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St. John of Nepomuk on the Charles Bridge

The beauty of Prague's unfreedom I

Prague is changing me. A tourist would view Prague as a lovely destination to strike off the bucket list. I felt the same the first few weeks I was here. Now, as an insider in Prague, I feel different. There’s so much to learn from this city, this country that has lost more than it has gained. Still, it survives and prospers. Ivan Klima, Czech novelist and playwright, wrote in “The Spirit of Prague” that “[…] it was not freedom that most influenced the shape and spirit of Prague, it was the unfreedom, the life of servitude, the many ignominious defeats and the cruel military occupation.” Many romanticize freedom extensively, but they forget that only the harshness of ‘unfreedom’ makes freedom so precious.

Last month, I went to the Charles bridge for the first time as part of a class tour. For some reason, I was waiting for a perfect time to go to the bridge – a time when the bridge might be left alone in its beauty. I thought I’d come when it would be colder, when people would just use the bridge as a connection between the two banks, just for its main purpose. History reveals otherwise; the bridge wasn’t meant to be left alone. Previously not only a transport route but also a marketplace, a tax collection area, a tournament field, and an execution and punishment ground, the bridge was supposed to be crowded all the time, if not by actual human beings then by spirits of the executed.

Charles bridge not only carries an air of royal magnanimity but also a sort of heaviness. When cruising through the Vltava river, every bridge looks beautiful, gracefully fitting the scenery on both opposite banks. The bridges make the transition of the atmosphere from one side to the other side smoother. The Charles bridge, however, is the source of an energy that diffuses along the lengths of the bridge into both sides of the city. That is probably why I felt different when I was walking on the bridge. It had stayed there through sad, long, dark, depressing times, it had stayed there during happy, lovely times. I wondered, how can crossing a river leave you with a heavy heart? How can stones cemented together be so expressive? No, the stones weren’t expressive. They had just turned darker with years of sweat, tears and blood.

 

So when we walked through the Old Town Bridge Tower, I saw a completely different view unfold in front of me, I had to adjust my eyes so they would take in most of what I was seeing. The statues on the Charles Bridge are all exceptional and all of them relate a different yet similarly poignant story. The one that is virtually always surrounded by tourist is the one story that will stay with you - the statue of St. John of Nepomuk. Despite seemingly livelier, the legend behind the statue is pretty dark. St John of Nepomuk was a private confessor to the queen Sophia. One time, the king ordered him to reveal the queen’s confessions out of suspicion that the queen was having an affair. St John refused. He was then tortured, his tongue was slit and his body was hauled in the Vltava river. Legend says that stars appeared on the spot where his body was thrown. Such was the reward of loyalty and honesty during those cruel times.

This, and most of the statues on the bridge, are part of the reason why the bridge feels heavy. It carries the burden of their cruel realities.

...to be continued.

 

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