Saint John of Nepomuk is patron saint of good confession, confessors and penitents. He is also believed to protect against floods and troubled waters, and is considered a patron saint of bridges, fords and family life. According to folkloric tradition he is a holy protector of fields and sowing, keeping them safe not only from flood, but also from drought. This is the reason why many statues of Saint John of Nepomuk are to be found not only by the rivers and close to bridges, but also at crossroads and at marketplaces and churchyards.
Some people believe that St. John of Nepomuk is a fictitious person, invented by the Jesuits only to draw public attention away from John Hus - Czech reformer of the Church, who had lived in the same era, when the popularity of John of Nepomuk had grown. This way or another, statues of St John of Nepomuk have become a part of history and a cultural phenomenon, common not only in Czech, but also in Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Lithuania.
John of Nepomuk was probably born in Pomuk (Nepomuk), in nowadays Czech Republic, in 1350, during the reign of king Ladislas IV of Luxemburg. John grew up and became a priest, a doctor of law and vicar general working for the archbishop of Prague. This archbishop was considered an opponent of the king, who was leading quite a rollicking life. The king, hating to be criticized, plot an intrigue, planning to get rid of the clerical dignitaries. He invited the clergymen to his court only to incarcerate them. John of Nepomuk was among the noble prisoners. Part of the captives were finally released by the king, some of them managed to escape, but John stayed in prison and was cruelly tortured. He was burnt with fire, pricked with iron, beaten, kicked and his tongue was torn out of his mouth. Finally, in the evening of March 20th, 1393, he was dragged down to the Veltava bridge and thrown down into the river with stones attached to his neck. It is said, that when John's body touched the bottom of Veltava river, five stars appeared in the sky to represent five virtues of a martyr. These stars are a typical element of John's depictions in sculpture and paintings.
According to another legend, John of Nepomuk was also a priest, but this time a canon at St. Vitus' cathedral in Prague. He used to be invited to king's court and soon became the queen's confessor. One day the king started to suspect that his wife might not be faithful to him and tried to force John to break the secret of confession. When the future saint refused to do it, he was tortured and finally drowned in Veltava river.
Pope Innocent XIII agreed to begin John's canonization process on June 25th 1721, and pope Benedict XIII declared John of Nepomuk an official catholic saint on March 19th 1729.
How to recognize John of Nepomuk?
Saint John of Nepomuk is usually depicted as a man with beard and mustache, dressed in black cassock, usually with many small black buttons in front, over which he is wearing a white surplice, symbolizing his priesthood, adorned with white lace at the hems. On top of this garment he is also wearing a short mink fur coat. He is wearing a black four-winged hat, the wings are called "horns" and this type of headdress was typical for lecturers of the medieval University of Prague. Over John's head we can see an areole with five stars.
John is usually holding a crucifix with both his hands, but a variation with a cross held in one hand, usually the left one, is also popular. Sometimes John is clutching a palm leaf together with the cross, to represent his martyrdom, or a stole - a badge of confessor. His eyes are usually focused on the crucifix. It is quite common for the statues of John to press a finger against their lips - a symbol of confession's secret kept safe. Statues of St John of Nepomuk are placed on a plinth, often accompanied by puttos and decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from John's life, like the queen's confession, trial at king's court, John being thrown down from Veltava bridge.