Charles Bridge was falling down until an architect made a deal
Making a large building or a bridge requires a lot of complex math and engineering. But back in the Middle Ages and even after, these skills were pretty rudimentary. Investors would often seek the help of Heaven by paying for elaborate masses and blessings. The more practical architects would make a deal with the Devil to guarantee the quality of the engineering.
There are several structures in Prague where the Devil was the chief subcontractor. Charles Bridge, not surprisingly, is among them. Another is the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Charlemagne in Karlov. Kinský Palace in Old Town Square also saw the builders making a shady deal, and that building is haunted to this day. We will present these stories one at a time in a three-part series.
A fallen arch that can’t be fixed
Charles Bridge, originally just called the Bridge as it was the only one in the city, has been damaged and repaired several times. Sometime after the cleric John Nepomuk was thrown from the bridge in 1393, the arch where that happened collapsed into the river. The spot is now marked with a metal cross embedded in a red stone on the bridge’s handrail topped by a small grill with a relief image.
The story is sometimes linked to the flood of 1432, which badly damaged the bridge.
Any attempt to repair the section where John Nepomuk was martyred always ended with the day’s work falling apart at night and the workers having to start all over again.
Various famous builders of the time tried their best, but to no avail. A young man eager to make his name finally stepped up with new plans to complete all the work in one day, hoping that might be a way to break the curse.
But the finished arch stood only for a few hours and came crashing down at midnight. And the young mason thought he heard some demonic laughter ringing along with the reverberations of the splashing of the rocks into the water.
The young architect began to wonder out loud how he could appease the dark forces, when just then the Devil himself popped up, blueprints and sketches in hand. Fixing the bridge would be a simple matter, he said.
And the price for the consultation? Well, the standard fee. The first living soul to cross the bridge when the repairs were finished.
The young man rapidly agreed, thinking he would be clever enough to outwit the Devil.
The architect thought he could send a cat or a chicken across the bridge, which wasn’t exactly an original idea. Many old bridges are reputed to have had cats sent across first as protection against the Devil.
The architect told everyone that under no circumstances was anybody to cross the bridge until he gave word that it was safe. He then set out to find a stray animal or buy a live rooster, whichever came first.
But this time, the Devil did not want to be tricked.
The Devil transformed himself into the likeness of an old stone mason and told the architect’s pregnant wife that there had been an accident, and several people had been badly injured. The wife went running to her husband’s aid — on the other side of the bridge. She ignored the warnings of the real workers on the bridge that she shouldn’t go over the new section yet.
The husband returned from the market with a fat rooster just in time to see his wife complete the fateful journey.
The architect waited at the bridge to try to renegotiate with the Devil face to face, but the Devil never came.
The wife died soon after in childbirth, along with her child, who was unbaptized.
The architect set the rooster free, as it was no longer needed. Heartbroken, he — the architect, not the rooster — threw himself into the river.
But the story doesn’t end there. For years, people crossing the bridge could hear a baby crying. The soul of the unbaptized baby hovered over the bridge and could be heard but not seen.
One cold and wet day when the baby was crying, it also sneezed. A passerby reflexively said, “God bless you.” And with that blessing, the baby was released from its torment and was never heard crying again.
But the Devil kept the other two souls.
There are enough legends about Charles Bridge to fill a book. Construction started in 1357 on the 9th day of the 7th month at 5:31, making the numerical palindrome 135797531. The time was selected by astrologers.
Another legend about the construction is that Emperor Charles IV called for eggs to be brought from villages to help to strengthen the cement. The message got a bit garbled and the village of Velvary sent hard-boiled eggs. People from Velvary are still chided over the incident 660 years later. A further legend, likely started as a joke, says another village sent bacon, sausages and rolls along with their eggs.
Research on the cement has had mixed results. Some scientists claimed in 2008 that there were traces of egg protein, but in 2010 the same university said these results were a mistake.
The bridge also functions as a local Stonehenge. If on the Summer Solstice you stand at the Old Town side by the bridge tower, the sun sets over the altar of St Vitus’ Cathedral, above the tombs of the old royal family and the relics of St Wenceslas.
The bridge is associated with the martyrdom of John Nepomuk (Jan Nepomucký) in 1393, who died in a dispute involving religion versus the state when it came to confessions. There is some dispute over the legend, and possibly the lives of two people have been combined. He was canonized as a saint on March 19, 1729, by Benedict XIII.
There are two places on the bridge dedicated to John Nepomuk. One is a bronze cross with two arms and five stars inlaid into a red stone, and now decorated with a bronze relief of a reclining St John on a metal grating.
There is also a statue. It was the first to be placed on the bridge and is the only metal one. The statue was erected in 1683 and is by Jan Brokoff, based on a model by Matthias Rauchmiller.
Touching the inlaid cross and touching the plaques at the base of the statue are popular activities with tourists. There are often lines.
If you look at old photos of the statue, none of the spots are worn from touching. This raises the question of when the legend started.
It seems it began in 1990 right after the Velvet Revolution. Some students set up shop in front of the statue and started charging tourists 50 hellers (half a crown) each to touch the dog or the falling man to ensure that they would return.
The bridge has been damaged several times. A flood in 1432 damaged three pillars. In 1496, the third arch from the Old Town side collapsed during efforts to reinforce a support pillar. Repairs were finished in 1503.
On September 2–5, 1890, another flood damaged Charles Bridge. Logs and debris caused three arches and two pillars to collapse, while others were partly damaged. Two statues fell into the river. One was replaced with a copy, the other with a new statue of a different saint. Repairs lasted for two years and the bridge was reopened on November 19, 1892.