Pilgrimage Church of Saint John of Nepomuk

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UNESCO World Heritage Site
Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená hora
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Type Cultural
Criteria iv
Reference 690
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1994 (18th Session)

The Pilgrimage Church of St John of Nepomuk (Czech: Poutní kostel svatého Jana Nepomuckého) at Zelená hora (former German name: Grünberg, meaning "Green Hill") is a religious building at the edge of Žďár nad Sázavou, Czech Republic, near the historical border between Moravia and Bohemia. It is the final work of Jan Santini Aichel, a Bohemian architect who combined the Borrominiesque Baroque with references to Gothic elements in both construction and decoration.

In 1719, when the Roman Catholic Church declared the tongue of John of Nepomuk to be incorruptible, work started to build a church at Zelená hora, where the future saint had received his early education. It was consecrated immediately after John's beatification in 1720, although construction works lumbered on until 1727. Half a century later, after a serious fire, the shape of the roof was altered.

The church, with many furnishings designed by Santini himself, is remarkable for its gothicizing features and complex symbolism, quite unusual for the time. In 1993, it was declared a World Heritage Site. The nomination dossier pointed out Santini's ratios which aimed at "the creation of an independent spatial reality", with "the number 5 being dominant in the layout and proportions" of the church.


Original drawing from Santini - 18th century

Ground plan[edit]

The central church along with its adjacent cloister is uniformly projected and built structure. Architecture of this building is very minimalistic and enormously effective. It combines Baroque and Gothic elements which in fact points to the age when John of Nepomuk lived, worked and was martyrized. The construction of church is based on geometry of circle while constantly repeating number five as a reference to Nepomuk's five stars. Those stars, according to a legend, appeared above his body when he had died.

Look up vertical

This is a good example of how Santini used to project his structures—practically just by using compass to draft whole building on arcs of circles which radius was generally multiple of building's module. In case of church of Saint Jan Nepomuk Santini used number 5, Nepomuk's stars, number 3 which references to the Trinity, and number 6 which references to Saint Mary because John of Nepomuk was perceived as her adorer. Therefore on the perimeter of church take turns five chapels with triangular ground plan and five with oval ground plan. At the same time the whole church resembles cut through choir of a Gothic cathedral and its buttress. The centrality of Nepomuk's church builds up an vertical as a symbolical phenomenon. This very vertical tends to raise visitors look up to the symbolical heaven.

Central area[edit]

Central area and two floors

In inner area of the church there are oval perimeter chapels which are connected with central cylinder space by narrower ogive arches. The central area which is covered by vault with lunettes, is carried by ten pillars. In first floor there are tribunes corresponding to chapels in the basement. Second floor is decorated with the gallery counting ten pieces of art which are arranged round the heel of the vault. Stucco decoration is limited to motives of intersecting and cut rib arches similar to Gothic vaults. As on the other Santini's buildings, even here light is used to build inner space. This approach is based on baroque interpretation of light as a sign of god's presence. Some call this 'sacral light'. The illumination of church's interior creates unique paradox. Meanwhile central area is illuminated only indirectly the side walkway parts of the church are awash with light. This light permeates into central area of the church by ogive arches placed in places where should stand the bearing pillars. The stucco decoration underlines this paradox by creating relation between wall and arch belonging to that particular wall. This makes a feeling that the wall is only a shell and the whole building is carried by light itself. The entire church is then perceived also as a reliquary in where the relic of tongue of Saint John Nepomuk dwells.

Main altar

Main altar[edit]

The main altar on eastern side is placed into high arcade. The peak of the altar reaches till railing on gallery on second floor. Carving of five angels on the main altar (with its count five pointing to John Nepomuk) and four evangelists are made by hands of a sculptor coming from Chrudim named Jan Pavel Čechpauer in years 1725-1727. Three of five angels are bearing a sphere standing for heaven sky decorated with five stars. On the sphere stands figure of st. John Nepomuk. The sculpture is a work of Řehoř Theny. He made also the reliefs on the litter for the silver pilgrimage statue of St. John Nepomuk from year 1729 made by prague goldsmith Jan Diesbach. Unfortunatelly this statue disappeared after year 1784. The choice of contacting sculptors close to Matthias Braun was on purpose because Santini collaborated on his realizations many times actually with Braun whose 'sculpture language' was apparently very close to Santini's personality.

Cloister divided by gates and chapels


Around the church is built a ring cloister divided into ten sections by five chapels and five gates all this on a circular ground plan. Roof of each chapel originally culminated into five Pylons. These pointed to the meaning of light and symbolized eternity. The cloister along with chapels was place where pilgrims prayed and also hid when the weather turned bad. Not only the church itself but also its surrounding - cloister with chapels - illustrates Santini's great architectonic and creative potency.

Big fire[edit]

On the 17th of July 1784 the church burned out and there was a real danger of its complete destruction. Fortunately local citizens with great help of Matěj Sychra managed to cover the whole area and in the end saved it for future generations. Permission to restore the church was given by the gubernium (administrative unit) in 1792 with the conditions that the church would no longer be a pilgrimage church, and that the cemetery of Žďár nad Sázavou would be moved to the church area. Nowadays, the cemetery is no longer in use and is in fact being slowly moved out, to give the place the original look as it had in baroque times.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 49°34′48″N 15°56′31″E / 49.58000°N 15.94194°E / 49.58000; 15.94194