murdered was that the king was furious that John, as the general vicar of the Prague Archdiocese, had approved the election of the Abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Kladruby. This act was an attempt to prevent the King from establishing a new diocese and appointing a new bishop backed by the wealth of this monastery, and who would be completely subjugated to the king's will. St. John Nepomucene died as a result of the conflict between religious and lay authority. He defended the independence and sovereignty of the Church against the power of the king, Václav IV. He died when assassins hired by Václav threw him from the Charles Bridge into the Vltava on 20 March, 1393. His legend grew for centuries, hiding the true motives behind his death. No other Czech saint has been worshiped by the faithful of the entire Catholic Church, nor has any other saint been more revered by the Czech nation. He was a bright light - lux in tenebris - at a time in Czech history sometimes called "the epoch of darkness". St. John Nepomucene has sometimes been called a Jesuit and a Habsburg saint, as the Jesuits spread his cult through their missions all over the world, while the arch-Catholic Habsburg dynasty supported the cult of the saint as much as they could.

The Jesuit scholars who had educated noblemen and the bourgeois elites from the 16th to the 18th centuries presented John as an example of loyalty to the Catholic Church. The many poems, hymns, paintings and sculptures dedicated to John show how effective that religious teaching was. Nowadays, St. John Nepomucene is no longer such an idol. Prague, however, with its countless Baroque monuments, would be incomplete if this Catholic saint disappeared from living memory.

Images of St. John Nepomucene that we encounter while wandering through this part of Europe remind us that people understand sainthood as the presence of God in our everyday lives. Perhaps these figures that can be found standing in the middle of a field, next to a road or beside a bridge, are the last signs of religious and divine reality. An icon is a sign that reminds us of invisible things through the beauty of material things. The Great Russian orthodox theologian and martyr of Stalin's prisons, Pavel Florenski, wrote: "An icon is the name of God written in colour. What is the image of God then, that spiritual light that flows from holy images, if it is not written on the personality of the saint? Just as saints do not show themselves but God, so too do the painters of icons show not themselves but the saint, the witness of God, and through him the Lord himself." Do not these words refer to St. John Nepomucene as well?

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