St. John Nepomuk: The Iconography

In Prague, Bohemia, St. John Nepomuk, canon of the Metropolitan Church. He earned the palm of martyrdom when he was thrown into the River Moldau for refusing to betray the seal of the sacrament I.e., of Confession. Priests are instructed never to reveal anything said to them in Confession, on pain of excommunication. . – Roman Martyrology for May 16

This saint was vicar general to the archbishop of Prague. In 1393 King Wenceslas IV had him tortured, killed, and tossed into the river Moldau for thwarting the king's plan to seize the property of a monastery in Kladrau (Butler, II, 332-33). Balbinus's influential Vita of 1670 repeated an alternative account in which the reason for his murder was his refusal to reveal matters entrusted to him by the queen in the sacrament of confession (Acta Sanctorum, May vol. 3, 671-72). This is the explanation that survives in the Roman Martyrology, but according to the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Nepomuk, most modern scholars dismiss it as purely legendary.

John's primary attribute is a halo of stars, usually five in number. In the Balbinus account God sent a circle of gentle flames to surround the home in which the saint was born, as a presage of his career of fiery devotion. Then, after Wenceslas had the dead saint thrown into the river, flaming lights miraculously illuminated the body in the water (ibid., 669, 671-72).

Other attributes are a biretta, which he wears in almost all portraits, a crucifix or hand cross, and (less often) a martyr's palm branch. The crucifix is not mentioned in the sources I have consulted; it may be a reference to his zealous preaching, which the sources do emphasize.

Today St. John Nepomuk is one of the patron saints of the Czech Republic and his statue stands on the very bridge from which the king's men tossed him into the Moldau.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2018-04-06.

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St. John Nepomuk at the Charles River Bridge. (See the description page.)

In Tiepolo's Martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk the saint is still alive when tossed into the river, as in Galluzzi, 33. (See the description page.)

Giambattista Tiepolo (attrib.), The Virgin Appears to St. John Nepomuk. Just before Wenceslas had him killed, the saint is said to have prayed to Mary that her son protect his life. Mary replied instead with words that give him the courage to endure. (See the description page for further details.)

MORE IMAGES

  • 1750s: Painting in Munich, Germany of the saint's body in repose.
  • Undated: Statue in Passau, Germany.
  • Undated: Painting with another saint.

NAMES

  • In Czech, Jan Nepomucký. He is also called John Nepomucen or Nepomucene.
  • Nepomuk is the town in Bohemia where he was born.
  • His family name was Wölflein or Welflin

DATES

  • Born some time between 1340 and 1350. Butler and other modern sources give his death year as 1393. Balbinus gives 1383.
  • His feast is May 16, but the exact date of his murder is hard to establish: see the discussion in Acta Sanctorum, May vol. 3, 667-68.

HAGIOGRAPHY