Political Aspects of the Mural Representations of "sancti reges Hungariae" in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
A significant number of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century churches, scattered throughout the medieval Hungarian Kingdom, is characterized by a common iconography of the triumphal arch: on its pillars, there are depicted the standing figures of the holy kings of Hungary – initially, only St. Stephen and St. Ladislas, but later also St. Emeric and St. Sigismund. Previous scholars have focused on the collective representation of the Arpadian holy kings, considering this iconographic theme as an expression of the national values they embodied, but no study deals with the individual depiction of the royal saints on the pillars of the triumphal arch. The goal of the paper is to briefly emphasize the two different strategies of conveying meaning by emphasizing the iconographic similarities and differences of the separate and collective depiction of the holy kings and to recover the initial meaning of the frescoes by examining the extended iconographic program of the altar and looking at the liturgical texts of the time.
The conclusion is, first, that not all extant mural representations of the holy kings of Hungary should be judged as having, as thought until now, exclusively a political meaning, despite the common conceptual association of the Hungarian Kingdom’s pillars, namely, St. Stephen, St. Ladislas, and St. Emeric. As indicated by their dating and extrinsic characteristics (iconographic context and low visibility), the depiction of the holy kings on the pillars of the triumphal arch pre-dates the mid-fourteenth century, when the collective representation occurred, and has an exclusively theological meaning: it emphasizes the role of St. Stephen as the apostle of the Hungarian Church (sanctissimus rex Stephanus ungarorum apostolus) and St. Ladislas as its defender (columpna milicie christianae). Political aspects began to pervade this type of representation in the first decades of the fifteenth century, when King Sigismund of Luxemburg made St. Sigismund, his personal Bohemian patron saint, the companion of the Hungarian royal saints, St. Stephen, St. Emeric, and St. Ladislas. Consequently, the paper argues that the materiality of the holy kings’ triumphal arch representation is a two-fold metaphor of the Hungarian Church and Kingdom, highlighting the main stages of their existence.
Examining both written and pictorial evidence, this study addresses the diffusion of St. Sigismund’s cult from Bohemia to Hungary during late-14th century and the saint’s subsequent transformation during the 15th century into one of the Hungarian Kingdom’s patrons. In so doing, it assesses the significance of King Sigismund’s actions to promote his personal patron in Hungary and shows that the king emulated the model of his father, Charles IV of Luxemburg. King Sigismund promoted his spiritual patron within his country and associated him with St. Ladislas, the traditional patron of Hungary; he succeeded thus to accommodate the foreign saint to a new home and to transform him for a short interval into one of Hungary’s holy protectors. The natural consequence of this “holy and faithful fellowship” was the cult’s transfer from royal milieu to the kingdom’s nobility. Willing to prove their loyalty to the king, Hungarian noblemen decorated their churches with St. Sigismund’s image and depicted him in the company of sancti reges Hungariae, i.e. Sts Stephen, Emeric, and Ladislas. The study’s larger aim is to illustrate how a period’s political transformations could facilitate the spreading of a new saint’s cult from his cult center to another region, and that a saint’s veneration could be sometimes motivated politically.