Cult of Saint Ladislaus

In the memory of posterity, St. Ladislaus (Hungarian: László) was an athletic, brave and heroic knight king. We know surprisingly much about his life; the chronicles are wordy, especially in the descriptions of battles and throne strifes. These descriptions drew a tough and purposeful ruler who also fenced very well. Still, the greatest merit of Ladislaus I of Hungary was that he continued Stephen's church-building work and consolidated the country's internal order during the period of internal strifes. Béla III of Hungary also contributed to the development of the Ladislaus cult, when he canonized Ladislaus on 27 June, 1192 with papal approval. This week we are dealing with his cult.


Ladislaus I of Hungary, who died in 1095, ordered to be buried in the cathedral of Nagyvárad (now Oradea), which he founded. However, it is strongly believed that he first rested in the abbey of St. Giles, established in Somogyvár, and was brought to Nagyvárad only a few decades later.

In addition to the royal court, Nagyvárad became one of the main centres of the Ladislaus cult. The “city of St. Ladislaus” was a prestigious ecclesiastical centre in the Middle Ages, and his cult was strengthened further during the 13th century. The head relic of the holy king became a constant figure in local legislative practice. From the end of the 13th century, it became the custom of the Hungarian kings to make a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Ladislaus. According to Gyula László, the depictions of St. Ladislaus are so similar to each other also because the holy king’s face was well known by the pilgrimages.


Proponents of canonization may have had, even before the commencement of the proceedings, some news of extraordinary acts, which they considered appropriate to support the person's holiness.
Hagiographic elements included levitation that is rising into the air. One such example might have been when the king's valet reported on the future saint praying empathically that he had been ascending into the air.
Wonderful feeding and water wringing are also classic elements, when Ladislaus quenched the hunger and thirst of his exhausted army wandering in wilderness. To his prayer, a herd of deer and cattle appeared; according to some variations, he wringed water from a rock by stabbing his sword into it. Another form says that the miracle was done in the wake of his horse's horseshoe.
Perhaps the best known is the so-called post-mortem chariot miracle. Although the order of the deceased king was clear, he wanted to rest in Nagyvárad, his followers hesitated because of the summer heat, whether to take the long journey. They thought it would be much more logical to bury him in Fehérvár. However, the king's hearse set off towards Nagyvárad without any animal traction, while his entourage was sleeping in the inn.

Depictions of St. Ladislaus, from the herm to murals


Several relics and memorabilia that have survived to this day can be linked to the canonized king. One of them is the herm of St. Ladislaus in the basilica of Győr, another one is his right hand, which is preserved in the Franciscan monastery in Dubrovnik.

As reported by a charter from the period of King Sigismund, an early herm in Nagyvárad – presumably made after his canonization – was destroyed by a fire, but the relics remained intact miraculously. The relic holder that can still be seen today could have been made after that, but presumably it existed already in 1443, when the tower of the cathedral where the herm was kept collapsed, but the relic holder survived that as well. In the 16th century, Protestants ravaged the royal tomb and scattered Ladislaus's bones. The relic holder was retrieved by Bishop Demeter Náprági, who then took it to Gyulafehérvár, and in 1607, after he was appointed bishop of Győr, the relic was taken to Győr.

For a long time, the cult in the city did not go beyond general sacred reverence. Only the 18th century brought change, when the city of Győr was shaken by a huge storm and then by a strong earthquake. Bishop Zichy ordered a three-day invocation to avoid further destruction. On 9 July, a strong aftershock shook the city again, the next day another procession marched through the city, but at that time the herm of St. Ladislaus was carried around instead of the Eucharist. The passing of the danger was considered a miracle of St. Ladislaus, so the bishop ordered a procession with the herm to be held in honour of St. Ladislaus on 27 June each year.

The skull in the reliquary is not complete, probably at the end of the 15th century, the jaw was separated from the skull, which has since been presumably preserved in Bologna. In 1775, Bishop Ferenc Zichy donated a piece of the occipital bone to the Cathedral of Nagyvárad, which has since been kept in an ornate herm as well.

In 2011, the diocese of Győr opened the herm containing the cranial relic and it underwent extensive scientific research. They wanted to know if really the relic of the knight king was in the herm. Experts concluded that the skull belonged to a man in his 50s or 60s, who may have been a very muscular person with increased activity, was originally buried in the ground and then stored in special conditions (such as a reliquary) for centuries. Based on these findings, it was confirmed that the relic was indeed the skull of King St. Ladislaus.

velemer.jpgThe murals of St. Ladislaus in Hungary can be divided into three groups. Ladislaus was depicted alone or among other saints very rarely but more often together with St. Stephen and St. Emmerich. The fresco cycle of the St. Ladislaus legend briefly consists of five characteristic scenes: 1. Leaving Várad, 2. Chase, 3. Fight, 4. Beheading, 5. Rest.

We know more than sixty churches, where there is an image cycle depicting the fight with the Kun knight, but their real number may have been much larger. It is conspicuous that Ladislaus depictions and especially the legend cycles are the most common in the wider area of the borderlands. Today, a significant part of the relics are in Romania and Slovakia, and few of them are in Hungary, Austria and Slovenia. Depictions of St. Ladislaus seem to be particularly common in two historical regions: in Szepesség (Spiš) and in Székelyföld (Szeklerland).

However, the spread of the king's cult is best evidenced by the churches erected in his honour and the closely related settlement name “Szent László”. This seems to be an important link anyway, because the settlements named Szentlászló in the Carpathian Basin organize their meetings every year.


Translated by Zita Aknai


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