St. John Nepomuk: The Iconography
MAY 16

This saint was vicar general to the archbishop of Prague. He was tortured, killed, and tossed into the river Moldau in 1393 on orders of King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia. He had thwarted the king's plan to seize the property of a monastery in Kladrau, and historians agree that this offense was most likely the reason for his murder (Butler II, 332-33). However, Balbín's influential Vita of 1670 repeated a legend that John was killed because he had refused to reveal matters entrusted to him by the queen in the sacrament of confession (Acta Sanctorum, May vol. 3, 671-72).

In the Balbín account Wenceslas had the dead saint thrown into the river in order to cover up the murder, but flaming lights miraculously illuminated the body in the water (ibid.). For this reason John's primary attribute is a halo of stars, usually five in number though Butler says seven (ibid.). Other attributes are a biretta, which he wears in almost all images, a crucifix or hand cross, and (less often) a martyr's palm branch.

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 at Georgia Regents University by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English

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

Painting with another saint at Santa Maria Anima in Rome (See description page)

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. Balbín 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.