Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hymns of St. John Nepomucene


Last Saturday, 16 May, was the Feast of St. John Nepomucene here in Germany (both EF and OF), whose martyrdom occurred on the Vigil of the Ascension, i.e. tomorrow. Most readers will be familiar with him as a martyr for the sacred seal of Confession and as the Patron Saint of bridges (you can find an image of him on or nearly almost every bridge in the Catholic parts of Central Europe; the image at the top shows his most famous statue on the Charles bridge in Prague, the site of his marytrdom). Here is a brief account of his vita, which I have taken from the Éditions Magnificat site, with some corrections and adding some details from the Second Nocturn of his Feast):

Saint John Nepomucene was born in 1330, in answer to the prayer of his parents, who were poor folk of Pomuk in Bohemia. The circumstances of his birth already presaged his future sanctity, as flames miraculously appeared above the house in which he was born. In gratitude his parents consecrated him to the Blessed Virgin. His holy life as a priest led to his appointment as chaplain to the court of King Wenceslaus IV, where he converted many by his preaching and example.

Among those who sought his advice was the virtuous queen Joan, who suffered much from her husband’s unfounded jealousy. Saint John, whom the queen chose as her spiritual director, taught her to bear her cross with joy; but her piety only incensed the king, and he tried to extort an account of her confessions from the Saint. He threw Saint John into a dungeon but gained nothing; then, inviting him to his palace, he promised him riches if he would yield, and threatened death if he refused. The Saint was silent. He was racked and burnt with torches; but no words except the holy names of Jesus and Mary fell from his lips. At last set free, he spent time in preaching and preparing for the death he knew to be near.

On Ascension Eve, May 16th, Wenceslaus, after a final and fruitless attempt to alter the constancy of the faithful priest, the king ordered him to be cast into the river. That night the martyr’s hands and feet were bound, and he was thrown from the bridge of Prague into the Moldau River. Heavenly lights shining on the water and from under it, revealed the misdeed and the whereabouts of the body, which was soon buried with the honors due to a Saint by the canons of the metropolitan chapter of Prague, of which St. John was a member.

The Saint's fame every increased through miracles and the veneration of the faithful, especially those suffering defamation. When his shrine was opened three hundred and thirty years after his decease for the canonical recognition, the flesh had disappeared, and one member alone remained incorrupt, the tongue, which thus, still in silence, gave glory to God.


A particularly expressive representation of St. John's martyrdom can be found at St. Peter's in Vienna (this image, as well as the one at the top, from NLM friend Alipius's blog). The five stars in the water below him (also customarily seen in the halo around his haed, cf. picture at the top) represent the miraculous lights which revealed his murder; the number five alludes to the letters of the word "tacui", I remained silent:



The part of his office (in the usus antiquior) which I find especially beautiful and want to share with you today (I have not found them online anywhere yet) are the hymns, which in their rhymes and their rhythm have a decidedly medieval feel to them, certainly untouched by the unfortunate classicist ambitions of Urban VIII. I also very much appreciate their vivid imagery, e.g. of St. John's miracles shining forth through the interlocked bolts of his tomb (hmyn for Lauds, 1st stanza) or the likening of the silent accusation of his incorrupt tongue to the crying of the blood of Abel (hmyn for Lauds, 5th stanza).

For Vespers

Invíctus heros Núminis,
Mergéndus unda flúminis,
Stat fortis in silentio,
Dum fit sigílli mentio.

Hinc rex minátur fúnera,
Hinc tortor infert vúlnera,
Manus ligántur fúnibus,
Artus cremántur ígnibus.

Sed hæc Joannes déspicit,
Nec regis iram réspicit:
Secréta non vult pándere,
Horret sigíllum frángere.

Stat mutus agnus ínnocens,
Nil de tegéndis próferens:
Stat; dumque rex nil élicit,
E ponte justum déjicit.

Præceps ab alto stérnitur,
Undis profúndis mérgitur,
Mersum sed applaudéntibus
Undæ salútant ígnibus. (A reference to the miraculous lights appearing above the water, as in the following stanza.)

Stellæ natant in flúmine,
Illi paréntant lúmine:
Docétque cœli cláritas,
Quæ sit Joánnis cáritas.

Da, sempitérna Trínitas,
Ut in bono sit fírmitas,
Aut lacrimárum flúmina
Mergant cadéntum crímina. Amen.


For Matins (the first six lines refer to the miraculous lights at St. John's birth, the next two to those at his death)

In profúnda noctis umbra
Et gravi calígine
Lustrat ædem flamma munda,
Sic jubénte Númine.

Nocte náscitur Joánnes,
Astra cœlo dévolant:
Nocte mérgitur Joánnes,
Astra funus ápparant.

Hinc cor ejus igne flagrans
Fortis urit cáritas:
Hinc ab ejus ore manans
Mira prodit suávitas.

Nunc amóre cor bonórum
Ad salútem pértrahit:
Nunc timóre cor malórum
A gehénna rétrahit.

Páuperes solátur ære,
Derelíctis súbvenit:
Non sinit justos jacére,
Damna famæ præpedit.

Per Joánnis sanctitátem,
O beáta Trínitas,
Méntibus da puritátem,
Corde regnat cáritas. Amen.


For Lauds

Vix in sepúlcro cónditur,
Signis Joánnes próditur,
Per crátium repágula
Intérmicant mirácula.

Hic ejus hostes íllico
Pudóre mæsti público,
Ultríce dextra Núminis,
Pœnas repéndunt críminis.

Hic damna rerum fléntibus
Famæve conqueréntibus,
Abdúcta res revértitur,
Abláta fama rédditur.

Hic corpus ægritúdines,
Tempus vicissitúdines,
Perículum secúritas,
Mortem fugit mortálitas.

Hic viva lingua Mártyris,
Sed muta voce sánguinis
Clamans, ut Abel, ímprobat,
Regíque crimen éxprobrat.

Uníus, o, da, Trínitas,
Triúmque simplex Unitas,
Ut, qui Joánni súpplicant,
Id ímpetrent, quod flágitant. Amen.