The five star church
Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk, Zelená hora, Czech Republic
If you’re ever in Prague and you find yourself walking across the famous Charles Bridge (as most tourists do), take a moment to stop and look at the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk. You’ll be able to recognise him by the halo of five stars around his head.
He’s not the most famous saint in the world but here in the Czech Republic he is legendary. There is a fascinating story behind how he became a saint – and an incredible church dedicated to his legend. It’s this church, in particular, that I want to tell you about.
I’m not talking about the tomb of Saint John of Nepomuk, which is not far away from his statue on the bridge. You just need to go up the hill to St Vitus Cathedral and you’ll find it inside (and it’s actually quite impressive in its own way). But his church is about 150 kilometres southeast of Prague, in a town called Zelená hora on the way to Brno.
Who is Saint John of Nepomuk?
Let’s go back in a time for a moment to understand who he was. John of Nepomuk lived in the 1300s and died in 1393. Although, I’m really underplaying it when I use the word ‘died’. What I should say is ‘killed’. And not just that, ‘killed by the king’.
By this stage in his career, John was a senior figure in the Catholic Church in Bohemia and in 1393 he had to choose a new abbot for the Abbey of Kladruby. Out of the two options, he went with the one that King Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia wasn’t supporting.
In retaliation, the king tortured him and him thrown to his death into the Vltava River. From where was he thrown? From the spot on the Charles Bridge where his statue stands.
They say that on the night John of Nepomuk was killed, five bright stars appeared in the sky above him. This is why he has the halo of five stars around his head in his statue. But this story also inspired the amazing design of his pilgrimage church at Zelená hora.
Visiting the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk
Work on the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk started in 1719. The architect who was chosen for the design, Jan Santini Aichel, had an excellent reputation for other church projects he had done in the region (including the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec in Kutná Hora) – so he was given a fair amount of independence. He took this freedom (and the artistic blessing of the local abbot) and created a masterpiece.
Santini used the five bright stars as his inspiration and created a ground plan that looked like a five-pointed star. Around the edge of the interior of the church are five triangular chapels and five oval chapels.
The church is set on a hill and I easily spot it from the bottom as I arrive. The hill has been mainly cleared of trees and there is no other development – the building stands out against the sky. As I get closer, I can see that the central building is in the middle of a grassed area that is surrounded by a ring cloister. This cloister has ten sections with five chapels and five gates as entrances.
In some ways, the design is quite simple – there is no excess of decoration or unnecessary additions. But what minimal construction exists is done with such a clever approach that every single little element seems essential – as though the whole compound would come crashing down if anything was changed or removed.
The closest you get to anything garish is the main altar. The large carving has five angels, three of which are carrying a sphere with five stars and Saint John of Nepomuk standing above it. The artwork dominates the inside of the church.
A Saint John of Nepomuk legend
The final thing I should mention is why Saint John of Nepomuk became so famous in this part of the world and why his church has attracted so many pilgrims over the years.
Although historians now accept the reason that the king killed him was political – because he wouldn’t support the monarch’s choice for abbot – another tale became legendary. It was said that Saint John of Nepomuk was the confessor of the queen – the man she told her secrets too. When the king asked him to reveal what she had said at confession, he refused, and was killed for that.
This has been since been rejected by academics but it created a cult around the saint. He was considered a martyr and worshipped for what he represented – that the confessional is sacred and should be protected, even with a life. It brought pilgrims to the church built in his honour by the thousands.
These days, it’s mainly tourists who visit. Even then, there aren’t too many of us. It’s not the easiest place to get to if you don’t have a car and so most international travellers who are in the Czech Republic for a short time to see the main sights skip it. Which is a shame.
It doesn’t take long to see but it’s a special site and something a bit different to much of what you see in the country. St John of Nepomuk may once have been the star of this story but now his church is.
How do I get to the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk?
The church is at Zelená hora, which is right on the edge of a city called Zdar nad Sazavou. The official address is Žďárské vrchy, Sychrova, 591 02 Žďár nad Sázavou. You can see it on a map here.
The best way to get there by public transport is to get the train to Zdar nad Sazavou. The direct train from Prague takes about 2:20 hours and costs 236CZK (US$9.40). From the train station, the church is about a 40 minute walk – or there are also local buses (I would suggest asking for the best one once you get to the station.)
Can I visit the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk?
Yes, you can visit the church but it is closed in November, December, January, February and March. In April, it is open from 0900 – 1700 (9am – 5pm) on Saturday and Sunday. From May to September it is open from 0900 – 1700 (9am – 5pm) every day. In October, it is open from 0900 – 1700 (9am – 5pm) on Saturday and Sunday.
Entry costs 110CZK (US$4.40) for adults and 60CZK (US$2.40) for concessions. The admission includes a guided tour in Czech. If you want a guided tour in a foreign language, the cost is double. However, there’s not always someone there who speaks your language. In my case, I just went in and looked around myself and was given a brochure with some information in English. Often, the person taking the tour also works at the ticket counter so it may be closed while a tour is taking place (it goes for about 20 minutes).
You can find more information at the official website.
Are there tours to the Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk?
I don’t have a good tour to recommend for a single traveller – I think you are probably best getting there yourself and using the local guide, if possible. However, if you’re in a group then you can save a lot of time and see a bunch of other sites in the area by doing this tour (which gets cheaper per person with larger groups).
Where should you stay in Zdar nad Sazavou?
There is not much need to stay in Zdar nad Sazavou and you may prefer to go to Prague or Brno. However, if you do choose to stay, there are actually some lovely places.
If you’re looking for a decent budget option, I would suggest Penzion Na Devitce.
You can get a great apartment at a good price at Dvůr U kapličky.
Try Penzion v Kapli for a wonderful hotel in a great location.
And a lovely option with a great breakfast is at Pension Najdek.