The Legend of Saint Ladislas of Hungary
Ladislas I, King and Saint of the House of Árpád (1077-1095), was the mostly venerated saint in medieval Hungary, and the most popular figure appearing in Hungarian popular legends. In an eulogistic account found in the so-called Képes Krónika (Picture Chronicle), an important source of the period for historians written around 1360, Ladislas was gleaming and twinkling like the Morning Star surrounded by clouds, chasing the depressing darkness away. The richness and the depth of the cult of Ladislas in its time highly overshadowed that of Saint Stephen of Hungary and his son, Prince Saint Imre. However, after the beginning of the counter-reformation, the cult of Saint Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian Kingdom, emerged above the others and he became the national saint: Stephen was the first Hungarian king, and with the reception of the Saint Crown from the pope, he made the European monarchs accept the existence of a Christian Hungary in the Carpathian basin, and he also offered Hungary to the Holy Virgin. If we asked Hungarians when the feast of Saint Stephen is held, they would give a quick answer: on 20th of August. However, there would be fewer people who could tell the exact date of Saint Ladislas' holiday, which is 27th of June.
Although, beside the cult of Saint Stephen the old cult of Saint Ladislas could not spring up again in its medieval greatness, Hungarian popular tradition still keeps alive the memory of Saint Ladislas. Examples for his popularity in Transylvania include the so-called Saint Ladislas coin, which are actually flat stones (nummulites), or the Saint Ladislas' herb (gentiana cruciata). A popular legend tells the origin of this herb’s name: Saint Ladislas' constant praying reached its aim, as he asked, that the kind of herb that was - at random - first stabbed by his arrow, would heal people suffering from plague. Many of the Hungarian churches and temples bear Saint Ladislas as their patron saint. In 1992, on the 800th anniversary of his canonization, there were national commemorations of him throughout Hungary, moreover, the Hungarian Defence Forces also venerate Saint Ladislas as their patron saint since that time.
Saint Ladislas was born in Poland in 1046. He was the grandchild of Vazul, whose eyes were put out by order of Saint Stephen, as he was a partaker in a plot against Stephen. After the death of Stephen till the accession of Ladislas I, Hungarian politics were dominated by the problems of succession. As a rule, this question divided the Hungarian aristocrats who also called for help from abroad. Moreover, the process of firmly establishing Christianity in Hungary was not trouble-free either, not to mention the inner pagan revolts or the invasions against Hungary which often involved serious armed conflicts. During these forty years (1038-1077), the Hungarian throne changed hands nine times. Finally, after the death of Géza, Ladislas' brother, the aristocrats chose unanimously Ladislas as their monarch, because, according to the chronicle, he is "armed with virtues, and is remarkable for his piety". Ladislas did not have an easy task after these domestic struggles. He had to solve the problems of succession, because after the Battle of Mogyoród (1073), it was still Solomon, Ladislas' cousin driven to the territory around Pozsony (now Bratislava), who was the crowned king of Hungary.
Finally, Ladislas succeeded in making peace with Solomon who renounced all his rights for the throne. In addition, the pope acknowledged Ladislas as the rightful, legal king of Hungary, although Ladislas did not hurry to have himself crowned. With the ceremonial act of having the regalia carried in front of him in a respectful way, Ladislas signified that he was obeying the will of God and was not aspiring to earthly riches or glory. When Solomon, nevertheless, weaved a plot against him, Ladislas had him imprisoned in the Castle of Visegrád, but did not have him killed. Solomon towards the end of his life was doing penance as an hermit on the territory of present-day Croatia and he is also venerated as a blessed of the Church.
The struggle between Ladislas and Solomon is like a romance. In the Battle of Mogyoród mentioned above, Ladislas, who was fighting on the side of his brother, Géza, had a heavenly vision: the Angel of God descended from the sky holding a golden crown in his hands, and put it on the head of Géza. Following Géza's coronation, Géza and Ladislas went to the place where the angel had appeared. Suddenly a deer emerged, its antlers were full of burning candles, and the deer rushed away towards the forest and stopped at that place, where, later, Géza had a church built, the Cathedral of Vác, in honour of the Virgin Mary giving thanks to Her for the victory. At this point, we may call to mind the famous Hungarian mythic legend about the Wonder Deer, which, surely, was still vividly in the mind of the Hungarian people of that time; or, we may give another explanation, too: the chronicler may have recorded the motifs of a so-called Eustach-legend of Christian origin, in which "Christ himself appears to the hunter in the form of a deer, carrying a glowing cross between his antlers".
According to the legend, Solomon and Ladislas intend to fight with each other disguised as warriors; however, Solomon turns back, because he sees angels above the disguised Ladislas, defending him with burning swords.
Saint Ladislas supported the Church generously, and also helped the building up of a great number of churches and monasteries, moreover, in 1083 the first five Hungarian saints were canonized on Ladislas' initiation: Stephen I; Stephen’s son, Prince Imre; Saint Gerhard, the bishop who converted many Hungarians to Christianity, and the less well-known hermit saints Andrew and Benedict. The most significant event, however, was the religious service on the occasion of the canonization of Stephen I, since through this act, a grandchild of Vazul acknowledged the enemy of his grandfather, the great Christian king, Stephen. It was on that occasion when the miracle settling the struggle between Ladislas and Solomon happened: the stone covering the coffin of Saint Stephen could not be lifted until peace in the royal family was restored. After Solomon was released from the prison in Visegrád, the last obstacle standing in the way of Stephen's canonization, that is, the opening up of his grave, vanished. According to the legend, the excellent knightly qualities of the saint king, Ladislas are best illustrated by the fact, that all the European rulers chose him as the leader of the first Crusade to the Holy Land, however, Ladislas died unexpectedly in 1095.
Although Ladislas asked for the Cathedral of Várad to be his resting place, due to the great summer heat, he was buried at Somogyvár, and it was only during the reign of Stephen II (1116-1131) that Ladislas' coffin was transferred to Várad. Besides his coffin, his huge, double-edged battle-axe together with his silver horn (which he used to call his warriors to battle) were also kept at this place. At the time of king Béla III (1172-1196), Ladislas was canonized in 1192, numbering him among the saints. Possibly, it was around at this time or a little later when the first herm of Saint Ladislas was made; and from the 13th century onwards, it became customary to swear an oath on it, in addition, it was also a medieval Hungarian military custom to carry the herm of Saint Ladislas in front of the Hungarian troops. A story told by an old Tartar is recorded in the Dubnic Chronicle, according to which in 1345 "they were not defeated by the Székelys or the Magyars, but by Ladislas, who is always called for help. And the other Tartars also asserted that when the Székely people attacked them, there was a magnificent knight on a huge horse leading them, with a golden crown on his head, a war-axe in his hands, and all the Tartars were reduced due to his awesome strikes and brandishing".
The church guard also told - says the chronicler - that during this battle, the head of Saint Ladislas "was found nowhere in the Cathedral of Várad. On the fourth day, the head was at its usual place, but was sweating heavily, as if it had returned from some hard work or from great hotness". This theme was also adopted by János Arany, a great Hungarian poet of the 19th century, in his well-known poem, titled Szent László. Around the year 1400, the first herm was melted by fire, however, the skull relic remained intact. Another masterpiece of medieval Hungarian art, the second herm of Saint Ladislas (Szent László-herma) was made during the reign of Sigismund of Luxemburg (1387-1437), and is presently kept at the Cathedral of Győr. The body of Saint Ladislas rested in peace in Várad until June in 1565, when, during the reformation – with the veneration of saints pushed into the background – Ladislas' grave was desecrated with the permission of the Prince of Transylvania, John II Sigismund Zápolya or János Zsigmond (1570-1571), and the king's coffin of marble was smashed up and his bones were scattered.
By the 13th century, thanks to the growing cult of Saint Ladislas, Várad developed into a place of jurisdiction and religious cult of great importance throughout the country. In the "virtual" presence of king Ladislas, the characteristic medieval ordeals, especially the ordeal by fire, were established here. In addition, it also became customary among Hungarian kings to go on a pilgrimage to the grave of Saint Ladislas after their coronation, to confirm their oath there. Moreover, numerous diets were held there, and many kings, queens, and bishops were buried at this place (such examples are Beatrice of Luxemburg, the wife of Charles Robert of Hungary, and Sigismund of Luxemburg, together with his wife, Queen Maria).
From the beginning of the period marked by the reigning of monarchs from the Anjou (or Angevin) dynasty in Hungary onwards, "the three Hungarian saint kings" were heartily presented on the model of the Biblical three Kings paying homage to the baby Jesus, and, at the same time, embodying the three periods of human life: between the elderly Saint Stephen and the young Saint Imre, Saint Ladislas appears as a knight in the prime of his life. A really worthy representation of this chivalrous, heavenly champion of Hungary, the patron of the Hungarian nation was placed in front of the cathedral of Várad: the bronze-made equestrian statue of Saint Ladislas made by Márton and György, brothers from Kolozsvár. It is also possible, that it was the wall of this cathedral which was first decorated with the artistic representation of the special story about the struggle between Saint Ladislas and the Turkish Kuman warrior abducting a Hungarian girl; many variations of this story are beautifully illustrated on the numerous fresco cycles of the village churches in mainly Transylvania and in the Upper Parts of medieval Hungary (called Felvidék, now it is Slovakia). The nearly thirty frescoes of Saint Ladislas having been discovered so far were created in the period of two centuries, between the beginning of the 14th century and the end of the 15th century, that is, during the reign of the two Anjou monarchs in Hungary (Charles Robert I and Louis I the Great), and Sigismund of Luxemburg. It was by this time that Saint Ladislas had grown into an exemplary model for rulers – the patron saint of the country and the nation of the nobles –, who also defended the country against all enemies through his chivalrous and heroic deeds.
Thanks to the steadfast and industrious work of József Lángi restorer, since May 2006, the same heroic, chivalrous range of scenes is unfolding in front of our eyes in Homoródkarácsonyfalva situated in the county of Udvarhelyszék. Balázs Orbán in the last century mentioned, too, that there are hidden frescoes in the Unitarian Church whitewashed in the 16th century; however, nobody would have ever thought that a beautiful and similarly popular variant of the Saint Ladislas fresco cycle will be uncovered here one hundred years after the similar discoveries that were made in the settlements nearby: in Székelyderzs, Székelydály, Sepsikily, Sepsibesenyő, Bögöz, Csíkszentmihály, and last but not least, Gelence. Homoródkarácsonyfalva is 8 kilometres far from Homoródszentmárton, and it is also close to Erdőfüle, where the frescoes have been destroyed, though, we have knowledge of them from the 19th century sketches of the art teacher, József Huszka. The episode appearing on the frescoes of the church illustrates the chivalrous and heroic deed of Prince Ladislas fighting on the side of the Hungarian king Solomon, which is traditionally associated with the Battle of Kerlés (or, in other words, Battle of Cserhalom, in the county of Doboka) against the Turkish Kumans in 1068.
This event is known to us only from historical sources, because the legends of Saint Ladislas, which were made for liturgical purposes and thus contained numerous acts of wonders, make no mention of this event, and neither do the surviving medieval sermons. It is strange, because the wonders appearing in the king’s legend frequently occurred in sermons, since the act of wonder itself was really suitable to demonstrate to the believers that the acts of the saint king were clearly the manifestations of God’s will. If we consider all this, even more remarkable is the fact, that for two hundred or two hundred and fifty years (in the 14th-15th centuries) it was not the wonders of Ladislas that were represented on the frescoes of churches – which, however, was the usual practice from the 16th century onwards –, but it was only exclusively the Battle of Cserhalom that was represented. This was suitable to symbolize the knightly ideal that was required from the noble knights in the developing age of chivalry.
The scenes in the frescoes of Homoródkarácsonyfalva correspond to the Saint Ladislas fresco cycles of other churches. In many places the range of scenes are fragmentary, and in those cases it is often very difficult to decide whether there was really a piece missing from the range of scenes or it was just destroyed throughout the ages. Apart from a few exceptions, the frescoes were painted on the northern wall of the churches, because only there was one unified surface (in medieval churches, the front door and the window were placed on the southern part of the church) giving enough room for the frescoes. Similarly the same practice was applied in the Church of Homoródkarácsonyfalva; however, later another window was put on the northern side, unfortunately. As a result, we can reconstruct the full range of the chasing scenes only from frescoes in other churches. In addition, the last episode – Resting under the tree – was impossible to be reconstructed in its full beauty.
The so-called Képes Krónika (Illuminated Chronicle), one of the earliest historical sources of Hungary which relies on a chronicle written in the 12th century, gives an account of the battle as follows: “Eventually, Prince Blessed Ladislas caught sight of a pagan dragging off a beautiful Magyar girl on horseback. Thus, Prince Saint Ladislas thought that she was the daughter of the bishop of Várad, and, though he was seriously wounded, he nevertheless set off in pursuit of the pagan on the back of his horse that he called “Szög” [Hungarian for “nail”]. Ladislas was on the point of catching him and stabbing him with his spear, but he did not succeed in the end, because neither was his horse galloping faster, nor was the pagan’s horse slower, instead, his spear was within arm’s length of the Kuman warrior’s back. So, Prince Saint Ladislas called out to the girl, saying: “My dear sister, grab the Kuman by his belt and throw yourself onto the ground!”
So she did it. When Prince Blessed Ladislas, from a distance, pointed his spear at the Kuman lying on the ground and wanted to kill him, the girl asked him very seriously not to kill him, but let him go away. We can see from this, too, that there is no faith in womankind, because supposedly, she wanted to set him free out of lustfulness. Thereafter, the saint prince killed him after much struggle, cutting through his tendon.”
The iconographic representation of the story, however, is closer in its details to another surviving historical source, the mid-14th century Chronicle of Henrik Mügeln written in Latin (1352), then in German (around 1360) Not the daughter of the bishop of Várad was snatched away by the Kuman warrior, but only a beautiful girl.
After the girl dragged the pagan down from the horse with herself, “then the pagan jumped up and struggled for long with Saint Ladislas; so long, that the girl finally stroke down on the pagan’s leg with a hatchet so he fell down. Then Ladislas caught the heathen by his hair, and the girl stroke down on his neck. So it was in this way that the king and prince rescued the girl from falling into captivity, and they went home happily”.
The last scene of the frescoes, the Rest (under the tree) could be the continuation of the story told by Henrik Mügeln (that is, the girl is not crying for her kidnapper, but goes away happily with Ladislas), but there is no written source about it! There is no surviving written account that would contain all the scenes of the fresco cycle. It is apparent how the surviving historical sources differ from each other in telling the same story that our frescoes represent so accurately. However, there are variants in the case of the frescoes as well, such as in Ócsa, where the girl is just watching the action in a passive way as it is written in the Illuminated Chronicle. In spite of the few iconographic differences, we may suppose, that there must have been a common source – such as some oral source or written accounts that did not survive – that served as a basis for the artistic representations. Moreover, the accuracy of the representation suggests that there were pattern books or some sketches passed on to later generations.
If we compare the fresco of Homoródkarácsonyfalva with the Saint Ladislas fresco cycle of Gelence, we will find some striking similarity between them.
The task of art historians is to decide whether this similarity can be attributed to one single master or workshop, or rather one common pattern book was used. According to the special literature, the fresco of Gelence was painted in the first half of the 14th century. Its style made up of drawings and lines appears to date from an early age. We presume that the fresco cycle of Homoródkarácsonyfalva was also created in the 14th century, but it is more likely that it dates from the second half of the 14th century.
Written by Judit N. LAUF