Monday, March 9, 2015

St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

St. Stephen's Basilica (Szent István Bazilika) in Budapest is dedicated to Stephen I, the first king of Hungary and the last of the Grand Princes of the Árpád Dynasty started by Árpád himself a century earlier. A devout Catholic, Stephen I was connected to the Holy Roman Emperor (his brother) and to the Doge of Venice (his brother-in-law). He was responsible for bringing all of Hungary into Christianity, and sponsored the building of churches and parishes around the country; he also supported pilgrims going down along the Danube through Hungary towards Jerusalem. He was canonized a mere 45 years after his death, but though he is the patron saint of masons and stonecutters, construction on the basilica bearing his name didn't start for another 700 years.

As I walked up the steps of the basilica, I thought for a moment that St. Gandalf might also be associated with the church, but as I got closer I could see that the statue is actually a depiction of Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, otherwise known as St. Jerome, the patron saint of archivists and translators. Standing in sorrowful greeting just inside the doors is the Virgin Mary, saying regretfully that most of the main floor of the church is blocked off, so visitors can only get a sidewise view of the ornate dome. Jézus Mária! as Little Grandma used to say, especially after she had her series of strokes and lost the ability to speak in anything but Hungarian most of the time. A partial view of the dome it would have to be, then.

The first dome collapsed in 1868, while the basilica was undergoing its 17th year of construction. The basilica's website notes that some of the supports were built with "donated stones of assorted quality and solidity" and that this resulted in a "precariously balanced structure," which makes me rather glad that I wasn't able to get out underneath the cupola, just in case. A new dome was built and the main structure was completed in 1890, though they continued doing the interior decoration for another decade, and the church was officially dedicated in 1905. They still didn't have much luck with the dome, however; parts were damaged during World War II, the roof caught fire in 1947, and a storm blew the exterior panels of the dome into the street in 1982. Twenty years of rebuilding left the basilica in its present condition, with a newly-installed elevator to get up into the dome, an alternative to the 350 or so stairs. If I had known about the dome access, I might have tried to get up there to add St. Stephen's Basilica to my list of elevated ecclesiastical experiences I've already had in France and England and Scotland.

There is another island in the middle of the Danube in Budapest, smaller than Csepel Island at only a mile and a half, where St. Margaret of Hungary, the daughter of 13th-century king Béla IV, spent her life in a Dominican convent, having taken her vows at the age of 12. Today it's a city park, though you can still see the ruins of the convent, or so I have read. That's probably another place to put on my must-see list for my next visit to Budapest, though I might have time to go there the week before I leave. I need to go to the travel company's office to buy my bus ticket for Serbia, something I wanted to do last week but couldn't, as my surgery wasn't scheduled until Friday afternoon and I didn't want to make firm plans for my date of departure. And this week is out - today's frantic cheesemaking day, plus I am headed to the hospital tomorrow morning and won't be discharged until Thursday at the earliest, so whether I am up to a trip into the city on Friday is debatable.

St. Margaret was destined for the church before she was even born. Halfway through Béla IV's reign the Mongol hordes descended and pretty much trashed the country, as Mongol hordes are wont to do, and he swore that if the invaders left, his next child would be dedicated to God. Whether God inspired Ögedei Khan, third son of and heir to Genghis Khan and then-leader of the Mongol Empire, to go on a binge and die of alcohol poisoning, thus requiring his nephew Batu Khan to suddenly withdraw his armies and go back to Mongolia for the official ritual selection of the next Khan, we will probably never know, but by all accounts St. Margaret was delighted to be in the convent, as she was intensely religious.

I would have been delighted to have my own saintly mother there at the basilica with me, so she could see the ornate candelabra and marble supports (of a higher quality and solidity than the originals, I assume) for herself. My blurry photos will have to suffice. There are regular organ concerts at the basilica, something she'd also enjoy, I think; I'd like to go to one as well, but since they're at 8pm on Thursdays, and I don't want to cope with the train and bus late at night, I believe that will also be on the "next time" list.

So many things to go on that list, and that's just for Hungary. I won't have time to go northwest to Kapuvár and search for distant relations or go horseback riding. "Horse-riding tourism has significantly developed in the recent years," the town's website informs me, adding that I can also enjoy eating "rolled meat of Hany Istók" during my visit. There are many other things to do in and around the town, so I'll have to add a note to my next-time list to plan on at least a few days there. Noémi and I were invited to the northeast as well, to visit one of the main Hungarian cheesemakers, but there won't be time for that either before I leave. And while I might still have time to visit the thermal baths in Budapest, I'm not sure that's the best idea in what will be my post-operative state with healing incisions. Small ones, but still. On the other hand, the therapeutic waters might help me heal more quickly.
I could always go back to the basilica and ask for a blessing from the hand of St. Stephen. No, really - the actual right hand of the former king, which has been preserved in this shrine (or one like it) since shortly after his death. When I was visiting the chapel where it's kept, I was surrounded by Japanese tourists listening to their guide explain the history of the shrine, or so I assume, through their wireless earphones as the guide spoke into her also-wireless microphone. Ah, Japanese technology ... I still remember the Walkman I bought in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, that I was so proud of. It was the size of a brick and weighed about as much, and chewed through four D batteries every six hours or so, as far removed from the electronic devices of today as the still-incorruptable Szent Jobb (the Holy Right Hand) is from the dust of the rest of St. Stephen's body in Székesfehérvár, the town of the white castle. That's where I'll be tomorrow morning, grumpy from hunger and fretful from nervousness. I'll be off line until at least Thursday, but Noémi said she'd put a message on my Facebook wall when I'm out of surgery some time on Wednesday.

St. Elisabeth of Hungary is the patron saint of hospitals and homeless people, so I'll ask for her blessing as well.

Az egészség ízét a betegség adja meg. - Hungarian proverb

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