Mezőkövesd received town rights from King Mátyás Hunyadi in 1464. According to legend, the residents, as a sign of appreciation, took on his nickname, Matyó. Over time, they became a separate ethnic group in Hungary, due to their well-preserved traditions and closed community, who are recognizable by their elaborately embroidered folk costumes. Although lavishly embroidered costumes suggest considerable wealth, Matyóföld [Matyóland] has always been among the poorest regions of the country. Their popular saying, “Let the stomach growl but the costume shine”, describes the attitude of Matyó people toward life.
The nearby Zsóry Thermal Spa offers many outdoor and indoor pools, as well as medical treatments and therapies. The Sulfur content of the water at 60°C is one of the highest in Hungary. The water has been classified as medicinal water in 1968, and is suitable for the treatment of joint problems such as rheumatism and arthritis, as well as for post-injury rehabilitation.
The folk art of Matyó living in and around the town of Mezőkövesd has a history of more than 200 years. The earliest surviving embroidery was border decoration on bedsheets that covered the so-called “high made-up beds”. These bedsheets were embroidered with motifs of shoes and birds using only red and blue yarn. The most elaborately embroidered folk costumes and household fabrics appeared in the early 20th century, and the Matyó rose has become an emblematic floral motif. Each color used in the embroidery has a specific meaning: yellow represents summer, red represents joy, blue represents sorrow, green represents mourning, and black represents earth. Embroiderers relied greatly on the art and skill of the so-called “‘writing women” who created hand-drawn patterns. One of the most famous writing women was Bori Kis Jankó (1876-1954), who was also called the “woman of 100 roses”. In addition to embroidery, the same motifs have been used in interior design, architecture, and contemporary fashion design.
Today, the members of the Matyó Népművészeti Egyesület [Matyó Folk Art Association] play a vital role in keeping the local embroidery traditions alive. Matyó folk art has also been recognized as a Hungarikum – a formal collection of highly valued Hungarian products and symbols – and is on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
There are many tales circulating among women in the town about the birth of the Matyó embroidery. According to one of them, the devil once kidnapped the sweetheart of a Matyó girl. In response to the girl’s pleading, the devil asked her to bring him the most beautiful flowers of the meadow in her apron, in exchange for her lover. Unfortunately, the incident happened during winter. The girl searched in vain but found no flowers for the devil. She spent the next few days in despair, thinking about the colorful flowers and her kidnapped sweetheart, until she finally figured out how to fulfill the devil’s wish. She ran around the village and asked the women for yarns of different colors. Then, embroidering day and night, she filled her apron with beautiful flowers: roses, tulips and peonies. She took the apron to the devil, who was pleased with the ransom and kept his promise. This is how the Matyó embroidery – with its rich color scheme and motifs – came to life, at least according to the legend.
The Matyó Múzeum [Matyó Museum], housed in the former Korona Szálló [Crown Hotel], offers great insight into the folk art and way of life of the Matyó people. The collection includes embroidery from different time periods, as well as home furnishings and household items. The exhibition points out how the variations of folk costumes reflect the wearer’s age and marital status.
The Hadas area of the town is a kind of open-air museum. The 19th-century thatch-roofed farmhouses are well maintained and inhabited by various artisans such as the gingerbread maker, hand weaver, potter and furniture painter. Bori Kis Jankó lived in one of the farmhouses. With its original furnishing, the visitor can get a glimpse into the life of the most famous writing woman.
Hajdu Ráfis János Mezőgazdasági Gépmúzeum [János Hajdu Ráfis Agricultural Machinery Museum] can also provide some context for understanding the Matyó’s way of life. Mezőkövesd was a pen-garden type settlement, which is a special Hungarian version of the nucleated settlement. This means a spatial separation of functions: the houses are clustered in the inner area of the settlement, while the associated pen-gardens are located separately on the outskirts of the settlement. Pen-gardens were the place where livestock, forage and farm equipment were kept. They also served as a sleeping place for the men of the village. By the beginning of the 20th century, due to the lack of job opportunities, hundreds of people in Mezőkövesd had become seasonal agricultural workers, the so-called ‘summás’, in other parts of the country. This also left a mark on their way of life. The museum’s machine collection ranges from animal-powered machines from the mid-19th century through steam-powered vehicles from the turn of the 19th-20th century to modern tractors of the 20th century.
István Takács, the Painter of the Matyó
István Takács (1901-1985) is an outstanding figure in Hungarian fresco art. He is best known as a religious painter; he decorated about 290 churches throughout Hungary with frescoes, altarpieces and the Stations of the Cross. His favorite themes were the Virgin, the Holy Family and Hungarian Saints. Being a religious painter during the Communist era in Hungary could not offer him great glory. However, it speaks loudly about his courage and vocation. He said the following about success:
”Success may seem interesting from the outside. For me, it means absolutely nothing. It is not success that inspires me, but ambition. I need to feel that my work is needed, is understood and my murals inspire people the way sermons do. Words fly away, but murals remain. People tend to forget the words they hear in Mass, but I would like to move them and fill their hearts with piety and hope.”
Today, he is regarded one of the most accomplished followers of the Baroque style in the country. One of his masterpieces can be found in the Szent László-templom [Szent László’s Church] of Mezőkövesd.
Although religious painting was a defining part of his artistic work, he was also the most authentic painter of the Matyó. He was born a Matyó of Mezőkövesd, a child of a traditional peasant family. His love for his homeland can be seen in his folk paintings, which show the Matyó way of life. He even amalgamated his two passions – religion and Matyó – in some paintings, such as the Matyó Madonna, in which the Virgin is depicted in a Matyó folk costume. With his artistic work, he played a major role in preserving the traditions of the Matyó.
Given that significant part of his creative heritage was destroyed in Budapest during Second World War and that the anti-religious art politics of the Communist regime tried to obliterate him, he has to be reinstated out of almost complete ignorance. The Városi Galéria [Town Gallery] tries to reintroduce Takács’ exceptional paintings to a wider audience with a comprehensive collection of his artworks.
“The chastity of art is the bread on which the body is nourished and which liberates the soul.”