The destruction of King Saint László’s statue in Várad
Who was King László, and why was he important for the Hungarian kings?
Undoubtedly, he was a knight and a saint of the church. A hero worth following; the symbol of Hungary’s mightiness.
He was a tall man, a son of the Árpád dynasty, reigned between 1077–1095. After a series of civil wars, he stabilized the kingdom. László’s main focus was the restoration of public safety. He introduced severe legislation, punishing those who violated property rights with death or mutilation.
He occupied almost all of Croatia in 1091, which marked the beginning of an expansion period for the medieval Kingdom of Hungary. The “historic association of the Kingdom of Hungary and Croatia”, which ended in 1918, began with László’s conquest of Croatia. His conquest marked the beginning of a period of Hungarian expansion, which ensured that Hungary developed into a leading Central European power during the following centuries.
László’s victories over the Pechenegs and Cumans ensured the security of his kingdom’s eastern borders for about 150 years. The nomadic peoples of the Pontic steppes stopped invading Hungary until the Mongol invasion of 1241.
László’s official legend, which was compiled after 1204, attributes a number of miracles to him. According to one of his legends, a pestilence spread throughout the kingdom during László’s reign. László prayed for a cure; he then shot an arrow into the air at random, hitting a herb that cured the illness. This plant became known as ” Saint László’s herb” in Hungary.
László is also a patron saint of Hungary, especially along the borders. In particular, soldiers and the Székely people venerate him: his name was their battle-cry when they attacked the foe. You can read more about the Székely borderland warriors of Transylvania here:
There are wonderful murals in north Hungary and in Transylvania that depict the legend of Saint László, mainly the one when he personally freed a girl from a Cuman warrior. You can read this legend and look at the murals of the fortified church of Gelence:
A late medieval legend says that László appeared at the head of a Székely army fighting against and routing a plundering band of Tatars in 1345. He is also called upon during times of pestilence. He is often depicted as a mature, bearded man wearing a royal crown and holding a long sword or banner. He is also shown on his knees before a deer, or in the company of two angels.
His relationship with the Holy See deteriorated during the last years of his reign, as the popes claimed that Croatia was their fief, but László denied their claims.
The town of Saint László: Várad Castle
The town of King Saint László was Várad aka Nagyvárad (now Oradea). It was the entrance of Transylvania and it fell to the Ottoman army in 1660 after a heroic defense.
The statue of King Saint László was the work of the Hungarian sculptures, the Kolozsvári Brothers, Márton and György in 1390. The king was on horseback: it was a huge gilded bronze structure, an outstanding piece in Gothic style. This bronze-casting technology has not been used since Rome fell. We can only guess (based on vague drawings) how it may have looked like, according to a drawing from 1595:
However, there are old pictures where the statues of Saint László (on horse-back), and the standing statues of Saint István, and Saint Imre are indicated:
Here, you can see the destroyed cathedral in the castle’s yard:
Here is the virtual reconstruction of Saint László’s tomb in the Cathedral of Várad:
See similar statues in the pictures: St. George killing the dragon, it is in Prague and its replica is in Kolozsvár / Klausenburg, Cluj, in Transylvania. It was made by the same masters so you may have an idea of the Saint László statue.)
The statues of the other Hungarian kings standing next to Saint László’s statue may have looked like this, according to an ink drawing from 1595:
Let us not forget the fact that the Kolozsvári Brothers created the first full-size bronze-mounted warrior statues of the Middle Age, after the fall of Rome. Anyone who saw their statue in Prague or in Kolozsvár might have an idea about the beauty and size of the statue of Saint László. Yet, they were just idols for the Ottoman Empire that had to be destroyed.
This text was written under it in Latin according to a record from 1609: „Anno M. 390 die XX mensis Maii Rege Sigismundo et Maria Regina feliciter regnantibus hoc opus fieri fecit Reverendus in Christo Pater Dominus Joannes Episcopus Varadiensis per Magistros Martinum et Georgium de Colosvar in honorem Sancti Ladislai Regis.”
The fatal siege of 1660
It was the sorrowful time when Prince Rákóczi György II was killed in a battle by the Turks after he had wasted the Transylvanian army in a war for the Polish throne. Nagyvárad was a strong fort but it was left almost empty when most of their defenders went to the burial of the Prince, led by their captain, Gyulai Ferenc.
Only 850 untrained soldiers were left behind under the leadership of Balogh Máté, vice-captain. Leaving the fort empty was a great mistake and the enemy has heard of it soon enough. Wasting no time, Pasha Achmed and Pasha Ali of Temesvár with 50,000 seasoned soldiers set out to capture the important castle, the gate to Transylvania that guarded immense territories.
At the same time, near the border of Habsburg’s ruled Royal Hungary, there was the sizable army of General Souches who refused the begging and pleading of the city and denied even the minimal help against the Ottoman Turks. He was a great soldier but he had to obey his strict orders from the Habsburg Emperor. In the meantime, the two Pashas sacked the wealthy agricultural town of Debrecen and destroyed some cities before completing the siege around Nagyvárad. It took them a month to drain the water of the moat and destroy the walls with mines and artillery.
The defenders were lacking the military knowledge so much that they couldn’t even use their own cannons – but they were valiant in close combat. After 44 days, all their heroic resistance proved futile so vice-captain Balogh left the castle with his people under the terms that the city wouldn’t be sacked. Their valiant fight can be compared to the warriors of Eger Castle, even though they weren’t victorious. After the loss of Nagyvárad, the Habsburgs received criticism internationally because the whole Partium (a great area between Transylvania and Royal Hungary) had gone under Turkish control. Its loss marked the end of Transylvania’s independence, too.
What happened to these outstanding statues of Várad?
Religious tolerance was lower than in the age of Sultan Suleiman. Let’s recall, he took Buda in 1526 and found there beautiful bronze statues that were decorating the palace of late King Matthias Corvinus. However, he didn’t destroy them but took them to Istambul, unhurt. Unfortunately, later they were broken to shreds in Istanbul, during a religious revolt.
Here you can read about the story and find out more about the bronze candlesticks of Buda palace:
As for the statues in Várad, all of the four king statues were destroyed by the occupying Ottomans on 28 August 1660 because of religious reasons.
Evlija Celebi, the Ottoman chronicler was at the siege and he described the destruction of the statue:
“…Agha Fácseti Ali saw the statue and asked: what leprous idol statues are these? And he had his horse jumped to the bronze statue and cut its right arm off with his saber immediately. The others began to cut at the statues, too, and some of them broke their swords. But Agha Ali had a good German steel sword and he managed to cut some idols with it. These statues were so beautiful, each was glittering with gold and was worth like a half-annual tax of a Rumelian Vilayet. Their eyes were made of stones which were shining day and night and their fingernails were made of diamonds.”
Later, the statues were melted and cannons were made of them against the Christians. He added:
“One of the statues was impossible to melt so it was pulled out from the fire and was left there.”
According to the thorough research of Kontos Gábor, the pieces of the Saint lászló statue still might be sleeping their deep dream in the mud of the Danube’s riverbed, waiting for a better age to come. Kiss Imre, the President of the Association of the Sacred Crown says, assumedly after having scrutinized the available sources in Serbia and Turkey, that the bronze of the statues was so hard that they failed to break them up and melt so they were loaded on boats to carry them away. While transporting them, certain Christian boaters who had heard of the “holy cargo” in the Turk ships, decided to drive their ship into the Ottoman galley, sinking it.
Surprisingly, there were not many efforts in 2017 (it was the year dedicated officially to Saint László) to trace down his relics in the world. I can recommend you the (Hungarian) article of Kontos Gábor.
Below, here is a reconstructional video about the castle of Nagyvárad in the 15th century, the excellent job of Bíró Róbert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEncBqx-Jx0
(Source: partly from Szibler Gábor and from https://patriotak.hu/hianyjelek/#ftn18 )
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Here are a few relics of Saint László: