In 1896 a self-confident and rapidly developing Kingdom of Hungary prepared to celebrate the one-thousandth anniversary of the Magyar people’s arrival in the Carpathian Basin. Known as the Millennium Celebration, this was the culmination of a wave of nationalistic fervor. The most stunning piece of artwork created for the event – if not one of the most stunning in all of European history – was “The Arrival of the Hungarians,” a gigantic cyclorama (circular panoramic painting) conceived and largely painted under the direction of Arpad Feszty. First displayed in the Budapest City Park, it is still on view today, as the centerpiece of a National Heritage Park in the southern Hungarian town of Opusztaszer. Feszty’s grand opus is a must see piece of artwork, as much for its minute and withering array of detail as for its expression of nationalistic fervor.
A Painting To Rival History – Taking Possession of the Moment
To lend a bit of perspective to the scale and scope of the cyclorama, consider that it is longer than an average football pitch and stands four and half stories high. The painting depicts over two thousand characters. The most prominent of these are the seven tribal chieftains of the Magyars, portrayed atop a hill, mounted on horseback, overlooking hundreds of their kinsmen. The paintings natural setting is the Verecke Pass (once part of the Kingdom of Hungary, now in the sub-Carpathian region of Ukraine) where the Magyars first entered the Carpathian Basin in the mid to late 890’s.
In 1896 a commemorative book The Millennium of Hungary (Az Ezereves Magayorszag es A Millennium Kiallitas) was published highlighting the exhibits on display at the celebration. The book contains text in four languages (Hungarian, German, English and French) describing large scale black and white photos of exhibits and locations that were part of this magnificent exhibition. Page seven of the publication has a detail from “The Arrival of the Hungarians.” It is called Arpad and the Chieftains (see photo above). The book has this to say: “This view represents the most momentous incident in the history of Hungary. It forms a conspicuous part of Arpad Feszty’s colossal round-view ‘The entry of the Hungarians into Hungary.’ Both as to its size and artistic merits, the picture holds the first place among all our paintings representing the great events in the history of our nation’s life during ten centuries. No artist has so thoroughly mastered and so well-conceived, the great events in Hungary like Arpad Feszty. We see here the cherished figure of Arpad the founder of the new fatherland, mounted on a fiery steed, and surrounded by his valiant paladins, standing on the hill after hard fought and glorious victories, taking possession of the land.”
“How We Came To Be Who We Are Today” – Accessing History Through Art
The photo in the book is just one of many fascinating details from Festy’s panoramic canvas. The sheer size and breadth of the painting was an attempt to do justice to the Hungarian’s historical arrival in the Carpathian Basin. The scale, scope and detail of the painting evoke a sense of grandeur that is a direct reflection of the spirit of Hungary’s Belle Epoque (Golden Age) as equal partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The event Feszty decided to portray is the seminal moment in the creation of Hungarian identity. It is the most indispensable event in Hungary’s history. It goes without saying that if not for this event, there would have been no Hungary in Europe. It is the Magyar equivalent of America’s Declaration of Independence, France’s Revolution, England’s Magna Carta and the unification of Germany. Rarely have a people been so blessed with a single, defining event that they could point to and say “that’s how we came to be who we are today.” It is quite incredible that Festy could create a piece of artwork that lived up to that moment.
In retrospect, the millennial celebrations were the pinnacle of this Golden Age as the country had achieved virtual autonomy and a self-confidence unrivalled before or since in the nation’s history. This was the upshot of its equal partnership in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The painting is the artistic representation of a nation looking back at itself and seeing greatness in its very beginnings. It is a fantastic interweaving of history and myth, both inseparable and indistinguishable from one another. It all sounds a bit unreal until the viewer stands before the magnificent canvas in Opustaszer. Then they can see how the Hungarians saw themselves: heroic, noble and visionary. “The Arrival of the Hungarians” is more than art. It is the merging of a fervent imagination with history.
A Reflection of The Soul of Hungary – Feszty’s Achievement
There are many prominent examples of latter day myth making where a nation attempts with varying degrees of success to portray its past. These often leave the viewer wondering what historical personages might say if they see how they have been interpreted. To take one example, what would Lincoln think of his larger than life marble memorial in Washington, D.C. He would most likely blush – or perhaps even faint – after being shown these examples of triumphal deification. On the other hand, there are those very few examples where a monument or monumental work rises to the level of its subject matter. One of the rare cases of this is Feszty’s “Arrival of the Hungarians” The viewer gets the distinct suspicion that Arpad, the Chieftains and the two thousand other Magyars portrayed would be both proud and honored. For they are looking at themselves as both, myth and reality, a mirror of themselves and a reflection of the soul of Hungary.