Dominating the south end of Košice’s main square, St Elizabeth’s Cathedral honours the city’s adopted patron, St Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of bakers, the homeless, nursing services, tertiaries, widows and young brides.
The new cathedral, begun in 1378, was built on the site of the Romanesque parish church dedicated to St Michael. Rather than alienate St Michael, a new Gothic chapel was built in his honour in the shadow of the cathedral.
St Elizabeth’s is a large Gothic cathedral, 60 metres long and 36 metres wide, the largest in Slovakia and the leading example of this architectural style in eastern Europe. With room for more than 5,000 worshippers, it took 130 years to build. In recent years the construction of a Košice skyscraper was abandoned because it would have been taller than St Elizabeth’s which features the highest dome of any Slovak church.
Over the years, construction was halted by various attacks on the city, only to be restarted as hostilities abated. The construction of the ambitious and expensive St Elizabeth’s Cathedral clearly announced to all in the region the bold confidence and prosperity of mediaeval Košice, touting its leadership position among eastern European cities and its favoured status with the Hungarian royalty.
The investment clearly paid off as Košice assumed centrality in the region. Rather than the light and airy examples of Gothic architecture that followed later, the building is imposing and overwhelming. There are two towers, one truncated and the other reaching nearly 60 metres. The public is allowed (and encouraged) to climb the 161 steps in the northern tower and view the entire region from the top.
The truncated tower, called the Matthew Tower now houses temporary exhibitions and after reconstruction it was opened to the public in 2016. The exterior is all 14th century, complete with dozens of decorative spires and even gargoyles on the roof directing rainwater away from the building.
Legend has it that one of the gargoyles is a rather unflattering caricature of the builder’s wife. Another legend says that there is a keystone hidden some-place which, if removed, would cause the building to collapse, allegedly placed as an insurance policy , guaranteeing that the builder would be paid.
The northern entrance to the cathedral is most impressive with its engravings of the Last Trial, scenes from the life of St Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary, the Apostle John, and the Calvary. In the middle is a sculpture of St Elizabeth.
The interior is even more impressive thanks to the main altar dedicated to St Elizabeth, which ranks among the world’s highest quality Gothic art. According to art historian Peter Kresánek, it was created by Nikolaus Gerhaert von Leyden and his followers, perhaps by the master himself. It consists of 48 paintings. However, visitors cannot see all of them at once as they rotate seasonally.
This Gothic altar with a double rotating mechanism is one of two in the world (the second is in the French city of Colmar). In the centre of the cathedral is a hanging sculpture of the Immaculata.
Other chapels include a late-Gothic altar with depictions of the Visitation of the Virgin Mary, a wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary, fragments of the wall painting of the Last Judgement, the side altar of St Anthony of Padua, a wall painting of The Resurrection, the bronze font, the altar painting of St Anna Metercia, and a Gothic Calvary.
There is also an impressive carved neo-Gothic stone pulpit. Two other highlights of the interior are not to be missed. One is a rare (there are only five) side-by-side carved marble spiral stairway leading up to the royal gallery (where visiting nobles could attend mass without mixing with the common folk) offering a bird's eye view of the cathedral’s central nave.
One arm of the stairs continues up to the space where it is believed a relic of Christ’s blood used to be preserved. The stairway, often called a lovers’ stair because it offers several meeting points along the way, is open to the public. Ask for a key at the shop next to the church entrance.
The second highlight is the crypt to which the remains of Francis II Rákóczi were removed in 1906. Rákóczi, a leader of the last anti-Habsburg uprising, was a much revered hero to the citizens of Košice.
Watch a video about St Elizabeth’s Cathedral, which was prepared as a part of project Cultural Heritage to promote renewal and preservation of cultural and historical heritage in Slovakia, through the EEA and Norwegian Funds.