Looking for luck in Prague

The statue of St. John Nepomuk on the Charles bridge in Prague, Czech Republic. -- Photo by Diane...

The statue of St. John Nepomuk on the Charles bridge in Prague, Czech Republic. -- Photo by Diane Slawych

DIANE SLAWYCH -- Special to Sun Media

, Last Updated: 1:31 PM ET

Of the 30 statues lining the balustrades of the historic Charles Bridge, none attract as much attention as the sculpture of St. John of Nepomuk.

Each day crowds of people come to see a bas relief at the base of the statue, which is said to bring good luck to all who touch it.

The relief illustrates an event in 1393, when the priest John of Nepomuk was thrown from a bridge after he refused to tell the king what his wife had disclosed to him during confession. According to legend, the place where his body washed ashore was marked by five stars, which suddenly appeared in the sky.

TONGUE IN SKULL

Hundreds of years later, when his grave was opened, blackened tissue fell out of the skull and was identified by physicians as a tongue. This was used as evidence of his saintliness and in 1729, John of Nepomuk was officially canonized.

"It's warm," said one visitor with her hand on the sculpture. No doubt. So many people have rubbed their fingers over the brass scene it has literally been hand-polished to a shiny golden colour. Visitors of all ages and nationalities come and go throughout the day -- many brought by tour guides -- and eagerly await their turn.

"Touch higher," urged one well-informed mother who had hoisted her child up close to the tiny figure of the falling priest. A lot of people, it seemed, were touching the wrong part of the bas relief.

"For good luck you must touch the figure of John," I overheard one guide explain.

Betty Fuller of North Carolina didn't seem to mind waiting 20 minutes to get to the front of a line. "I have nothing to lose," she chimed.

The cult that has developed around St. John of Nepomuk extends beyond the scene on the Charles Bridge.

At St. Vitus' Cathedral in Prague, the dazzling sculpted tomb of the saint is considered to be a national treasure.

It's made of two tons of silver, and it depicts St. John holding a cross while he kneels on a pedestal flanked by angels.

Elsewhere, at Zd'ar nad Sazavou, 64 km northwest of Brno, is the Church of St. John of Nepomuk, built by Prague-based architect Giovanni Santini whose method of combining Baroque and Gothic architecture was unrivaled.

A Unesco heritage site, the church, which dates to 1719, was built on a five-pointed-star ground plan, symbolic of the crown of five stars that appeared above John's body.

FIVE ALTARS

Access to the holy site is through one of five gates, while inside the church are five chapels and five altars. At the top of a cupola, the saint's tongue is represented encircled with flames -- the symbol of a victorious weapon. The church, the first to be dedicated to the saint, is now a place of pilgrimage.

During the Baroque period, St. John of Nepomuk was the most popular saint in Central Europe. Six hundred years after his death, he has not been forgotten.

CHARLES BRIDGE

Even without St. John of Nepomuk, the bridge is well worth a visit.

- A medieval masterpiece and one of the most spectacular bridges in Europe, construction began in 1357 on the orders of Charles IV and wasn't completed until 1402.

- It measures 500 metres in length, has 16 arches and 30 religious sculptures. Until the 19th century, it provided the only fixed link between the two halves of the city.

- Today Charles Bridge (Karluv most) is a pleasant pedestrian walkway where jazz musicians entertain passersby and vendors sell water colour paintings and souvenirs.

- Near the bridge are the historic churches of St. Francis and St. Salvator. For 40 crowns (about $2), you can climb to the top of the Bridge Tower for expansive views of Gothic spires, palaces, Renaissance gables and boats travelling along Vltava River.


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