Perhaps not too many people know that it was on August 20, 1083, that Stephen, the first king of the Hungarians, became a saint. In those days the granting of sainthood was a great deal less complicated affair than nowadays, especially if the person happened to be an important man under whose rule his formerly largely pagan subjects willingly or unwillingly became Christians. Nonetheless, it must have taken quite a bit of diplomatic skill to convince Pope Gregory VII that three persons should be canonized at the same time: King Stephen (István), his son Emeric (Imre), and Bishop Gerhard (Gellért).
We know very little about Stephen from contemporary sources and the only pictorial representation we have from his lifetime is found on the so-called coronation cloak, most likely made in Veszprém in 1030. According to legend Queen Gisella, Stephen’s wife, also helped to embroider the piece that was given by Stephen and Gisella to a church in Székesfehérvár. Comparing this contemporary image of St. Stephen with the later nineteenth-century statues and pictures says a lot about his transformation in the Hungarian imagination over the centuries. Here is Stephen as depicted on the cloak. You may notice that the “Holy Crown” is missing. In his right hand there is something that looks like a staff. In his left hand he holds an orb, which was the symbol of power already in antiquity. By the way, the orb that is part of the coronation symbols today is most likely not the one that can be seen here because scientists dated it to the fourteenth century.
The medieval cult of Saint Stephen is difficult to assess. At the end of the twelfth century Master P (Anonymous) barely mentions him in his Gesta Hungarorum. He simply relates the story that Stephen buried Tonuzoba and his wife alive because they were not steadfast enough in their faith. Simon Kézai in his Chronicum Pictum (around 1360) talks more about Stephen, but still he spends more time and thinks more highly of Attila the Hun. August 20 was a holiday from the time of the reign of Louis The Great (1342-1382). But it was only a religious holiday, not a state holiday. Later the protestants who refused to venerate saints didn’t observe it.
The modern cult of St. Stephen began with the reign of Maria Theresa (1740-1780). She tried to appease the Hungarian nobility and decided that a cult of St. Stephen was a useful vehicle for her aspirations. She was the one who ordered that August 20th be a national holiday, not just a religious one. She was the one who arranged to move the Holy Right Hand from Dubrovnik to Buda. In 1819 the details of the procession held on August 20th were fixed and the presence of the high officials of state was required. In the procession the Holy Right Hand (Szent Jobb) was carried along the route.
Here is a picture of the famous mummified hand that may or may not have belonged to Saint Stephen. The hand had a rather adventurous history; in the end it was purchased by monks in Dubrovnik from Turkish merchants. According to some experts it may be part of an Egyptian mummy. Whatever, today it is venerated as the right hand of St. Stephen.
Meanwhile research proved that the Holy Crown of St. Stephen never touched the saintly king’s head. According to the most accepted theory, the Holy Crown of Hungary consists of two main parts: the corona graeca and the corona latina. It was created during the reign of Béla III (1172-1196) under Byzantine influence. But this discovery never bothered anyone. The crown is still called the Holy Crown of St. Stephen and statues and pictures depict him with this crown on his head.
Meanwhile the religious/national holiday became a full-fledged official state holiday (in the sense that government offices shut down and most people got a day off from work) in 1891 despite the protestation of non-Catholics who in those days constituted more than half of the population. However, the Catholic Church had a special relationship with the state, so the other churches were ignored.
The cult of St. Stephen intensified during the Horthy period, partly due to the rise in the country’s Catholic population (from 49% to 64%) because of the redrawn borders but due even more to the regime’s conservative ideology whose main foundations were nationalism and Christianity. The year 1938 was declared to be the Year of St. Stephen because of the 1000-year anniversary of his death. Apparently 800,000 people took part in the August 20th procession that year.
After the war, August 20th became a political battleground between the state and the church led by József Mindszenty. Mindszenty appeared to have won the heart and soul of the population. On August 20, 1947, an estimated half a million people took part in the procession. That frightened the government and the following year no procession was allowed. Instead the Hungarian Workers’ Party organized a demonstration celebrating the “holiday of new bread.” In 1949 the new Stalinist constitution was introduced and August 20th became the Day of the Constitution.
In 1990 a decision had to be made about national holidays. Surely, April 4th, the day of the liberation by the Soviet forces, and November 7th, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, were out; a new holiday commemorating the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was created. For the chief national holiday there were two contending dates: March 15th, the day the nation celebrated the democratic revolution of 1848, and August 20th. Members of parliament were split: the right-of-center government forces insisted on August 20th while the liberals and socialists preferred March 15th. The same split occurred when it came to the country’s coat-of-arms. The conservatives preferred the one used before 1945 while the liberals and socialists would have liked the so-called Kossuth coat-of-arms that lacked the crown. Since the conservatives were in the majority, they won in both cases. So Hungary is a republic with a coat-of-arms that displays a crown worn by Hungarian kings.
But let’s go back to statues of St. Stephen. As I mentioned earlier, out of the modest contemporary depiction of Stephen over the centuries this heroic figure has emerged.
And now let’s move on from the king to the president talking about the king. What did Pál Schmitt have to say about Saint Stephen on this holiday? On August 19 he gave an interview to Magyar Nemzet. In this interview the following conversation took place: What do you think, how many St. Stephen statues are in the country? Schmitt: “As I know this country, the last sixty years, and the fate of statues, most likely fewer than there should be … But one would need at least 1,000.” There are only one hundred and fifty… Schmitt: “Too few! … There are close to 3,200 communities in this country. I was thinking that every decent village … Let’s say, every third …. But perhaps the time will come … Just as I would like it if every student would read the ‘Admonitions of St. Stephen.’ That is extraordinarily important.”
A day later Schmitt gave a speech at the graduation of the students of the Hungarian military academy. A profound excerpt: “I think that we can safely believe that this nation which produced so many saintly kings must be exceptional.”
Well, it doesn’t matter how hard I tried to find all those saintly Hungarian kings, I could find only two: Stephen and László. On the other hand I didn’t have to search long before I found at least four English saintly kings: Edward the Confessor, St. Edward the Martyr, Saint Edmund, and Charles I. Schmitt’s speech writers are embarrassingly sloppy. I recommend to all who can read Hungarian Zsófia Mihancsik’s outstanding compilation of politicians’ nonsense on August 20th.