One of my favorite poems is also one of the shortest. “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow/ glazed with rain water/beside the white chickens.” So said William Carlos Williams in his short, brilliant poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The imagery in the poem, “a red wheelbarrow” “glazed with rainwater” and “white chickens” are rendered extremely vivid by just a few short words. Yet it is the opening four words that have endured with me the longest. “So much depends upon” is as dramatic, ambiguous and fatalistic an opening as I have come across at the beginning of a literary work. That phrase could apply to many things in the world, but for me it seems particularly appropriate for a legendary story concerning St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Kosice.
As the tale is told, medieval stonemasons who built the mighty St. Elizabeth’s made sure that one certain stone, if removed, would cause the entire Cathedral to collapse. This became known as the hollow stone. The masons were the only ones who knew where this stone was located. The idea behind the hollow stone was that if those masons were not paid for their work, the stone could be pulled and bring the Cathedral to ruin in a matter of moments. The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it also illustrates the importance of unseen forces, whether spiritual or temporal.
Consider how the stonemasons who toiled away for years building this grand edifice are not given a second thought by visitors to the Cathedral. What the hollow stone legend illustrates is that these masons were the ones who really held the keys to the kingdom. Their work was just as important as the artisans whose lavish work has a monopoly on the memorable at the cathedral. The stonemasons who built St. Elisabeth’s might remain anonymous, but they were far from powerless. So much still depends upon their work.
Eternal Shame – A Very Public Drunkenness
It does not come as a surprise that a building with over six hundred years of history has given rise to numerous legends. The Cathedral may be set in stone, but the tales surrounding it have continued to surface many centuries later. The difference between myth and history at St. Elisabeth’s has been blurred when it comes to certain stories. Many tales get altered in the retelling. Some of these stories are both ridiculous and humorous. One of the most famous involves the Cathedral’s master builder (conveniently unnamed) whose wife was said to be embarrassing him with her public drunkenness.
After she humiliated him in public on numerous occasions, the master builder got his revenge by transforming his wife into a ghoulish gargoyle-like sculpture that seems to be both inebriated and getting ready to imbibe a beverage at the same time. To say that the sculpture comes as a shock is an understatement. The cockeyed, half clothed figure with sagging breasts and a twisted look on her face is sufficiently frightening. The sculpture is out of character when compared to other carvings on the cathedral’s exterior. To the point, that it makes the viewer wonder if the master builder was not also guilty of consuming too much alcohol.
While the drunken wife legend is almost certainly false, it does say a great deal about medieval attitudes concerning proper behavior by women and the eternal shame they might face for stepping out of line. Fear was one of the most powerful motivators during the Middle Ages. Those telling this tale were looking to make a point. They may have been wanting to proscribe the behavior of women in a society that was dominated by men. Ironically, the Cathedral is named after a woman. That fact must have been lost on those telling the story.
Lighting The Way – Dramatic Displays of Imperfection
One of the more popular legends concerning the cathedral that may have its basis in truth, involves a priest who spilled red wine from the sacrament onto the floor. The liquid was said to then form an image of Christ which some parishioners heard moan. There is little doubt that a priest overturning a communion goblet might elicit strong emotions. Seeing one of the most sacred ceremonies in Christianity suddenly go awry would have been startling. A dramatic display of imperfection before a shocked congregation.
Healing the imperfect or at least freeing them is the subject of another legend, this one regards the Lantern of Matthias Corvinus. It is said that any criminal who stood beneath the lantern would be absolved of their guilt. Unfortunately, the lantern has been moved from its original position on a twisted stone column near the Cathedral’s southern portal to the tower wall of Matthias. Whether or not the lantern can make criminals innocent is something only those who have committed crimes and stood beneath the lantern could answer. For everyone else, it is a story that begs the question of why such a legend persists. Perhaps the creators of this myth saw the lantern’s namesake, Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 90) for what he was, one of the more just kings in Eastern European history.
Some of the stories about St. Elisabeth’s are more than the stuff legends are made of. They are the product of the massive Cathedral’s powerful presence. The tolling of its bell was said to be heard as far away as the city of Eger. This would have been deafening in the extreme, since Eger is 150 kilometers away from Kosice. Most likely, the bell’s ability to shatter silence and be heard far away from the city gave it a powerful reputation that soon became exaggerated. The story illustrates how the power and glory of St. Elizabeth’s extended well beyond Kosice into its hinterland.
Legends Live On – Beyond The City Walls
Another story told in the 17th century novel The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, also mentions sound effects emanating from the Cathedral. The title character states that drumming atop the Cathedral’s tower could be heard in the countryside up to two hours away from Kosice. That sound would have accompanied travelers into and out of the city. Even when the cathedral may have been out of sight, it was still within earshot. Its presence loomed over the city as well as the surrounding area, accompanying both citizens and travelers as they ventured forth beyond the city walls. They carried the Cathedral in their hearts, minds and in its legendary tales, also on their tongues. The cathedral was a place where legends lived on. They still do today.