Tuesday, May 19, 2015

on suicidal parachutists and death by bridge

Charles Bridge on Navalis
On May 15 of every year thousands of Czechs gather to make the descent from St. Vitus in the castle, cross Charles Bridge, and finish at the opposite bank of the Vltava, where there’s an orchestra on a barge waiting to play. The event, called the Navalis, celebrates the life and martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk. Before the procession, there’s a festival at the castle where many Czechs are dressed in traditional, medieval looking clothes, and sing old Czech songs along with church music. What seems to be all the priests of Prague then rally the folk together, pass out palm branches and head down through Mala Strana, a brass band playing solemn religious music as a background to the procession. Watching the parade, I couldn’t quite tell if it was a celebration or a day of mourning - much like viewing the average sober Czech man, it’s hard to read the emotions. But after seeing one priest with a peasant kick back a couple of shots of what appeared to be Slivovitz - plum vodka - I decided that it must be a celebration.

We followed the crowd and made our way to Charles Bridge. There the crowd stopped and what must have been a priest mumbled a lot of stuff in Czech over loudspeakers. All I could make out were the words “parachutist” and “10 minutes” as those are pretty similar in every language. It also makes clear sense to celebrate the commemoration of a man who was killed by being thrown off a bridge. My wife kept asking me what we were waiting for and I kept repeating, “Parachutist! 10 minutes!” as though that should really mean anything in context of the bridge and the expected concert on boats.

Parachutists coming in!
Then people started looking up. The parachutists had arrived! There were about 5 of them, with what appeared to be some sort of rockets firing sparks out of their feet. The first one swung himself into a spiral, falling ever faster and was coming quite close to the bridge. There was a gasp from the crowd as people were sure he was in for it. At the last moment, he hurtled himself under the bridge, came out on the other side, and landed safely in the Vltava - though I don’t know how safe it is to be in that murky brown water.

After the parachutists finished their presentation, the boat orchestra started up, playing old classical music across the water. With all the people in medieval dress and the huge towers and churches surrounding, it had the ability to transport one across time as though you were standing in that spot 300 years before. Except for all the purple lights around the orchestra, the spotlight, and the motorboat of drunk, shouting tourists. But for all that, it was exactly like 300 years before.

There we were at the foot of the statue of St. John Nepomuk, near a plaque with his cross - which had five stars and marked the exact spot where he was de-bridged - listening to Mozart. St. John Nepomuk met his end there much earlier than just three hundred years ago. It was arguably back in 1393 when he was thrown over the edge of Charles Bridge to meet his watery demise. Probably not the first to die in that way and certainly not the last, he was though the most famous in the long list of Czechs getting killed by being thrown off of things - castles, bridges, windows, etc. You can’t have a famous Czech death without someone being thrown off of something or out of somewhere.

St. John Nepomuk was the confessor to the Queen of Bohemia, wife to King Wenceslas IV - who is not to be confused with the Good King Wenceslas I of Christmas carol fame. The bad one, Wenceslas, the Fourth of His Name, King of Romans and Germans and Bohemia, son of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, was not a popular king. His hold on the Iron Crown was shaky, as - in a nearly Game of Thrones style drama - he was intermittently at war with the Swabian League, a group of nobility that took offense at his ascendance and reassertion of imperial authority.

Constantly being harassed by those he considered clear underlings, it perhaps comes as no surprise that he was a paranoid and jealous man, which is what led him to his conflict with St. John Nepomuk. It’s not known which wife of Wenceslas was the possibly unfaithful one - the one who mysteriously died at the age of 23 or the other who was mysteriously gored to death by a deer - but whichever, according to the Chronica regum Romanorum, one of them was possibly flirting a bit too much with her hand servants. When the king approached Magister Jan, as he was called back then, he demanded to know her Confessions, saying something like, “You must tell me! I am the king!” To which Magister Jan famously replied, “Only the one who rules properly deserves the name of king.”

Too good a fate is never in store for someone who says that to a king.

Magister Jan then made his way through the Prague Torture Museum, after which he was unceremoniously dumped into the river, blood, guts, and all.

Of course, this bit more romantic version of his death surfaced a few hundred years after his death. Earlier histories note St. John’s support of the Roman Pope, while Wenceslas preferred the Avignon Pope (and who wouldn’t, the guy was called the Anti-Pope!). John confirmed a supporter of the Roman Pope as the head of the Abbey of Kladruby, which possessed vast lands in Western Bohemia, including the primary trade route to the Imperial City of Regensburg. Meanwhile King Wenceslas wanted to turn the abbey into a cathedral, thereby being able to herald imperial authority over it and its lands. This latter story, of a struggle of power between Church and State, is probably the truer one, but isn’t as fun.

Whichever the case concerning his death, St. John Nepomuk was beatified on May 31, 1721 and finally canonized on March 19, 1729, though the first statue to be placed commemorating the saint was put up on the bridge in 1683 and the May 15 festivities started in 1715. He was made saint due to his protection of the Sacrament of Confession and can be recognized by the halo with the five stars, a cross, and an angel with a finger over his mouth, telling John to keep quiet about the Queen’s affairs. St. John Nepomuk is also the protector saint against drowning and flooding, the latter which he appears to not be so good at, since the Vltava rises up and destroys much of Prague every 10 years or so. He’s also the patron of bridges, communication, and Venetian gondoliers, as well as being a patron of the City of Venice. 

The concert on the Vltava
And that all was what I was considering while looking down at the purple tinted orchestra playing Cosi fan tutte, with hundreds - perhaps thousands - of palm leaf bearing Czechs crowded in on the stones of Charles Bridge.

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