St John Nepomucene
St John Nepomucene
St John Nepomucene

St John Nepomucene

Author: N / A

Created: late 18th – early 19th century.

Material/technique: oil on canvas.

Dimensions: 123x87 cm.

St John Nepomucene was a Czech priest and saint (c. 1340–1393) born in the small town of Nepomuk in Bohemia. He was the canon of St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, general vicar of the archdiocese, and the confessor of the wife of King Wenceslaus IV. He was thrown into the river from the Charles Bridge in Prague because he refused to disclose the Queen’s confession to the King.

The saint is depicted dressed in priest’s clothes, wearing a biretta, holding a cross in his right hand and a palm branch, the symbol of martyrdom, in his left hand. A halo of five stars adorns his head commemorating the stars that, according to the legend, hovered at the place where St John drowned.

At the sign from the King, soldiers grabbed St John and threw him into prison. When night came, they took him to the bridge and pushed him into the River Vltava. When pushing him they badly hurt his head and shoulder. So St John the martyr drowned. /.../

The following morning, prelates, canons, priests, monks and many people gathered. They went to the river, pulled his holy body out of the river, and took it with glory to the church. After the required prayers were said, they wanted to bury him in a suitable place, but the King prohibited it and he was buried secretly in an unknown location. People however sensed where he was buried and frequented the place.

After King Wenceslaus and his wife died, the priests moved the holy body to a good coffin produced at the cathedral church and wrote on the coffin: ‘Here lies the famous John of Nepomuk, the canon of the Prague Church, the confessor of Queen Joanna, who was forcefully drowned in the River Vltava on the order of King Wenceslaus in the year 1383, because he refused to disclose things he had heard during a confession.’ (Motiejus Valančius, „Žyvatai šventųjų“, Raštai 2, 2006, p. 133–139)

Reference: "The Lithuanian art collection of Jaunius Gumbis". Museum and Collector - 6. Vilnius: National Museum of Lithuania, 2016, P. 202.

Franciszek Smuglewicz transferred the scene to a closer period, by dressing the characters in Baroque clothing. The work was commissioned by John Nepomucen Kossakowski (1755–1808), the Bishop of Vilnius, who oversaw the renovation of the Old Bishops’ Chapel, and installed a new picture of his patron saint. The work represents the encounter between St John Nepomucene and Wenceslaus IV, the King of Bohemia. The imperious gesture by the king reflects his order to break the seal of the confessional, and the quiet posture of the saint shows his resistance to the demand to break his vow as a Catholic priest. At the top of the composition, soaring angels are ready with the nimbus of the saint and the palm of the martyr. There is a surviving print in order to immortalise the picture "St John Nepomucene" that Franciszek Smuglewicz painted in 1802 for Vilnius Cathedral. 

Lithograph: Antoni OLESZCZYŃSKI / Chardon printing press / St John Nepomucene before King Wenceslaus / Ca 1850 / Based on the picture by Franciszek Smuglewicz / in Vilnius Cathedral / Jan Kazimierz Wilczyński,Album de Wilna, series IV, fascicle II.

Reference: Art album "Heaven and Beyond"; compiler Dalia Vasiliunienė, authors Dalia Vasiliunienė and Skaidrė Urbonienė. Vilnius, VALIUNAS ELLEX, 2016, P.146.

Exhibitions: Exhibition of the collection of Lithuanian art of dr. Jaunius Gumbis "Collected and Preserved", September 2016 - January 2017, National Museum of Lithuania, Vilnius.

Published: The Lithuanian art collection of Jaunius Gumbis". Museum and Collector - 6. Vilnius: National Museum of Lithuania, 2016, P. 203.