The Secrets of Saint Jan

st janIf you walk the Charles Bridge at dawn, you'll feel the weight of centuries of history and the lightness of all of their ghosts. 41 saints, 8 Jesus figures, and 3 Madonnas solemnly mark your progress as you walk across and the bridge is also home to many legends and fascinating truths, merging until they are indistinguishable from each other.

The statue of one particular saint, Jan Nepomucky, is visited by hundreds of visitors each day; its bronze reliefs are warm with human touch and polished to a gold shine. If you visit any time after dawn, you'll have to take a number behind tourists posing for the camcorder with their hand on the magic spot. When it's your turn, you can either make a wish, book your return to Prague, or ensure that a secret you have will never be told.

But do you know the story behind this statue, and why it's so well loved?

Jan Nepomucky was a priest who served during the reign of King Václav IV (Wenceslas; not to be confused with St. Wenceslas) in the last half of the fourteenth century. He heard the confessions of many of the townspeople, including Václav's wife, Queen Sofia. Now, Václav was a peace-loving king, but also a very jealous man, and he suspected Sofia of straying from her marriage vows. Upon returning from a trip abroad, the king cornered Jan Nepomucky and asked what the queen had revealed during confession. The priest refused to tell, saying it was confidential. The angry Václav had Jan hauled into a dungeon and tortured.

Jan Nepomucky tried to strike a bargain: If the torture came to an end, he would tell one soul present in the dungeon what the queen had said. The king agreed, assuming Jan intended to tell him. But Jan asked that everyone present leave the room so he could whisper the secret to the king's dog. The enraged king ordered the torture to continue. Finally the priest died from his wounds, and at night was thrown from the Charles Bridge into the river.

Soon after Jan's murder, there was a great drought and the Vltava nearly dried up. About 500 meters downstream from the place the priest was tortured, five sparkling points of light appeared over the water. People began digging there, and unearthed the body of the priest.

Or so the folk legend goes. This version of history was recorded by the Austrian chronicler Thomas Ebendorfferus, but was officially declared false in 1961.

So what really happened?

The only son of the celebrated emperor and bridge-builder Karel (Charles) IV, Václav IV was more interested in hunting and drinking than in ruling Bohemia. King Václav quarreled with Prague's archbishop, who in 1393 nominated a new abbot without the king's permission. Since abbots bought their position and gave their nominators a cut of the church´s collection money, Václav stood to lose out big time from this arrangement. Angered, Václav sought revenge. Killing an archbishop was not an option for him, but killing the archbishop's lawyer would be a lesser crime. That lawyer was vicar Jan Nepomucky, who became the scapegoat and paid a dear price for the quarrel.

Jan was tortured in Suský (Saxon) Dum, a large house at the Malá Strana end of the bridge. The king himself participated, burning the sides of Jan's body with a torch. According to one source, Václav then reconsidered and told Jan he would be released if he promised to keep quiet about the torture. Jan was already dying, however, so to conceal the evidence Václav had him gagged, wrapped in a goatskin, and thrown into the river. A few months later, a drought caused the level of the water to drop, exposing Jan's body near the St. Agnes convent. It was removed from the river and entombed in St. Vitus´ Cathedral.

Jan became the underground patron saint of Czechs, who regarded him as a "martyr of the tongue" after the legend of the queen's confession. In 1729 the archbishop of Prague ordered that his tomb be opened, to begin the process of sanctification. Church scientists placed the body on a white tablecloth and started to clean the bones. At exactly 12 o'clock, when the church bells were ringing, the scientists found in the skull something pink, like a tongue, that still bled almost 350 years after the priest's death. Because Jan Nepomucky was a martyr of the tongue, this was considered a miracle. He was declared Svatý (saint) Jan, and the people of Prague held a huge feast and built an altar for him right in front of his statue on the bridge. Czechs still celebrate his feast day every year on May 16.

However, in the early 60's, the Czech scientist Emmanuel Vrcek examined the cells of the "tongue" and found that they are actually brain cells. The tissue had survived the centuries because it had been soaked by blood in anoxic conditions.

Today, the remains of Saint Jan still reside in St. Vitus. His tomb is a grandiose silver structure held up by massive winged angels. St. Jan stands atop his coffin, looking lovingly at the face of Jesus on the cross. Still more angels hold a silver mirror showing a large pink tongue. The actual (brain) tissue, however, is kept opposite, inside a small burgundy house-shaped box flanked by silver statues of other saints and kings. To see the tomb, which is on the right side of the cathedral's main altar, you'll have to buy the A or B castle tour ticket.

In 1683 the Austrian artist Mathias Rauchmuller created the bronze statue of Jan Nepomucky. The five stars in his golden halo represent the legendary five stars that appeared over his body. Jan holds a golden palm frond, a symbol of martyrdom, and cradles a Jesus on a crucifix. His expression is pained and dazed, as if he's just learned of his fate.

At the base of the statue, a bronze relief shows a soldier petting a dog in a dungeon, and in the background the queen speaking to a priest in a confession booth. Legend says that if you touch the dog or the priest and wish for a secret to never come out, this wish will be granted. (Ironically, although the dog's part in the story is legend, Queen Sofia was actually killed by the king's hunting dogs.) The bronze relief on the right shows an army throwing Jan from the bridge while common folk watch below. Touch this one, and you'll return to Prague.

Václav Cilek, a professor at Charles University and the author of the forthcoming book, "Prague: Between History and Dreams", calls Svatý Jan "The most successful Czech saint."

"In the eyes of the people, St. Jan was already a martyr because he was killed by the king himself," says Cilek. "People believed in him because he was standing against the régime, a kind of dissident."

Cilek says that even today, people in his underground network of friends pray to St. Jan and attribute miracles to him. "One friend claims that St. Jan helped him save his marriage," he recounts. When the man found out about his wife's affair, "he went out running in the middle of the night and fell in front of the statue of St. Jan on his knees." In a flash, the man realized the reason his wife had strayed. "Through understanding her position, he understood he was partly guilty," Cilek says. (Perhaps in this case, St. Jan revealed the wife's confession to the greater good of all.) He adds that such stories are told only between friends here, where people are more private than in the West.

Cilek says this story, and others like it, show that "spiritual entities"
like St. Jan "are somehow functioning in the world." They don't appear often, but in brief
moments "when the [spiritual] window opens, you have access to something." When asked whether he thinks St. Jan is a real spirit or merely a figure in the Czech
collective consciousness, Cilek replies, "Whether he's a physical or
psychological entity, miracles are happening through St. Jan."