Silent Witness – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 7)

The focal point of my visit to Castle Hill was the Hungarian National Military Museum. I had been looking forward to going there for quite some time. Unfortunately, I was out of luck on this day as the museum was closed. I was a bit discombobulated by the closure, but before I could come up with a new plan I stumbled upon a fascinating relic of architecture. On the backside of the museum I spotted an old Gothic Church tower. It loomed over Kaspistrzan Square, a battered reminder of the intertwined fate of Christianity and conflict in the Castle District. This was the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene, an astonishing artifact out of all proportion and style to its surroundings. It immediately demanded my attention. I did not have any foreknowledge of its history or forewarning of its presence, but I immediately knew that it was much more impressive than anything I would have seen in the military museum. The Tower sent me on a journey that lasted long after my visit that day. A journey deep into its fascinating history. A history of conflict, combat and conquest. A history of invasion, occupation and regeneration.

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene - Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene – Statue of St. John of Capistrano in foreground

Beginning At The End – A Garden Of Scattered Ruins
The Tower is all that is left of the Church of Mary Magdalene. All other parts of the Church have vanished, victimized like so much else on Castle Hill by the catastrophic destruction unleashed during the 1944-45 Siege of Budapest and the vicissitudes of totalitarianism which was imposed in the war’s aftermath. Destruction and transformation are constants in the history of the Church. For the Church of Mary Magdalene cannot be thought of as the kind of architectural entity or house of worship fixed once and for all time, instead it has been shaped and molded by the varying extremes that have buffeted the history of Hungary and by extension Castle Hill. Instead of starting at the beginning in telling the history of the Church, perhaps it is better to start where I did, at the end.

My first view of the Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene was startling. I knew almost immediately that the tower stood as much for what was not there as what was. This was a place where presence and absence were inseparable. There was a garden of scattered ruins fronting the tower, providing rough traces of what had once existed. The Tower itself, like the Military Museum, was not open on this day. That made it no less impressive. I was forced to use my imagination to try and envision what it had once been like. The tower looked and felt medieval, but as I would later learn that was only part of its story. A view from the top would have been spectacular, but even from ground level its height and proportions had a way of causing dizziness. A sort of vertigo in reverse, induced while looking upward from the ground below. It had a Leaning Tower of Pisa like quality, looking as though it might fall at any moment. And of course, it had not fallen and probably never would, at least not in my lifetime. The present age is most likely not the end for the tower, more like another beginning.

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction

Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene prior to wartime destruction (Credit: fortepan.hu)

The Separation of Church & State – The Conqueror Becomes The Conquered
There have been many beginnings for the Church of Mary Magdalene. The first of these dates to its inception back in the 13th century. It acted for the next several centuries as the Parish Church for Hungarians in the Castle Hill area. The German population had their own house of worship nearby, the Matthias Church. Each ethnic group was segregated from the other in religious affairs. A stultifying example of how heaven is informed by the human prejudices on earth. Back in those times, the Church was a fine example of Gothic architecture. It remained as such even after the Ottoman Turkish conquest following their successful Siege of Buda in 1541. The Church was the only one which was not immediately turned into a mosque. It managed to serve the Christian population for half a century. That was until the Turks finally decided to make it a mosque during the Long War (1591-1606). This transformation did not last out the 17th century. A Habsburg led army defeated the Turks in yet another Siege of Buda in 1686. The siege left the church badly damaged. And began yet another era in its history.

There is a saying that every crisis is also an opportunity, the same might be said about the aftermath of war. The ability to change things is much easier when something has been brought to near ruin. That is what transformed the Church of Mary Magdalene in the early modern age. The church was given to the Franciscans who tore down what was left of the existing structure, except for the tower. They then rebuilt the church with a single nave in fully fledged Baroque style. The Franciscans were eventually ousted after the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II issued his edict closing monasteries in the latter part of the 18th century. The Church stood dormant for many years with only one memorable exception. An unlikely event which bequeathed a bit of fame upon it took place in 1792. In that year, the Church was the scene for Habsburg Emperor Franz I’s coronation. This was an eventful interregnum amid a long period in which the church was scarcely utilized.

Casualty of war - Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene

Casualty of war – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Live By The Sword , Survive Despite The Sword – A Final Testament
In 1817 the Church was handed over to the military garrison in Buda. The military used it to conduct services for the soldiers up until the outbreak of World War II, but it was militarism that would bring most of it down. The catastrophic violence the church endured during the Siege of Budapest left it once again teetering on the edge of extinction. Several years after the war’s end, most of the ruins were swept away by order of Hungary’s Stalinist dictator Matyas Rakosi. Only the Tower was left as an austere reminder, standing as a final testament to over 600 years of Hungarian history, a statement of ruin and rejuvenation. The Tower of the Church of Mary Magdelene bears silent witness to all those ages that have long since passed.

Click here for: Actions Preach Louder Than Words – Saint John From Buda to Belgrade (For The Love of Hungary – Part 8)

A Meeting With Expectations – Buda Castle Up Close & Impersonal (For The Love of Hungary – Part 6)

When I think of touring a castle, what comes to mind is audio tours that never quite work the way they should, drafty and dank rooms that are mostly empty, loads of meaningless furniture, weapons and armor that look like something no sane person would wield or wear and guides who burden their audiences with structural details that a professional engineer would be hard pressed to understand. Nonetheless, castle tours are infectious, they always keep me and millions of others coming back for more. There are always opportunities to take incredible photos. Castle are photogenic in the extreme. They usually occupy a scenic position atop a hill, plateau or mountain. It as though the brains behind these stone-built spectaculars located them for maximum tourist effect.

In truth, castles attained their exalted topographical positions as a matter of security and survival. Castles manage to capture the imagination to such an extent that not many people care anything about their history. History gets in the way of fantasy and every castle relies more for its effect by stimulating imagination rather than relying on reality. In other words, it is not so much what we see in castles, as it is what they make us want to believe. Thus, I had high hopes when I went to visit Buda Castle for the first time. My head was filled with outrageously high expectations. What I would find was quite unexpected. Buda Castle was unlike any other castle I have ever visited.

Impressive & imposing - Looking over the Danube at Buda Castle

Impressive & imposing – Looking over the Danube at Buda Castle (Credit: Túrelio)

“High & Mighty” – An Exercise In Visual Intimidation
From the distance of the Danube promenade, Buda Castle looks impressive and imposing. High above it stands and spreads outward, a massive edifice that looks like it was pieced together from several buildings. Each one would be large by itself, together they form a coherent and gigantic whole. As I would later discover, to a large degree Buda Castle was an agglomeration that had been pieced together in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Its core architecture is Baroque, with neo-Renaissance elements added as well. Crowning it is a very large neo-Baroque dome, done up in modernist style. Its size cannot be disguised by distance. When viewed from the Danube, the castle seems to spread itself up and out, expanding its girth in several directions and commanding the area around it. No wonder it provides the name for the plateau on which it and hundreds of other buildings stand, Castle Hill (Varhegy). Looking up at the castle is an exercise in visual intimidation, one that can leave the viewer feeling small and insignificant.

The Castle looks the very definition of “high and mighty”, as impenetrable as it is intimidating. From below, the castle communicates a powerful presence. I wondered how a visit to it might make me feel. The answer to that question soon came as I made it a point to visit the Castle on my first full day back in the city. My initial response as I began to approach it was one of trepidation and confusion. The Castle was overwhelming. I could see how, after a full renovation and additions were completed in 1905, it became the largest Royal Palace in the world. At one time it sported over 200 rooms. The Castle had been ordered built as a sop to the Hungarians by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa for their support in her wars against foreign foes. She had no intention of ever living in it, but that did not stop the construction from being ridiculously outsized and ornate. And that was just the first version in the mid-18th century. It continued to expand as it was redeveloped and revised.

Out of the shadows - Lions Court at Buda Castle

Out of the shadows – Lions Court at Buda Castle (Credit: Darinko)

A Royal Palace Without Royalty – Crowning Behemoth
The version of the Castle which stands today approximates the one that was redesigned in the late 19th century by Miklos Ybl and then finished after his death by Alajos Hauszmann. Ybl’s design had been responsible for an additional western wing, while Hauszmann implemented a massive expansion which resulted in a new northern wing that ended up doubling the size of those parts of the castle facing the Danube. This version of the castle suffered grave damage during the Second World War. The communist regime, which took control of the country in the years after the war, would not hear of rebuilding the castle as it had previously existed. They wanted to avoid any reminder of the proto-nationalist regime of Miklos Horthy, who had called the Castle home during the inter-war period. It was thus decided to gut the interior rooms so Buda Castle could house an array of cultural institutions. While much of the ornate splendor that had once covered the Castle both inside and out was not replaced.

I wanted to take a tour of this crowning behemoth, but that would be problematic. There seemed to be no central starting point. I found myself wandering in and out of shadows, while walking beneath hundreds of windows and past multiple wings. I soon discovered that it was impossible to take a tour that would cover the entire castle. Oddly enough, this is by design.   The upshot of the post-war reconstruction is that visitors see a lesser example of what the Castle was like in its early 20th century heyday. There are no royal quarters to visit. Historically, this is more appropriate than one might think. The Castle was never a royal residence, Horthy was the highest official ever to inhabit its chambers. As far as the Habsburg administration went, the Castle acted as home to the palatine, which was the Habsburg Emperor’s representative in Hungary. Thus, there were no great personages connected with the castle nor any tales of royal feats or depravity.

A meeting with expectations - Buda Castle

A meeting with expectations – Buda Castle (Credit: Jorge Lascar)

A Daunting Task – Built To Be This Way
Buda’s Castle present status is as a house of museums, converted to showcase works of art, historic artifacts and books. This meant that if I wanted to “visit” the castle, I would have to spend time in such disparate attractions as the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Szechenyi Library and the Budapest History Museum. This seemed like a daunting task for a first full day, so I satisfied myself by walking around the castle, through several courtyards and snapping photos from stunning vistas. This castle was not really made for tourism or tales. It was a place that one could visit, but never quite penetrate. It could never be captured in a single image or grasped in its entirety by the human mind. I had the stinging suspicion that it was built to be this way. It felt like too much of a great thing and it always will be.

Click here: Silent Witness – Tower of the Church of Mary Magdalene In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 7)