Miracles Do Happen: The Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny, Hungary

When visiting the many towns and cities in Hungary, one cannot help but notice the Baroque architectural style that predominates in the majority of its older buildings. It seems as though even the most minor towns and villages are home to at least one church dating back to the 1700’s. The Austrian Habsburgs who ruled over Hungary throughout the 18th and 19th centuries left their indelible mark on the townscapes. The Habsburg’s large scale Hungarian rebuilding project was born out of necessity. New constructions were badly needed due to the depredations caused by one hundred and sixty years of Ottoman Turkish rule. Turkish rule in Hungary went through several calamitous phases. The Turks first plundered much of the Carpathian Basin. They then followed with a prolonged, intensive occupation of Hungary that was intermittently marked by spasms of seemingly endless warfare. Only in the latter part of the 17th century were the Turks forced out of Hungary after a series of major defeats by a Habsburg-led Army.

The Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny - in both shadow and light1

The Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny – in both shadow and light

Reflections of Austria – The Habsburgs Transform Hungary
As the Habsburgs took over, they were doing more than just adding to their empire, they were also confronted with a process somewhat akin to nation building. The many decades of warfare had led to the devastation of urban environments throughout the country. The Habsburgs went about recreating Hungary in their image, most prominently through architecture. This makes many of Hungary’s historic urban areas look as though they were copied to a great extent from Austrian ones. The refinement and classicism of the Baroque is apparent. Because of this Hungary feels as much a part of Mitteleuropa as it does Eastern Europe. This rebuilding also means that the historic architecture of Hungary largely lacks the Romanesque and Gothic inspired constructions found in northern, southern and western European areas. When people think of old Europe, it is not Hungary that immediately comes to mind.

Yet there are notable exceptions, what might be termed delightful discoveries. As something much rarer appears before the eyes, the visitor may find themselves struck by a peculiar affinity. They discover that the rarity of a structure’s architectural design makes it both more notable and precious. Many travelers speeding along the M1 highway in western Hungary on their way to Vienna have no idea that one of the most significant architectural wonders in the whole of Hungary can be found just a short distance from the main thoroughfare.

Lebeny's Benedictine Abbey - a miracle of faith history and architecture

Lebeny’s Benedictine Abbey – a miracle of faith history and architecture

An Escape From History – The Abbey at Lebeny
An abbey, formerly Benedictine, towers over the village of Lebeny (population: 3,100), a mere 15 kilometers (9 miles) northwest of the city of Gyor. Constructed in 1208 it is one of a select few Romanesque churches that remain from the period pre-dating the Mongol Invasion of 1241-42. Churches such as the one at Lebeny were a notable feature to be found all across the early medieval landscape of Hungary. The fact that this one actually survived, first the Mongol invasion and then centuries later the Ottoman Turkish military threat, was due as much to luck as to its solid construction.

The Mongol rampage was at its most devastating in the eastern part of Hungary. This area, known as the Great Hungarian Plain, lacked any natural defenses to help ward off would be conquerors. Historians estimate that at a minimum half of all the settlements in this area were destroyed. Some estimates give a figure as high as 80%. As the Mongols reached the more formidable rolling and broken terrain in western and northwestern Hungary their rampage slowed. The places which stood the best chance of survival were those made of solid materials, such as fortified castles and stone abbeys. The Mongols were known for their lightning speed on horseback and did not have time for long sieges in this part of the country. They had failed to bring their siege engineers this far west, leaving them back in the Middle and Far Eastern parts of Asia. The abbey at Lebeny was thus spared by chance, luck and architecture.

Nevertheless, this was not the end of the military threat to the abbey’s existence. Nearly three centuries later, the Ottoman Turks burned, but did not destroy it. It was due to be demolished in 1563 so the stones could be used in the fortifications of Gyor, which was now attempting to fend off the dreaded Turks. A group of Italian stone masons were actually given the job of demolishing the structure. When they got their first look at the abbey, they instantly decided it was much too beautiful for destruction. The immediate calamity had been averted, but tests of survival for the abbey were not quite finished. The Turks burned it once again while retreating in 1683. Though the abbey was damaged it stood solid. It also survived an alteration that added Baroque features during the 18th century. Fortunately a fantastic restoration was carried out starting in the 1870’s.

After 800 years the Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny still towers above its surrounding

After 800 years the Benedictine Abbey at Lebeny still towers above its surrounding

Proof of Miracles – A Testament to Religion & History
Today at Lebeny, visitors can see the magnificent abbey towering over the village, as it has done in some form or fashion during the past eight hundred years. Twin stone towers stand on the western end of the basilica. A triple rounded apse on the opposite end is a masterwork of Romanesque style. The rare existence of such Romanesque abbeys in Hungary gives the one in Lebeny a singular character. Religion suffuses the abbey’s architecture with spirit and grace, history showcases it as a testament to the staying power of both a people and their beliefs. The abbey as it exists today, as it has existed throughout history, is proof that miracles really do happen.

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