On a wooded hill near Zelená Hora is one of the most interesting places of worship in the country, the pilgrimage church of St. John of Nepomuk. It was built in the 18th century by Giovanni Battista Santini and, with its five-pointed floor plan, is a unique masterpiece.

Pilgrimage Church of St. John Nepomuk: facts

Official title: Pilgrimage Church of St. John Nepomuk of Zelená Hora (Grüneberg)
Cultural monument: Pilgrimage church in the shape of a five-pointed star in honor of St. John of Nepomuk, the so-called “bridge saint”; one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Bohemia and Moravia
Continent: Europe
Country: Czech Republic, West Moravia
Location: Zelená Hora, near Zd’ár nad Sázavou
Appointment: 1994
Meaning: Masterpiece by the famous Czech architect Giovanni Battista Santini (1667-1723), also known as Johann Blasius Santin-Aichel

Pilgrimage Church of St. John Nepomuk: History

around 1350 Birth of the later patron saint of Bohemia, John of Nepomuk
1389 John of Nepomuk Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Prague
March 20/21, 1393 Martyrdom of John of Nepomuk in the floods of the Vltava after his capture on the orders of King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia
since 1693 Statue of the patron saint on Charles Bridge in Prague
1719-22 Construction of the pilgrimage church
05/16/1720 Consecration of the pilgrimage church
1725-27 Design of the main altar by Jan Pavel Cechpauer
1729 Canonization of John of Nepomuk
1784 Roof fire of the pilgrimage church

»The Star of Saar«

With the St. Nepomuk Church above the Moravian town of Zd’ár nad Sázavou, one of the most peculiar places of worship in Europe, a legend has actually been turned to stone. Anyone walking across the churchyard that surrounds the church will quickly recognize the regularity of the building: The number five has been architecturally implemented with persistent consistency.

The reason: When Nepomuk was drowned in the Vltava in Prague in 1393, five bright stars are said to have appeared over the “Golden City”.

The best day of the year to hike up the »Green Mountain« (»Zelená hora«) is May 16. Then there is a pilgrimage on the hill. But before the large crowd of pilgrims strides from afar up to the snow-white church of St. John of Nepomuk, they have to go through a hustle and bustle: stalls are set up everywhere, and the music plays along with it. Only up in the small cemetery, which is surrounded by a cloister and the center of which is the Nepomuk sanctuary, does it get quieter. The sanctuary is related to the hustle and bustle at the foot of the hill, the bizarre little church resembles an architectural fantasy and gimmick.

It was a fruitful alliance for which the Saar Cistercian abbot Václav Vejmluva and his master builder came together in Zd’ár nad Sázavou. The latter came from Prague, was the grandson of an immigrant Italian stonemason, had trained as a painter and had study trips to Italy and Vienna. Giovanni Santini was his name, in German it was called Johann Santin-Aichel, in the Czech language Jan Santini Aichel.

The work of the Bohemian architect, who is leading alongside Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, can be traced across the country: he designed citizen palaces in Prague, created the climax of Bohemian Baroque Gothic with the Benedictine abbey church of Kladruby (Kladrau), the imposing Jesuit college of Hradec Králové (Königgrätz) as well as Karlova Koruna Castle (Karlskrone) in Eastern Bohemia.

In Zd’ár and the surrounding area, Santini realized his ingenious late work – there seemed to be no limits to both his and the abbot’s imagination. From 1719 to 1722 the church was built in honor of St. John of Nepomuk.

The number five returns over and over again on this hill: The cemetery has a five-pointed shape and is surrounded by a – two times five is ten – decagonal cloister. The floor plan of the church is five-pointed, which is why the author Lillian Schacherl calls it the “Star of Saar” in her book on “Moravia”. And its five arcs unite to form a five-pointed star. On the gallery one discovers five large and five small choir rooms, the paintings are pentagonal, there are five altars in five niches in the chapel, five doors lead into the little church, five angels hold a five-star ball, 55 windows let in light.

At the time when Santin-Aichel erected a memorial to the archbishop’s vicar general Nepomuk on the hill near Zd’ár, John of Nepomuk was, as a saint, in a way “en vogue”. This happened entirely in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation of the Jesuits, to whom the memory of the Bohemian “national saint” Jan Hus – burned at the stake after the Council of Constance – was neither dear nor worthwhile. Nepomuk was beatified in 1721 and made a saint eight years later.

The church of Zd’ár nad Sázavou is not only fascinating because of Santin-Aichel’s “five mania”: with crooked roofs and walls and the play of shapes, it is considered a masterpiece of the so-called Czech “folk baroque”. Late Gothic rib vaults merge into lively Baroque shapes, Romanesque round arches appear next to Gothic pointed arched windows and doors, and the entire building is crowned by Baroque towers.

The masterpiece of the “folk baroque” is definitely worth the walk up the “green hill” of Zd’ár nad Sázavou, not only because of the recounting…

Pilgrimage Church of St. John Nepomuk (World Heritage)

Pilgrimage Church of St. John Nepomuk (World Heritage)
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