John of Nepomuk
John of Nepomuk (or John Nepomucene) (Czech: Jan Nepomucký) (c. 1345 – March 20, 1393) is a national saint of the 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.
Basic biographical information
Jan Velflín (Welflin, Wölflin) z Pomuku came from the small market town of Pomuk (later renamed Nepomuk) in Bohemia, which belonged to the nearby Cistercian abbey. He was born in the decade 1340-1349, and 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 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 Wenceslaus, King of the Romans and King of Bohemia (as Wenceslaus IV).
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 went immediately to Rome together with the new abbot of Kladruby.
A few years later Abbott Ladolf of Sagan lists John of Nepomuk in the catalog of Sagan abbots, completed in 1398, as well as in the treatise "De longævo schismate", lib. VII, c. xix.
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.
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 accountsThe 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.
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.
- In his chronicle Chronica regum Romanorum, completed in 1459, Thomas Ebendorfer (d. 1464) states that King Wenceslaus had drowned the confessor of his wife, indicated as Magister Jan, because he had stated that only the one who rules properly deserves the name of king and had refused to betray the seal of Confession. This is the first source to mention this refusal as the true motivation of the condemnation of John of Nepomuk.
- In his Instructions for the King, completed in 1471, Paul Zidek provides further details. King Venceslaus was afraid that his wife had a lover. As she was used to confessing to Magister Jan, he ordered him to tell the name of the lover, but to no avail. Therefore the king ordered John to be drowned. Note that in these chronicles neither the date of the events, nor the name of the queen is mentioned.
- In 1483 John of Krumlov, dean of St. Vitus cathedral, states that the Saint died in 1383 (one decade earlier than the recognized date, maybe due to a copying error). As the first wife of Venceslaus died in 1386, this change of date also causes uncertainty about the name of the queen.
The mistake of John of Krumlov crept into the Annales Bohemorum 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 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 figure1732 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 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, the religious history of Bohemia is reflected.
A coincidental drought in the region a year later helped the legend along; the church convinced the peasants that it represented God's punishment for the killing. Building on that success, they attempted to paint the king 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 figure of Saint John of Nepomuk is often encountered in Central Europe, including the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, Poland and Lithuania. 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.
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