The Holy Right Hand is housed in the St. Stephen Basilica in Budapest and once a year, on August 20, it is carried in the Holy Right Hand ( Szent Jobb) procession.
The Basilica’s website tells a straightforward story that accepts without qualification that the mummified right hand once belonged to King Stephen, the first Hungarian king (1000-1038).
Here is their story in a nutshell. Stephen was buried in Székesfehérvár on August 15, 1038, in a sarcophagus that is more or less intact although empty. The body was later reburied in the lower underground catacomb out of fear of possible disturbances of the grave. It was at that time that the hand was removed from the rest of the body because of its alleged miraculous properties. It was taken to the treasury of the basilica from where the man who was in charge of guarding the treasury stole it and hid it on his estate in the County of Bihar/Bihor, today Romania.
During the reign of King László I the Right Hand was discovered, but the king forgave the thief and in fact erected a monastery on the spot. The village today is called Szentjobb/Siniob. It was here that pilgrims came to pray in front of the king’s Right Hand, which was allegedly capable of performing miracles.
It was only in the fifteenth century that the Right Hand was moved from Szentjobb/Siniob back to Székesfehérvár. During the Turkish occupation, however, around 1590, it ended up in Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and was held by Dominican friars. The official church story doesn’t divulge any details of its mysterious reappearance in Ragusa. As for the rest of the Hand’s history, I outlined it yesterday–that is, the purchase of the Right Hand by Queen Maria Theresa and her gift of it to her Hungarian subjects.
Today I would like tell the story that the Catholic Church ignored.
There are two chronicles that mention the burial and subsequent reburial of the body. Both report that the Right Hand was removed to the County of Bihor where it was found by King László on May 30, 1084. According to the chronicler Hartvik, bishop of Győr (1116), at that time the Hand had St. Stephen’s ring on it which definitely identified it as belonging to the saintly king. The alleged Right Hand today has no ring on it or any sign that there ever was a ring it that was later removed.
There is another problem. All contemporary pictures show Stephen buried lying on his back, his hands alongside his body with open fists. Today’s Right Hand, as you can see on the picture, is tight-fisted. But that is not all. The official coat-of-arms of the town of Szentjobb/Siniob shows not just the hand but the whole arm bent at the elbow. Since the town came into being as a result of the presence of the Holy Right Hand, one must assume that the coat-of-arms is an accurate depiction of the actual state of the relic at the time.
And with that missing arm we come to Stephen’s body parts wandering around in central Europe and the Balkans. It is assumed that the upper arm was removed in 1370 when Louis the Great (Nagy Lajos) also became the King of Poland. It was customary to send important relics as symbols of steadfast friendship and devotion to men, country, or cause. The Franciscans of the city of Lviv (Lvov, Lemberg) hold that at one time they were the ones who were entrusted with guarding the holy relic of St. Stephen’s upper arm for which King Jan Kazimierz II ordered a jeweled case.
The lower arm was sent by King Sigismund (Zsigmond) to Albert V at the time of his daughter’s marriage to the Prince (1411), sealing a personal union between Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire. For a while it was held in the St. Stephen Basilica in Vienna, named after St. Stephen the Martyr, and later was moved to the Schatzkammer of the Hofburg. But there is a bit of a problem with this lower arm. When the bone was sent to Hungary for the millennial celebrations in 2000 and was put on display, it was discovered that it is not part of an arm. Rather, it is the fibula of a right leg.
In addition, there are several small pieces of Stephen’s skull cap (calvarium) that are held in various places, including Székesfehérvár. No one has ever tried to find out whether these pieces of Stephen’s skeleton belong to the same man or not. Since the 1950s the Right Hand was examined three times but not scientifically. The first time the Right Hand seemed to have developed mildew which needed to be removed. The physician who attended to it added some conserving material to the rest of the hand and that was all. In 1988 another physician examined it, but the only thing he came up with was that there was no sign of metal ever touching the hand because otherwise there should have been some observable discoloration. He also noticed that it was a relatively small hand. The third time it was Miklós Réthelyi, professor of anatomy and later minister in the second Orbán government, who took a look at it, but he came up with nothing new. A DNA examination would only make sense if we could find a descendant of Stephen, but even if that were possible I doubt that either the Hungarian Catholic Church or the current Hungarian government would be too keen on such a scientific investigation.
As for the multiplication of St. Stephen relics. As late as 2004, a piece of Stephen’s upper arm that ended up in Poland was given by Franciszek Cardinal Macharski, Archbishop of Cracow, to the Hungarian chapel of the Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Cracow. In 2009 Balázs Bábel, Archbishop of Kalocsa, gave a golden reliquary to Robert Bezák, Archbishop of Nagyszombat/Trnava, in which there is a very small bone of the Right Hand. In the same year a small piece of St. Stephen’s skull was sent to a church in the Subcarpathian part of Ukraine. In 2006, Cardinal Péter Erdő, the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, gave a piece from St. Stephen’s rib to Alojz Tkáč.
What can we say state with certainty about the Holy Right Hand? “It is sure that it is the hand of a man,” to quote the title of a piece in 444.hu.
In this summary I relied on Piroska Rácz’s article in Rubicon (2013/6) in addition to “The history of the Holy Right Hand” on the website of the St. Stephen Basilica in Budapest and on “Szent Jobb” in the Hungarian version of wikipedia.