One of my favourite parts of my recent trip to Budapest was visiting the Szent Istvan (Saint Stephen) cathedral. It has all the usual things you want from a cathedral: mighty domes, art, towers, chapels, all that stuff.
It also has, no fooling, a light-up coin-operated reliquary holding the right hand of Saint Stephen, the king who converted Hungary to Christianity.
But what I actually wanted to write about was the cathedral treasury museum. If you are ever in Budapest, you should definitely check it out — you have to pay to get in, but it costs something like HUF 400 (slightly over £1), so it’s pretty affordable. It might even be less.
The cathedral treasury houses a lot of stuff about the history of the cathedral — the uniforms of the hand’s ceremonial guard, liturgical vestments, architects’ models, all that kind of thing. But fo me the most interesting part of it was the display dedicated to József Mindszenty. Mindszenty was Archbishop of Esztergom and a cardinal, a central figure in Catholic opposition to first Fascist and then Communist rule in Hungary. He was locked up by the government in 1949, got out during the 1956 revolution, sought political asylum in the US, and spent the next 15 years of his life in the American Embassy in Budapest.
The Hungarian Catholic church, you will be surprised to hear, takes a pretty straightforward view of Mindszenty: he was a shining example of Catholic piety and he should be a saint. And the museum is unsubtle about it. Check out this sculpture of Mindszenty:
Crucified on a hammer-and-sickle and a swastika, no less.
The display cases include mementoes of Mindszenty’s career, tied up with actual red tape and labelled with for-real wax seals, in preparation for the day he gets canonised.
But more interesting to me were the ordinary articles found in Mindszenty’s quarters at the time of his death. These are on the other side of the display, and unfortunately the photo I took isn’t as good.
Nonetheless, I think you can see how ordinary the objects are — a bundle of ballpoint pens (a Hungarian invention!), some shirts, some books, cufflinks, all wrapped up ready to be relics. It’s an interesting view of the process of making history — the transformation of everyday objects into things that are both objects of religious inspiration and historical displays at the same time.