THE HOLY RIGHT HAND
These pictures show the hand-relic of the first Hungarian Christian king Saint Stephen I. (1000-1038) which is kept in great reverence by the Hungarians. Saint Stephen I. accomplished the historic mission to turn to Christianity the pagan Hungarian tribes who arrived in Transylvania in 896 A.D. and to establish the Hungarian state. In this way, the new Christian Hungarian state could well fit in the community of the other Christian kingdoms of Europe and Saint Stephen I., by turning his nation to Christians, ensured the future of Hungary for the next one thousand years. For this huge achievement, he received the title "apostolic king" and he was canonized in 1083, which was initiated by king Saint Laszlo I who was himself canonized, too. As part of the canonization process, on August 20. 1083 (the day of Stephen in the christian world), the remains of king Saint Stephen I. were elevated from the crypt of the coronation cathedral in Szekesfehervar and the entire right arm was removed from the body and prepared for preservation. King Saint Laszlo I. appointed an abbott called Mercurius, who was responsible for the inventory keeping of the treasury of the cathedral, to store up the Holy Right Hand of Saint Stephen I. at his private mansion in county Bihar, eastern Hungary. Later they built an abbey at Mercurius' land to keep the Holy Right Hand which became a pilgrimage site later, and throughout the years a town erected in its neighbourhood which was also called Holy Right. According to the unjust peace treaty of Trianon at Versailles in 1920, the possession of the town Holy Right, which took its name from the holiest relic of the first Hungarian king, more justifiably can belong to Rumania rather than to Hungary, and with a motivation impossible to follow, the Allies annexed the town, along with entire Transylvania to Rumania. The town is called Siniob today.
The present day Holy Right Hand used to be a complete right arm, and it is believed that the lower arm is kept in Lemberg (Ukraine), whereas the upper arm is in the Saint Stephen cathedral in Vienna, where the inventory lists it since 1457.
In the late 11th century, Hungarian king Kalman the Booklover attached a little parchment plate to the Holy Right Hand with latin words on it: "Dextera beati Stephani Regis et Confessioris gloriosi" (i.e. The right hand of blessed king Stephen, glorious confessor). This piece of parchment testified the origin of the relic and was rolled up and inserted between the fingers of the hand.
The Holy Right Hand was kept in the abbey at Holy Right, county Bihar, until the Tartar invasion in 1241 when the Hungarian king Bela IV. rescued it to Raguza (Dubrovnik, Croatia) and left it in the care of the dominican monks. The monks placed it in their church, the Saint Jacob abbey, kept it with great reverence, and when they put it on public display on the day of Stephen (August 20), they locked the gates of the city and doubled the guards. In 1590, they build a relic holder for the Holy Right Hand made of silver and ground glass and since 1618 they listed it in their abbey inventory. Many historians agree that the lower and upper arm was detached from the right hand by the dominican monks and from here they were taken to Lemberg and Vienna.
In 1771, Habsburg Maria Theresa reigning queen in Hungary brought back the Holy Right Hand from Raguza and placed in in the imperial palace of Schonbrunn, Vienna. She had a glass coffin made for it and put a silver frame around the little parchment plate which carried the relic with its testimonial writing. After this, she gave it back to the Hungarians, and she left it in the responsibility of the priest of the parish of the royal palace in Buda (capital of Hungary then).
In 1862, the Hungarian Bishopric ordered a closed, chapel- shaped, ornamental relic holder to be built in neogothic design using silver and ground glass, and the smaller holder made in Raguza to be placed inside it.
Since 1882, the responsible person for the care of the Holy Right Hand has been the priest of the parish of the royal palace in Budapest, who was appointed by the king.
In 1944, as the front approached Budapest, the small relic holder with the Holy Right Hand was rescued to Austria where Dr. Rohracher, archbishop of Salzburg kept it. The neogothic chapel- shaped holder remained in the royal palace, and unfortunately, the building received a direct bomb hit and the little parchment plate, along with its accompanying photographs, perished in the flames. The neogothic holder also disappeared and everybody thought that it was destroyed under the ruins.
On Stephen's day, August 20 1945, Pater Fabian Flynn, priest of the US Army, brought back the Holy Right Hand from Austria and handed over to Bela Witz, who was the priest at the royal palace that time.
It was after the war that a message arrived to Bela Witz from a dominican church in the outskirts of Budapest (the Dominican Order seems to faithfully carry with the Holy Right Hand throughout its history) that the larger chapel-shaped, neogothic relic holder was not lost, because a young priest called Imre L'hullier found it within the ruins of the sieged royal palace where it was tossed in a ditch. He recognized it, took it home and hid it.
Today, the Holy Right Hand is resting in the Saint Stephen cathedral in Budapest and, along with the Holy Crown and the coronation jewels , it represents one of the very highly regarded historic objects for the Hungarians. It is a silent witness of the winding Hungarian road of history which was spiked with blessings and damns, cares and cheers, despairs and hopes, but which could never be so hard on the Hungarians to break the spirit of Hungary.
© 1995 Andras Szeitz
With aid from Don Mabry
1. Peter Ruffy, Hungarian Relics, Hungarian Symbols, Budapest, Kossuth Konyvkiado, 1988 (in Hungarian).
2. Hungarian World Congress, A Conference Edition, Budapest, 1992 (in Hungarian).