As you shuffle along with your fellow tourists round the chancel of Prague’s main cathedral, there’s not a lot to see beyond the remains of a few medieval Czech kings with unpronounceable names – Břetislav, Spytihněv, Bořivoj. That is, until you find your way virtually barred by a giant silver tomb, which looks for all the world as if it has been abandoned by a bunch of Baroque builders upon discovering it was too big to fit into one of the side chapels. Turning your attention to the tomb itself, you’re faced with one of the most gobsmackingly kitsch mausoleums imaginable – sculpted in solid silver, with airborne angels holding up the heavy drapery of the baldachin; and you notice the saint’s rather fetching five-star sunburst halo, and back to back with him, a cherub proudly pointing to a glass case. On closer inspection, you realize the case contains a severed tongue.
Jesuits were nothing if not theatrical, and here, in the tomb of their favourite martyr, St John of Nepomuk, the severed tongue adds that extra bit of macabre intrigue. Arrested, tortured and then thrown – bound and gagged – off the Charles Bridge, John was martyred in 1393 for refusing to divulge the secrets of the queen’s confession to the king. A cluster of stars appeared above the spot where he was drowned – or so the story goes – and are depicted on all his statues, including the one on the Charles Bridge. The gruesome twist was added when the Jesuits had his corpse exhumed in 1715 and produced what they claimed was the martyr’s tongue – alive and licking so to speak – and stuck it in the glass case. Unfortunately, science had the last say, and in 1973 tests proved that the tongue was in fact part of his decomposed brain. Sadly, the object you now see on his tomb is a tongue-shaped replica.
St Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle is open daily. Charles Bridge can be visited any time of the day or night. For more on St John, see http://www.sjn.cz.