Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for the Right Hand of St. Stephen, or lack thereof

You can't have a good Catholic country without a good juicy relic.
Remember István, the guy that sings about war and religion? The guy that was our fist Christian king? We are talking about the same guy today. A bare 50 years after his death, he was declared a saint by the Pope (things like that were on the fast track back in those days, especially when you were the converting sovereign of a new kingdom). And once István was a saint, that meant that every bit of his body was also a potential relic.

Enter the Holy Right Hand, also known as the Szent Jobb (which is Hungarian for Holy Right, duh). We don't know exactly when it stopped being attached to the rest of our holy king, but probably very soon before or after he became a saint. The right hand was revered in its own monastery, until it wasn't. Hungary had a long and tumultuous history, involving the Mongolian Invasion, the Ottoman Rule, and other lovely times of intense cultural exchange, so the Jobb, much like other pieces of art and history, went on an adventurous multiple-century Odyssey before it found its way back on the map in the 18th century. It is currently being kept in the St. István Basilica in Budapest, in its own chapel.

According to some historical sources, the relic originally included the entire right arm of our revered king. But, as Medieval business goes, the more relics were needed from a limited pool of saints, the smallest bits they got chopped into. At some point during the middle ages, the arm was detached from the hand, and then further divided to satisfy all the demand for mummified sacred royalty. As it stands today, the relic includes the wrist and the hand. Periodically it is carried around on August 20th (For Americans: Our version of the 4th of July) in great pomp, and it frequently visits other cities around the country. Sometimes on a boat.

How do we know after a thousand years that the hand belonged to István? We don't, really. It is one of the favorite pastimes of scientists and historians to banter about it. There are facts on both sides. Some people think it is the hand of a mummy that the Turks sold back to the Christians as a relic (since they ruled Egypt at the time, so mummies were easy to come by cheap). There is a possibility for a DNA analysis (we have various bits and pieces of confirmed kings around the country), but it has not been done yet.

If you stick around after A to Z is over, you can read some more about our national relics (among other gory things). Follow in email or through Blogger on the Right.


  1. Raising my right hand in salute to St. Istvan!

  2. According to some historical sources, the relic originally included the entire right arm of our revered king-- wow, how's that for gory detail? This was a fascinating post, Csenge!

  3. It's all a bit macabre and barbaric, if you ask me. The best bit is, I think you can throw in a coin to get the hand illuminated for a short time. So István keeps generating revenue for the Catholic Church even a thousand years after his coronation. Not bad, huh?