Petting the bronze dog on Charles Bridge is a more recent tradition than many people think.
Practically every tourist who crosses Charles Bridge in Prague touches one of three places on the base of the statue of St John Nepomuk, or a five-starred double cross a little further down embedded in the bridge’s stone railing.
Legend has it St John (Jan Nepomucký) was thrown off the bridge by King Wenceslas IV for refusing to divulge the secrets of the queen’s confession. The dispute may also have involved the church’s right to appoint bishops without state approval.
There has always been a good deal of confusion about the legend. Two Bohemian clerics named Jan may have gotten their life stories hopelessly entangled. And the date of his death is either 1383 or 1393. The change in date would also change which queen was being protected. Queen Johanna of Bavaria was alive on the former date, and Queen Sofia of Bavaria on the latter.
But there is little doubt that someone was thrown into the Vltava river in a dispute centering on the power of the state versus the power of the church, and that his remains were eventually put into an elaborate silver tomb in St Vitus’ Cathedral.
The main part of the statue depicts John with a crown of five stars, which are supposed to have appeared in the water when he drowned, and a palm for a martyr and a cross. Two plaques are on the bottom, and these are what tourists touch. The left plaque shows the alleged confession and the right shows John’s martyrdom by being thrown in the river.
To ensure that you will return to Prague, you should touch the image of the falling man, John, on the right panel. Some people also touch the queen, who is witnessing the event. She is simply easier to reach, although some tour guides claim touching her brings good fortune.
The dog on the left panel, however, is petted simply because he is cute. There is no legend and it seems simply that tour guides have so many people trying to touch the falling man that they have to split the group up into three and have some of them touch something else so the tour can move along. But now the dog is the most popular of the three, and some people will accept no substitutes. So touching him must be good for something.
It isn’t clear what the dog is doing on the plaque, as there is no dog in St John’s hagiography. The man next to the dog is some sort of knight, with a spear, so he was perhaps a castle guard. On his breastplate is a scallop shell, which symbolizes pilgrimage as well as St. James the Greater, patron of Spain.
The plaque has an odd design. The foreground is as if on a stage, with the curtain drawn back. The background seems separate, as if a distant memory. Is this the guard who overheard the confession and turned in St John, now later in life somehow looking back on his past? Has he made a pilgrimage to seek forgiveness? Still, this doesn’t explain the dog, which looks likes a faithful hunting hound ready to rest.
Perhaps if this is the meaning, then touching the dog could bring forgiveness.
The meaning could be simpler. The dog could be a symbol of fidelity and the knight a symbol of duty. In this case touching the dog could bring perhaps a long and faithful marriage.
On the 10 of Pentacles in The Tarot of Prague deck, the man and dog also have multiple interpretations, and could be taken to mean ignoring the more magical possibilities life offers and regretting it later.
The cross further down the bridge now has a small but elaborate fence to make it more visible. If you put one finger on each of the five stars and make a wish, that wish is supposed to come true within a year. People also touch the figure of St John on the little fence.
The rest has grown from that in the quarter century since then so that now touching the dog for luck is one of the must-do things in Prague. It is hard to say when a new practice becomes a trusted legend. Touching the dog seems well on its way to becoming a legend for improving luck.
Charles Bridge did not originally have statues, and was called simply the Stone Bridge or just the bridge as it was the only one.
The cornerstone was laid at 5:31 according to Old Bohemian time on 7 July in 1357. When put with the year, this make 1357-9-7-5:31.Emperor Charles IV was keen on astrology, which was regarded as a science. He let astrologers choose the time.
The statue of John Nepomuk was the first to be placed there and is the only metal one. The others are sandstone, and by now all copies. The statue was erected in 1683, which was even before John was beatified in 1721 or canonized in 1729. It is by Jan Brokoff, based upon a model by Matthias Rauchmiller.
If you look at old photos of the statue, none of the spots are worn. An 1890’s photo, one of the earliest, shows uniform blackness on the metal. Photos from the 1960’s also show no wear. This raises a question of when the legend started.
It seems it began in 1989 right after the Velvet Revolution. Some newly minted young capitalists set up camp in front of the statue and started charging tourists 50 hellers (half a crown) each to touch the falling man to ensure that they would return. A bottle of beer at the time cost about 3 crowns, so every six tourists paid for a beer.