St Stephen’s basilica is decorated in the normal, understated Catholic way of having gold and statues everywhere. Cherubs stare down at you creepily from the corners, Jesus, the disciples and even the Big Man himself are depicted on the ceiling and golden light fixtures stand on the walls.
Personally, I found it all a bit overdone and busy. With so much going on it’s hard to really enjoy or get a sense of wonder. The art on the inside of the domed roof was impressive, but some of the more overwrought examples off to the sides meant far too much was going on.
I had a similar feeling when I visited the Cistine Chapel a few years ago, where I felt that Michelangelo could have gone for a less is more strategy, and that aside from the central “creation of man part” the ceiling wasn’t worth getting a sore neck over.
For my money (200 HUF), the synagogue had been far more impressive and spiritual. It had been gorgeously designed inside, but there was a sense that this was to make the house of worship a nice place to be, whereas the basilica smacked of a “look at me, look at me” vibe.
Still, I snapped away a few shots, including of a saint who looked like Bill Murray, some of the gaudier, dare I say, tackier artefacts and at the dome, which was spectacular in all fairness.
MWG and I then went into a side chapel to see a rather interesting attraction, which was kind of weird.
In a reliquary they had St Stephen’s mummified hand.
Now, I’m always skeptical of the authenticity of relics. Back in the day there were so many pieces of the cross knocking around that it appeared that JC had been crucified on an entire forest and let’s be fair, one person’s bone looks a lot like everyone else’s.
I was even more skeptical that they claimed to have the hand of St Stephen, who, thanks to my childhood in a Christian household, I knew a little bit about. St Stephen was the first martyr, a young boy and follower of Jesus who was stoned to death and who’s feast day is the 26th of December.
So, bearing in mind the manner of his death and when he was killed, I found it highly unlikely that this was really St Stephen’s hand, firstly, they’d have had to keep it for nearly 2000 years, and secondly, the story didn’t hang together, and in fact shows the early Christians in a rather dark, morbid light (if one can have a dark light). Essentially if this was the real Stephen’s hand it means that after witnessing a young boy be stoned to death someone thought to themselves “You know what, we should really cut off one of his hands, y’know, like a souvenir?”
As it turned out, I was mistaken and it was a totally different St Stephen, this being St Stephen of Hungary, who was the Hungarian king who really brought Christianity to Hungary. Of whom, I know less, but is at least a few hundred years later and being a king far more likely to have been preserved. But still, it could be anyone’s hand.
And even if it is Steve’s hand, we’re glossing over the fact that it is creepy as all hell for someone to have kept a mummified hand lying around the place for around a thousand years!
Catholics go into this stuff a lot more than protestants, and thanks to my Dad being Catholic and a history fan, I’ve seen a few in my time, including a finger of some dude and a skull which St Michael (who’s actually an angel) had put a hole in when someone didn’t listen to him, or something. I was intrigued enough to wander in and check out the hand, because I have a morbid streak.
It was housed in a massive, ornate case and held in darkness, due to it’s fragile nature. You couldn’t take flash photographs of it but you could pay 200 HUF (about 50p) to light it up for a few seconds so you could snap a photo. I loitered next to it, squinting to get a look and hoping someone else would cough up the cash for it.
I wasn’t prepared to pay just to see a mummified hand, although I did like that the Catholics were staying true to their roots and getting money out of people’s faith/curiosity/morbid nature.
MWG, however, reached new levels of suspicion that made my own skepticism seem naive. She whispered to me that she suspected that there was no hand, and the button actually set off a hologram display or projection, and that’s why you couldn’t take a flash photo because it would reveal the lie.
Who knows? Personally, I think there is a hand there. Is it St Stephen’s? Who knows? I still find it far more interesting that people would keep a hand, anyone’s hand, as some kind of talisman/holy artefact, it just seems a little creepy to me.
MWG and I left the basilica and headed off in search of an all-you-can eat buffet place we’d heard good things about, and debating whether we should pay to ascend the basilica’s towers and take in the view. By the time we’d eaten, the basilica had shut up shop, and utterly stuffed, we set off to work out Budapest’s public transport and head for home.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.