Guns and altars

There’s something fascinating about seeing stuff made out of other stuff. Handbags made from bicycle tyres. Wallets made from plastic bags. Altars made from guns. Yep – I did a double-take and checked whether I’d heard that one right. An altar made from guns, indeed.

St Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice is the largest church in Slovakia. You could spend an entire morning or afternoon in there and still not see everything there is to see. The Gothic spiral staircase is a case in point. Built in 1425, two staircases wind upwards in opposite directions, meeting  four times. On Valentine’s Day, apparently, couples queue up to climb the stairs, kissing when they meet  on their ascent. The stairs are used as a metaphor – parting lovers reuniting and parting again, but each time they meet rising higher perhaps in expectation and ideals. A nice twist on church fundraising.

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The large balcony hosts a place for private prayer. The King’s Oratory is home to a 7 m crucifix with larger-than-life figures of Jesus, Our Lady, and St John. The balcony bears an inscription reminding all who can read it that Ladislaus the Posthumous is the rightful successor to the Hungarian throne. [Ladislaus was crowned king at the age of 12 weeks.]  It’s all quite something to look up at.

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The high altar of St Elizabeth is gobsmackingly gorgeous with its 48 pictures painted by unknown artists. It is the only preserved altar of its kind in Europe. The double-sided painted panels are open and closed depending on the Church calendar. It’s  very unusual, given the predominance of women depicted in the paintings; it’s certainly one for the sisters.

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The large, upside-down chandelier speaks of the arrival of electricity to the town. In 1913, the candles were replaced by lightbulbs. It also needed something to hang from. The powers that be at the time thought a replica of St Stephen’s Crown would do the trick as back then, Košice was still part of Hungary. How quickly things change.

There are all sort of murals and paintings on the walls. Some have been restored to their former glory; others are still in the process of being restored, the layers of time quite visible.

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For a while the Cathedral belonged to the Protestants and then to the Catholics. And naturally, when one or the other laid claim, quarrels ensued. Back on 4 September 1619, the Calvinists made a play for the Cathedral and the three Catholic priests in residence, one Polish (Melichar Grodiecki), one Hungarian (István Pongrác), one Croatian (Marek Krizin).  They promised to spare their lives if they recanted their Catholic beliefs. But they wouldn’t. Three days later, all three were killed. The martyrs were beatified nearly 300 years after their death. The altar to them was built in 1923. They were canonised by Pope John Paul II when he visited in 1995.

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The statue work is exquisite. I was  taken by this statue of Our Lady – one of the first I’ve seen of her in such a reflective mood. Another caught my eye. My old friend, Sára Salkaházi, the feisty, chain-smoking rebel who signed up to the Sisters of Social Service and met an early death at the hands of the Arrow Cross in Budapest on 27 December 1944. I’d forgotten she was from Kassa (Hungarian for Košice).  I hope she won’t have to wait as long for her canonisation.

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This is the altar though that is made from guns, guns melted down after WWI (I think it was that war… ).  A much better use, I’d say.

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There is so much more to see in the church. And if you get a chance to hear the organ being played, so much the better. I was more than a little amused at the thoughts of candles by the minute. I suppose cost efficiencies are the way of the world and I shouldn’t be at all surprised that the old wax candles are being replaced by cleaner, more affordable lights. But it just ain’t the same  in my book. Thankfully, there are three churches in Budapest that I know of where you can still light an old-fashioned candle, even if the price of same is far outstripping inflation.



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