There is no doubting how important saints are to the Czech Republic.
After all, a statue of one of them, Saint Wenceslas, occupies probably the most prominent location in the country at the top of the square that is named after him.
The mounted statue of Saint Wenceslas has seen many of the key events in modern Czech history, and it was here where thousands of people left candles after the death, in 2011, of the saint’s namesake, Václav Havel.
Described as the chief patron saint of the Czech lands, Saint Wenceslas is credited, as Duke of Bohemia (in which role he was Wenceslas I), with reinforcing the Christianization of the area before his 935 assassinations on the orders of his brother Boleslav.
Saint Wenceslas’s story is one of many told in a fascinating book, Czech Heaven, by Alena Ježková, who has previously written popular volumes such as 77 Prague Legends.
The book’s 11 chapters contain potted biographies of a dozen saints with Czech links (the lives of brothers Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius are described together), and in doing so, it sheds fascinating light on the history of the area.
Although Saint Wenceslas is the best known, many of the others are familiar thanks to statues on Prague’s Charles Bridge and elsewhere.
Among them is Saint John of Nepomuk, depicted in a bronze statue on Charles Bridge as well as in stone on a bridge in Písek in the south-west of the country (He is also the saint shown on the front of Czech Heaven). The book describes in vivid and terrifying detail how this highly educated 14th-century church official was tortured and thrown into the Vltava River on the orders of Wenceslas IV.
The Saint mentioned above Cyril and Saint Methodius, both born in Thessaloniki in the early 9th century, are the earliest people detailed in the book. Their efforts to promote Christianity were helped by their use of the local language, now known as Old Church Slavonic, although these efforts sparked considerable priestly opposition.
Others featured include Saint Wenceslas’s grandmother Saint Ludmila. Her own conversion to Christianity reflected the Christianization that was taking place at the time.
The lives described in the book extend right up to the 19th century, with the most recent person featured being Saint John Nepomucene Neumann, a Bishop of Philadelphia who died in 1860 and was canonized in 1977.
Well illustrated with black-and-white photographs and a series of specially produced colour illustrations the saints, Czech Heaven is a very appealing short book. At times its descriptions perhaps veer more towards legend than rigorous historical scholarship, but it nonetheless offers an engaging glimpse into more than 1,000 years of events in the Czech lands.
– Czech Heaven is published by Prah