St. Vitus Cathedral looms imperiously and somewhat scarily Gothic-ly over the city of Prague. It was only recently that I had occasion to make my way up the hill to the castle complex, and I went inside the Cathedral, largely because it was one of the few free things to do up there. It is a stunningly gorgeous building. The Art Nouveau stained glass windows were made by Mucha, the shrines lining the walls vary in size, age and décor, and St. John of Nepomuk’s silver tomb, which seems more a piece of statuary than a tomb.
One of the most interesting and visceral things I have learned from Peter Demetz’s book, Prague in Black and Gold, has been the stories of famous places and people that most tourists only get the guidebook version of. Demetz’s book is an in-depth history of Prague and her people, and though it is dense and spans the entire history of the city, which is in many ways the entire history of the Czech Republic, it is also intimately beguiling. The story of Johann of Pomuk, a Germanic Czech, though the nationalist borders were much blurred then, is the story of a vicious king and his Archbishop of Prague battling for power. John of Nepomuk just got in the way. He was Archbishop Jan of Jenstejn’s lawyer and financier, and when Vaclav IV (Wenceslas IV, yes like the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”) tried to capture and kill the archbishop, Jan was killed on the rack due to the king’s fury at failing to capture the archbishop. He was then unceremoniously dumped in the Vltava and washed up a few weeks later and immediately called a martyr. His story became mixed up with a story of the Queen’s confessor who, when a jealous Vaclav tried to force the Queen’s confession of adultery out of him, refused to tell and was drowned. Thus John of Nepomuk has become one of the earliest martyrs of the seal of Confession, choosing to die rather than breath the seal of confidentiality of confession.
This story rose up in my mind when I looked at the magnificence of the saint’s tomb, and I was gripped by its history. There were hundreds of tourists in that cathedral that day, and I was caught in a large group of stereotypical Asian tourists, each of whom snapped a picture of the tomb, and hurried on, following their guide who was shouting in rapid Mandarin. It is indeed a beautiful work of silver, but it is also a testament to the vast corruption of the Catholic Church throughout much of European history. This man is a martyr more because he was unwittingly caught in a political battle between his boss and his king. He holds sway over the chorus of one of the most beautiful churches in the world because of a petty squabble in the 1300s. Demetz’s book often reveals this darker side of Prague underneath its fairytale wonders and beauty, and has given me a deeper understanding of living with the history of a long, troubled past. The people of Prague often feel put upon by dark forces, but it would do them well to remember that there are equally dark forces in their own history. They’re lucky they keep that silver gleaming, because it would obviously, easily tarnish like mad.