If first impressions are everything, then Szeged did not take long to make a good one. Leaving the train station, I turned north heading towards the city center. In a few minutes I found myself walking through an arched entranceway where I was confronted with an awesome sight. The huge open square of Dom ter (Cathedral Square) suddenly spread out in front of me. A space made magnificent by what lay at its northern end. My eyes were drawn upward to the twin towers of the neo-Romanesque Votive Church. Its spires soared, these skyscrapers of spirituality reaching 81 meters into a brilliantly blue and cloudless sky. The church was as much spectacle as it was spiritual, towering over the square. Its sheer verticality meant that wherever I walked in the square, the church always loomed.
The Votive Church’s exquisite architecture was made that much more impressive by its immediate surroundings. While these were on a much smaller scale, they were no less regal due to their own unique splendor. Around three sides of Dom ter stood a series of like designed, low rise buildings that were part of the University of Szeged, Bishop’s Palace and a theological school. Below these buildings, arcade after arcade were aligned in great arched rows. Within these arcades, attached to the walls, were a series of busts. There were eighty of them in all. This was National Pantheon of great Hungarians on display. The arcades added an astonishing element of symmetry to the square’s design, creating a mesmerizing aesthetical geometry.
The open space of the square felt larger even than its 12,000 square meter size, an optical and architectural illusion of spatial infinity. The day of my visit to Dom ter there were very few people about. This made the square’s emptiness feel like forever. I would only later learn that Dom ter is almost the same size as St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I never would have guessed that, since Dom ter’s expansiveness was not disguised by hordes of tourists. Another thing the square did not hide, was the feeling that everything within it, other than Domotor’s Tower, was rather recent in its construction.
The Votive Church – A Symbol Of Divine Intercession
When Szeged was being rebuilt after the flood of 1879, the citizenry wanted to make amends spiritually in the hope that it would be spared any future calamities. To some this mindset might seem superstitious, after all it was a natural rather than a metaphysical calamity which had brought the city to the point of complete destruction. Yet it is understandable when one considers that the city was almost extinguished overnight with little warning by the high tide of the Tisza. The fear of God must have been prominent in those who were lucky to survive and see the city reconstructed from scratch. To pay penance or perhaps to offer up a symbol of divine intercession, a great work of religious architecture would be commissioned, its role as a symbol of penitence creating an added amount of significance. The city council decreed that such a work would be constructed, but it would take much longer than anyone could have possibly imagined.
Finding a suitable piece of property in the city to build what was to be a massive structure proved difficult. An entire neighborhood of small streets would have to be demolished in the process. This delayed the beginning of construction until 1913, unfortunately a year before the outbreak of World War I would cause further delays. The plans for the Votive Church could not have been prepared by a finer architect, Frigyes Schulek, the same man who had remodeled the Matthias Church on Castle Hill in Buda. To carry out Schulek’s original plans would have cost a mint, thus these were altered by another architect, Erno Foerk. The final product was not completed until 1930. It would be well worth the wait. While the church’s overarching style is neo-Romanesque, it would be more appropriate to refer the church as neo-Middle Ages due to its Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque elements. For instance, between the soaring spires stands a smaller dome, which recalls the beloved churches from the late Middle Ages which are still to be found in the western Hungarian villages of Lebeny and Jak. Whether this was done by accident or design hardly matters, the effect is touching.
The Votive Church’s darkened, clinker brick exterior gives the church a more refined look, making it stand out against the sky. Inside, there is a very Hungarian twist on a fresco behind the main altar. There the Madonna is portrayed wearing the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, Hungary’s first king. On her shoulder is the coronation mantle. In addition to the main altar, there are also altarpieces found in both the right and left transepts of the church. No dramatic detail is overlooked. That is why the experience of any service held in the church cannot be complete without the worshipers hearing the forceful sounds of music emitted by the 9,040 pipes of its organ. In sum, the Votive Church was built to impress and achieves that goal in every way.
Antiquity & Simplicity – Domotor Tower
Ironically, the most intriguing structure in Dom ter is also something of an antithesis to the Votive Church. This is the free standing Domotor Tower, which is located just to the front and west of the church. The singular structure stands out from everything else in Dom ter, both historically and architecturally. It is a product of the Middle Ages with a foundation from the 11th century, lower half 12th century Romanesque and topped by a 13th century, octagonal shaped Gothic tower. Once part of St. Domotor’s Church, the structure has somehow managed to survive a multiplicity of conquests, natural catastrophes and plans for demolition to remain as an austere reminder of the antecedents to today’s splendor.
The tower is dwarfed by the Votive Church, its proximity a quixotic presence that represents the deepest history to be found in Szeged. The fact that so little of Old Szeged remains, makes Domotor Tower of inestimable historical value. The comparatively ancient tower has its back turned to the Votive Church as if to ignore its modern successor. I found myself spending more fascinated by the the Tower than the church. There were hints of an inscrutable megalomania about the church. By comparison, the tower seemed to me a miniature that could be studied up close and internalized. Here was an apt example of how bigger is not always better. The outsized splendor of the Votive Church was mighty and impressive, but the antiquity and simplicity of Domotor Tower was beyond compare.