Written In Stone – St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral: First & Lasting Connections (The Kosice Chronicles #5)

Specific buildings have become synonymous with certain cities. That is as true in Eastern Europe as anywhere else in the world. Think of Budapest and the glittering Hungarian Parliament comes to mind, Vienna and the soaring steeples of St. Stephen’s Cathedral are an inseparable image, Krakow and the grandeur of Wawel Castle are one, if not the same. Cities paired in the public consciousness with their most famous building is just as true in provincial areas as it in more well known ones. In Sopron, Hungary, the Firewatch Tower is the icon of choice and Lviv, Ukraine is unimaginable without the Korniakt Tower just to name but two. One of the best examples of this trend is the towering Gothic pile at the heart of Kosice, St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral.

The first time I saw the cathedral was a memory worth savoring. Despite a cruel and cold wind exhaling its icy breath down the narrow confines of Mlynska street, my eye was drawn into the distance and upward by the sight of St. Elisabeth’s rising above everything else. A couple of minutes earlier I had been standing before the Neo-Gothic Jakab’s Palace, with a sense of wonder and awe. Those senses increased exponentially at the site of the ultimate Gothic high rise, St. Elisabeth’s. Unlike Jakab’s Palace, which was built at the turn of the 20th century, St. Elisabeth’s was not a derivative work. Instead, the Cathedral had set a new standard upon completion in 1508. Nothing since that time has been built to rival it as a symbol of Kosice.

Written In Stone - St Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice

Written In Stone – St Elisabeth Cathedral in Kosice (Credit: Ingo Mehling)

Wealth Creation – A Free Royal Town
It is hard to know where to start when studying the architecture and history that permeates St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral. That is not unexpected for a building over six hundred years old. Across the centuries it has undergone major alterations and expansions. Little wonder that it is full of eye catching details and structural intricacies. The Cathedral is also massive. As the largest church in Slovakia, St. Elisabeth’s measures out at 13,000 square feet with enough room to accommodate a congregation of up to 5,000 people. The size of the cathedral is symbolic of the power and wealth of medieval Kosice which had cornered much of the salt trade. When construction first began on the cathedral in the late Middle Ages, Kosice had already been given the status of a Free Royal Town with all the special rights and privileges granted to its citizenry. The privileges in turn, had been used by the town’s burghers (property owners who made up the medieval bourgeoisie to advance their own economic interests.

Kosice continued to grow in prominence during the 14th century. It was the first town anywhere in Europe to be given its own coat of arms, bestowed by King Louis I of Hungary in 1369. Kosice was one of the most important cities in the Kingdom of Hungary. As such, its wealthy burghers, civic minded citizenry and royal sponsors, including none other than Hungarian King Sigismund of Luxembourg, provided funds for building a new cathedral. This took place after the city’s main house of worship burned down in 1380. The exact year when construction began on St. Elisabeth’s is not known, but the work grew in such size, scale and scope that it ended up stretching across three different centuries before completion.

At First Sight - A view of St. Elisabeth's Cathedral

At First Sight – A view of St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral (Credit: Maro Mraz)

A Medieval View – Looking Back Into The Past
Just as I was awe struck after first sighting the cathedral while walking down Mlynska street, the effect must have been similar for traders and travelers coming to the city from afar. Today, modern buildings block views of the cathedral from many places in the city. During medieval times, it was the exact opposite. The Cathedral could be been seen from almost anywhere in Kosice including from well outside the city walls. This would have provided a stunning first impression of the city’s wealth and importance to merchants, emissaries and foreigners who had business to conduct in the city. And though that impression may have changed over time due to various developments, something of it remains today. A first impression of St. Elisabeth’s is a visceral connection between the medieval and modernity. One that I felt just as acutely as those who had come centuries before me.

Confronted for the first time by the sight of St. Elisabeth’s Cathedral, I spent time studying and then attempting to photograph its exterior. Part of the Cathedral’s power lies in the odd symmetry and style of the structure. For instance, its highest point. Sigismund’s Tower (northern tower) tops out at 60 meters (194 feet). While the church is almost completely Gothic in style, the tower was extended after a fire in the late 18th century and topped with a Rocco copper cupola, an architectural aberration that adds a certain decorative flair to the cathedral’s crowning point. Beside and bit lower down from Sigismund’s Tower stand the shorter Matthias Tower (South Tower) which was never completed. It also sports a stylistic outlier, a metal octagon roof. The towers, along with many other sumptuous details were so photogenic that it was hard to know what to focus my lens upon. It was easy to see how construction on the cathedral took one-hundred and twenty years. That does not count the restorations and reconstructions that had periodically taken place, adding to a highly complex structural history.

Storyteller - The Main Altar of Saint Elisabeth

Storyteller – The Main Altar of Saint Elisabeth (Credit: Scotch Mist)

Written In Stone – A Timeless Tale
Trying to grasp the entire exterior of St. Elisabeth’s in a single viewing was impossible. Such were the intricacies of its architecture and rich sculptural elements that a person could spend countless hours contemplating the structure. I snapped photo after photo, knowing the whole time that it would never do the Cathedral’s scale justice. One way of comprehending the Cathedral’s sheer size is to consider that its total circumference was said to be equal in length to the outer line of Kosice’s city wall in the 15th century. A great deal of expense and even greater sums of effort went into its construction. Master craftsman toiled for decades on specific details. This is just as true of the interior as of the exterior.

Among the more memorable elements of the interior are no less than ten altars, a double spiral staircase and bronze baptistery. Of these, the Main Altar of St. Elisabeth deserves attention. The altar is an original work done during one of the Cathedral’s last stages of construction in the late 15th century. Two wings join a central cabinet containing three statues. The Virgin Mary stands in the center holding baby Jesus. To her right, is the cathedral’s namesake, Saint Elisabeth of Hungary. To the left is the biblical Saint Elisabeth, mother of John the Baptist. The altar’s interior portrays the legend of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary. When closed, the altar portrays the suffering of Christ. In all, these stories are represented on 48 Gilded tablets.

The fact that these artistic elements tell such stories goes some way in explaining how the masses, who were mostly illiterate, would have been able to understand these stories and the divine wisdom of God. In a sense, St. Elisabeth’s is one gigantic Holy Book telling a timeless story for all who spend time studying it. The book requires intense concentration and multiple re-readings to understand its weighty symbolism. A person could spend a day or a lifetime comprehending the meaning of St. Elisabeth’s religious iconography. The same could be said of the legends and stories surrounding the Cathedral.

Click here for: Many Happy Returns – Ferenc Rakoczi: The Road To Reburial (The Kosice Chronicles #6)