Liszka, József (ed.): Monumentumok. Szakrális (és „szakrális”) [Monuments. Sacred (and “sacred”) small relics in the Carpathian Basin] Reviewed by Zoltán Magyar

Liszka, József: Monumentumok. Szakrális (és „szakrális”) kisemlékek a Kárpát-medencében [Monuments. Sacred (and “sacred”) small relics in the Carpathian Basin]. Komárom– Somorja, Fórum Kisebbségkutató Intézet– Etnológiai Központ, 2021, 702 p.

Five years after József Liszka published the impressive collection entitled Boundary Regions (Határvidékek), in a certain sense interpretable as a self-festschrift, containing his most important folkloristic essays, he has now published another volume, as impressive as the previous one, and also comparable in size, layout, and typography. Upon our first impression, but also having taken a closer look, we can see a paradigmatic work that can be considered as another summary of a professional career. Being placed next to each other on the shelf, these two volumes look much like the three voluminous festschrifts (similar in layout) to celebrate the 60th birthday of Ferenc Pozsony, Vilmos Keszeg, and Vilmos Tánczos, the Transylvanian trio of ethnographers; and, three being a mystic number, too, it is very likely and indeed expected that a similar volume by Liszkay will be published in the year 2026.

The Transylvanian contemporaries have achieved their paradigm-creating results during the past three or four decades by working together as a team of ethnographic re searchers and organizers, with a broad social and institutional background, giving space to a multitude of ambitious young researchers, too. As opposed to this, József Liszka has long remained a sort of a single-person institution of Hungarian ethnographic studies in Slovak ia. This, of course, is an exaggeration, since we could equally refer to the work of re searchers such as Károly Csáky, István B. Kovács, Ilona L. Juhász or Norbert Varga; yet, the Ethnological Centre at Komárno/Komár om, founded and run by Liszka to date, is a basis and a measure that has been able to define the directions of research, organize field work, as well as to summarize and publish the results in a representative way. Were it not for that, one could but mention some lonely authors; yet, as demonstrated by the example of a contemporary genius, viz. László Szeg edi from Rimavská Sobota/Rima szomb at, even comprehensive research of the highest quality will probably remain unechoed and lying in the shadow without an institutional background.

Right from the outset, one of the Eth nological Centre’s main profiles and directions for research has been the field of religious ethnology. As the founding director has also been charged with playing the role of “the nation’s (general) labourer”, this field is but one of the visible parts of his perplexingly rich work. It was Liszka who wrote a definitive manual on the ethnography of ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia; it was him, too, who wrote a gap-filling textbook on folklore and folkloristic studies when a course of ethnography had begun at János Selye University (although unduly neglected by folklore researchers in Hungary); he has been editing, for 23 years, the yearbook of the institute, a yearbook of exceptionally high quality even with Central European standards; indeed, the list might be continued, but let us mention two volumes to serve as forerunners of the subject of this review: the (1995) “The cult of holy images”. Essays on popular religious practice, and the (2000) Erected in Christian devoutness. Essays on the sacred small monuments of the Kisalföld region.8

The new book, of 702 pages, Monu ments. Sacred (and “sacred”) small relics in the Carpathian Basin, as indicated by the author in the preface, collects the relevant papers published during three decades in a “condensed” form in a single monograph volume. This is, after all, acceptable: most of the greater publications and academic dissertations are generally produced in the same fashion. Apart from matters of content, the obvious crucial question is how successful the author’s attempt at organically “condensing” the papers has been. In other words, to what extent do the original texts, spanning several decades, written from a variety of theoretical perspectives and based on ever-changing background information, as well as the newly added parts and conclusions which serve as a sort of “mortar” to bond the blocks together, form an organic and unified text? In this respect, József Liszka has undeniably excelled: it is only after noticing some of his brief remarks and browsing the bibliography that the reader realizes how many of the topics had been elaborated on earlier (e.g.  the stone crucifixes erected along highways, the cult of St. Wendelin in the Kisalföld region, the cult of St. John of Nepomuk in Hungary, the iconography of the Holy Trinity and Mary Help of Christians, the issues concerning the “sacred depot”, etc.). The book’s style, as usual, is admittedly subjective, even informal and belletristic, but nowhere does it any harm to the scientific content; it suits Liszka anyway, having become quite like a “copyrighted” feature of his (somewhat like in a number of provocative analyses by Vilmos Voigt, one of Liszka’s masters and a former teacher of his at Budapest).

In the preface, József Liszka clarifies that8 Kisalföld can be rendered as “Little Plain”, a geographical area divided between Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria, in contrast with the “Great Plain” on both sides of the River Tisza, occupying most of Eastern Hungary. Also, henceforth, Hungarian topographical names will be cited in Hungarian as well as Slovak/ German/Romanian/Serbian, etc., as appropriate. Since the paper is primarily concerned with ethnic Hungarians, topographical terms, once so cited, will be referred to by their Hungarian name only. (Translator’s notes.)

he aims at an overview of the entire Hungarianspeaking area regarding sacred small monuments, but he also emphasizes that his work is mainly based on, and illustrated by examples of, ethnic Hungarian popular culture in

Slovakia; this culture and the linguistic area, as he says, is a small universe by itself, being in contact with Western European patterns and also influenced by them in the West, but by Eastern (Greek) Christianity in the East (e.g. the upper region of the Bodrog-Tisza [Slovak Tisa] Interfluve as well as Ung [Slovak Uh]). Although this claim is generally tenable, the Eastern influ ence is not adequately demonstrated, and indeed, it may not be significant in relation to ethnic Hungarians in (Eastern) Slovakia (the pilgrimages to Máriapócs9 might be an exception). This may be the reason (apart from the apparently scarcer fieldwork carried out in Eastern Slovakia) why the overwhelming majority of data come from Western Slovakia. Or, rather, from other regions, too: the illustrative texts and images reach out far beyond the (SouthWestern) regions known as Csallóköz (Slovak Žitný ostrov), Mátyusföld (Slovak Matúšova zem), the Vág-Garam (Slovak Váh-Hron) Interfluve, and along the rivers Garam (Slovak Hron) and Ipoly (Slovak Ipeľ). Indeed, considering earlier studies and interethnic relations, it includes a number of data and parallels from Austria, Germany (Bavaria), Slovakia, Czechia and Slovenia. As for other parts of the Hung a rian linguistic space, the Transdanubian part of Kisalföld, the region called Palócföld10, as well as Vajdaság (Serbian Vojvodina)11 are represented by a wide range of illustrative samples, relying on the religious-ethnographic research of colleagues working in those regions, as well as the manuals by Sándor Bálint, a great classic figure in the field of Hungarian religious-ethnographic research, which are also concerned with Liszka’s topic. Still, the farther we go towards the East, including Slovakia’s Hun ga rian-speaking parts and also beyond the River Tisza, the scarcer and sporadic the examples given, and referred to, by the author tend to become. I will later discuss a specific formulation of this (feeling) of a gap; let us now see the unquestionable merits of the book.

When writing Monuments, József Liszka was making an attempt at producing a volume

that might also serve as a manual, i.e. highlighting the broadest possible range of aspects of the topic. That is why several distinct chapters contain information on “sacred small monuments”, a technical term attributable to him, but which has now become part and parcel of “received” wisdom in the field; also, on the sources of his topic, on the locations and methodology of the archiving process (including his own “Archive of Sacred Small Monuments”), on typology (still unclarified in several respects), and – last but not least –  on the systemic presentation of the small monuments discussed, both according to form and content. It is appropriate at this point to repeatedly refer to the exceptionally copious illustrative material presented in the volume, also including many curiosities, which is attributable to the author’s broad knowledge of the technical literature (the bibliography of the volume is almost 150 pages long) as well as the professional archive at Komárom/Komárno, itself based on extensive field work. To be sure, the publication of the volume without these features might have been almost pointless: this particular area of religious ethnography (and art history) includes visual representation to a crucial extent, much like no discussion of folk poetry is possible without presenting the given text. The volume does, occasionally, feature textual folklore sources related to sacred small monuments as illustrations, but featuring somewhat more of them might have been useful, since a variety of “founding” traditions and stories of miracles often form an integral part of the tradition around such “monuments”.

A crucial part of the book is the chapter on the typology and the terminology of sacred small monuments, partly an overview of the history of the research, but more than that: its primary goal is to clarify things. Specifically, as

  • Máriapócs is a major Greco-Catholic shrine, located in the North-East of Hungary. (Editor’s note.)
  • Palócland, a region in Northern Hungary and Southern (Central) Slovakia. (Editor’s note.)
  • Vajdaság is a region within the Republic of Ser bia, south of Hungary, with a significant percentage of ethnic Hungarians. (Editor’s note.)

long as the relevant literature is full of a range of different interpretations and readings, even professionals may go on misunderstanding each other. An example is provided by chapels erected in borderlands, which Liszka does not consider as sacred small monuments – not to mention the fact that this expression, and the concept denoted by it, varies regionally and even locally. Liszka provides the most complete and coherent classification of sacred small monuments we have seen to date, classifying them into nine major groups based on form and content. 1. Proto-monuments, i.e. natural formations considered sacred. 2. Sacred signs or constructs as elements added to existing natural formations. 3. Pictorial/figurative poles (columns/statues). 4. Calvarias (individual scenes or complete ones). 5. Crucifixes along country highways. 6. Wooden bell towers and belfries. 7. Open chapels. 8. Grave markers, headstones, death sites. 9. Miscellaneous forms, difficult to classify in any of the above groups. Although some will have a feeling of lack concerning this specific typology, or they may equally attribute too broad a sense to some categories (e.g. “chapels” vs. “grave markers”), I myself do welcome Liszka’s classificatory tables, considering them innovative and example-setting – with but a few critical remarks, especially regarding “figurative-pictorial poles”. Regrettably, the text following the tables is rather in want of more copious illustrative samples; for instance, the otherwise quite spectacular and regionally frequent belfries, as in Gömör/Ge mer, are given only half a page of discussion and but two graphic illustrations.

For the most part, nevertheless, the book is concerned with presenting the material relevant to the discussion, rather than issues of terminology. Over three hundred pages are devoted to the presentation (in thematic order) all the themes and scenes, as well as biblical and historical figures, represented by small monuments and having a public function or a multilayered sacred or pseudo-sacred meaning. Some of the sections in this grand chapter seem to almost anticipate a minor monograph (e.g. columns/statues devoted to the Holy Trinity, representations of the Holy Family, St. John of Nepomuk, St. Wendelin, or the Ice Saints); elsewhere, the analysis is not quite detailed: the author seems to have found it satisfactory to clarify the most basic facts, considering the scarcity of sites in Slovakia. A well-prepared religious-ethnographic researcher with an up-to-date knowledge of the field will notice new phenomena, too; an example is provided (connected to the “Holy Family” theme) by the iconographic representation of the “Hungarian Holy Family”, i.e. King St. Stephen, Queen Consort Gisela, and Prince St. Emeric, in a group of statues at Nagycétény/Veľký Cetín in Nyitra County (today in Nitriansky kraj/Nyitrai kerület, or Nitra Region, Slovakia). This is rather similar, we might note, to a number of medieval frescoes representing the biblical three magi (or three wise men/kings) in the form of Hungary’s royal saints, the latter representing three ages and three royal ideals on the mural paintings. Connected to representations of Jesus and the Holy Family, the author mentions Christ the Saviour, an adaptation of the Rio de Janeiro motif; indeed, the topic could possibly be given a full chapter of its own (in the book, it is part of the chapter on The most sacred heart of Jesus). The similarity between public statues depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd on the one hand and the sacred small monuments featuring St. Wendelin on the other would be worth some discussion, as their formal similarity seems to be undeniable.

A significant number of public statues, besides the Holy Family or the Holy Trinity, represent some biblical or medieval saints. Reading Liszka’s book, one cannot fail to notice the long list, and the great variety, of these subjects. Their presentation is, quite appropriately, consistent and unitary: a brief description of their biography and legendarium is followed by an overview of their iconography and the history of their cult, and, lastly, a more or less lengthy discussion of their representational types, as well as in which geographical areas in the Carpathian Basin they are found. Besides the saints mentioned above, Saint Florian, the Plague Saints, and the Fourteen Holy Helpers are presented in a similar way, as well as “other” saints depicted in public spaces. The same is true for the “national saints” straddling the boundary between sacredness and profanity, discussed by the author as chiefly contemporary phenomena, but also recording Baroque and 19th-century forerunners. Indeed, such monuments do have an undeniable, and often almost explicit, nation-forming and identity-reinforcing role (cf. the Saints Cyril and Methodius); in fact, the primary motivation behind erecting these statues has been of this nature, apart from occasional instances of local historical rel evance.

The grandiosity of the chapter raises several additional questions for the reviewer. For example, why are the discussions of Saint Wendelin’s representations limited to the Western half of (the Hungarian-speaking parts) of Slovakia, with none of them mentioned east of Nógrád/Novohrad – one instance is recorded from the Bodrog-Tisza Interfluve, maybe as an exception that strengthens the rule? Yet, Wendelin has been the patron saint of shepherds and animal-keepers, and – socially as well as culturally – sheepherding has mainly characterized the upper regions, as far as Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarians are concerned, cf. the Palóc/Gömör/Torna traditions as well as the folk poetry and art of these regions; the Upper Bodrogköz area, while belonging to the Alföld (Great Plain) cultural region, may also be considered as part of this group. Liszka’s solution, as far as I am concerned, is not quite satisfactory: there is some Catholic population in the above-mentioned regions, albeit often mixed with other denominations. The author includes Saint Michael as one of the Plague Saints, who – being an Archangel – is defined as a mediator; perhaps more importantly, his biblical (sacred) role is not to protect people against disease, but to fight demonic forces (cf. the legend of Saint George, with whom he is rather comparable), let alone his sacred role in the cult of the dead, also accompanying the deceased persons’ soul in the otherworld.

Saint Christopher, one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, has been devoted a thought-provoking chapter, too. Christopher (despite the small number of extant monuments) has been subject to a deep and widespread cult, including Hungarian-speaking lands, extending, indeed, beyond the Carpathian Range, as far East as Moldvabánya (Romanian Baia).12

Regarding Liszka’s book (and his overall typology), I have not found a single unambiguous statement about which category he thinks the exterior frescoes on church walls are supposed to belong; notably, if a statue in an exterior recess or an exterior Lourdes grotto adjoined to the outer walls of the church do qualify as such, then exterior frescoes of the above-mentioned type have a fair chance of belonging to the same category. These aspects are especially prominent regarding the monuments devoted to Saint Christopher, since their sheer size is directly proportional to their cultic relevance. For another example, cf. the 14th century exterior fresco on the southern wall of the church at Pelsőc (Slovak Plešivec), something that Liszka fails to mention in his discussion of national saints.

Admittedly, Liszka’s inclusion of Saint Martin as one of the national saints is more than welcome: he had been represented wearing traditional Hungarian costume, since as early as the Baroque Age, and hardly without a reason. Martin’s cult in the Pannonian region has persisted since early medieval times, and it is abundantly attested in the form of small sacred monuments in Western Transdanubia;

still, quite regrettably, Liszka’s book fails to discuss (or illustrate) these monuments in detail, although the broad-ranging and fruitful research during the past two decades, including a brief monograph by the author of this review (titled Pannonia’s Patron Saint. Saint Martin in Hungary’s cultural history), may include an amount of relevant data.  The public iconography of the holy kings and royal princesses (i.e. Elizabeth, Margaret, Kinga and Hedvig [Polish Jadwiga]) might also be expanded to a greater degree than what is referred to in this book – indeed, as for sacred and “sacred” issues, might even deserve a volume of its own. For instance, I happen to be familiar with dozens of (chiefly contemporary) public monuments asso-

12 In Suceava (Hungarian Szucsáva) County in the Romanian part of Moldova (Hungarian Moldva), not to be confused with the Republic of Moldova, sometimes referred to as Moldavia, a former “socialist republic” within the USSR, now an independent country. (Translator’s note.)

ciated with the cult of St. Ladislaus, one of my narrower fields of research; moreover, they are iconographically complex enough and historically multi-layered, too; an example is provided by the recently uncovered exterior fresco scene at Székelyszentlélek (Romanian Bisericani). In the same way, I also miss, though not as emphatically, a discussion of St. Helena, whose cult, originating in the Middle Ages and surviving in the form of sacred small monuments, also requires further research.

The volume concludes with three auto nomous and amply documented essays on “sacred depots”, the painting of sacred small monuments, and the fate of statues representing a sacred theme. One of the strongly emphasized examples mentioned in the last of these essays is the statue of St. John of Nepomuk (or, several statues of him) at village Torna (Slovak Turňa nad Bodvou). The story of the statue(s) may remind one of a piece of textual folklore, collected at the nearby village of Jablonca (Slovak Silická Jablonica) in the 1990s, presumably inspired by the reinternment of Imre Nagy[1], “ Saint Stephen was buried like that, with his face down. The statue of St. Stephen, that is. Hungarians buried him that way during the Communist era”. (cf. Magyar, Zoltán. Popular legends from Torna County, p.127.).

The reason I have quoted this small bit is that it might serve as an addition to a future monograph, a monograph that is half complete, but not entirely so. Liszka’s grand work, with its extensive preliminary methodological studies, as well as its richness of detail, provides a stable foundation upon which a much larger work on sacredness can be erected, including additional structures and decorations. Furthermore, while the author does emphasize in his preface as well as in his concluding remarks that his book is not a comprehensive monograph, it is certainly he, himself, whom we can expect to produce on the topic; specifically, a manual-like monograph to give an overall picture of the sacred small monuments to be found in the Carpathian Basin and the Hungarian-speaking lands, based on an extensive database. This is especially true because this book of Liszka’s contains but sporadic examples of the monuments of the eastern part of the Hungarian linguistic space, although the region of Székelyföld (Romanian Ţinutul Secuiesc or Secuimea, German Szeklerland, English Szé kely Land or Szeklerland), including Gyimes (Ro manian Ghimeş), also Moldva (Romanian Moldova) exhibit an exceptionally rich and unique ethnographic heritage; the same holds for other regions, somewhat neglected in the book, including Barkóság[2], Cserehát, Hegyalja, Jászság, Nyírség, Szatmár (Romanian Satu Mare), the South of Partium[3], Bánság (also known as Bánát)[4], the area around Szeged, as well as the south-western parts of Transda nubia, including the Mura-Drava Interfluve area; admittedly, the available material varies somewhat region by region. There is, thus, a task to be completed – and the very person we might expect to do the job is the author of the book himself, presenting a sort of “cathedral” of sacred small monuments, finally providing a truly comprehensive overview of this cultural heritage, surviving up to the present, in its entire typological, historical, and geographical diversity.

Zoltán Magyar