Spiritual Echo Chambers – The Romanesque Church at Jak (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #7)

Let me be clear, I will kick the bucket before I have a bucket list. Call me a contrarian, but the idea of a bucket list – those must see sights before you die – sounds way too efficient and unimaginative for me. It is the kind of idea that sends a traveler to the most popular and predictable places. In my opinion, any place worth seeing is worth more than a single visit. Of course, the idea behind a bucket list is to see anything that induces jaw dropping awe and then move on to the next one. An argument could be made that this misses the best part of travel, which is not only the sights you see, but the people you meet. I mention this because what first comes to mind when I think of the Romanesque church at Jak in southwestern Hungary, is the attendant who sold me and my wife tickets.

He was a middle age ethnic Hungarian originally from the Vojvodina region of northern Serbia. My wife and I struck up a conversation with him or more to the point, I asked questions while she did the translating. The man then proceeded to provide us with impromptu guide services on a beautiful autumn day. He was extremely kind, generous with his time and completely devoted to his job. There was something about the sound of his voice, the way he carried himself, his attention to service, that I found inspiring. In an enchanting setting this man sprinkled magic with his words. And in the process, Jak became more than a church, it became this man and his devotion to history.

A Rarity Restored -Romanesque Church at Jak

Commissioning Greatness – A Man & A Clan
In my estimation, one of the most common travel cliches, “it is about the journey, not the destination”. misses one crucial element of travel. Neither journey nor destination would mean much without the people you meet along the way or upon arrival. Journey and destination are rather narrow limits, whereas people can take you almost anywhere. And therein lies the problem with bucket lists, it is not so much the sights as it is the people you meet. This was the case with the church at Jak. The man we met was as much a part of our visit as the church. Nonetheless, if the church had not been at Jak, I am almost certain we would never have visited the town. For several years I ruminated on a visit. Looked Jak up on maps and built itineraries with imagination. The longing to visit was also stimulated by guidebooks on Hungary, which almost invariably mention the church at Jak as an outstanding sight, well worth the time it takes to travel there. Many of the guidebooks have photos of the church, which is a magnetic way of attracting attention.

The church at Jak also has a powerful marketing tool in one of Budapest’s most visited spots. A replica of the church’s portal is part of Vajdahunyad Castle (also a replica), built in the City Park to celebrate the Hungarian Millennium in 1896. For many, seeing that replica is enough, but it made me want to visit the original church that much more. Imitations of any great work are just that. While they are certainly worth looking at, the viewer loses context when they are the original. It was not until my ninth visit to Hungary that I made my way to Jak. Getting there was easier said than done. Jak is one of those places that is not on the way to anywhere. Fortunately, my wife and I were traveling around far western Hungary and the Burgenland in eastern Austria. That put Jak easily within our reach. The church was built as a Benedictine Abbey. Wealthy landowners often commissioned churches to be built on their landed estates. In this case, a member of the Jak clan, Marton Nagy, commissioned the church.

Rising to the Occasion – Romanesque Church at Jak

A Rarity Restored – The Romanesque In Hungary
The fact that Hungary has very few works of Romanesque architecture still standing, makes the allure of the church at Jak that much more seductive. It is a rare example of Romanesque style sacral architecture. For any building to survive seven and a half centuries in a place as criss crossed by conquerors as Hungary, it must have more than its fair share of luck. It is not a coincidence that the two best surviving Romanesque churches in Hungary (at Jak and Lebeny) can be found in the far western portion of the country. The Mongols swept across Hungary in 1241-1242, but they likely never made it this far west. At that time the church was still under construction, as the building began in 1220 and was not finally dedicated until 1256. The finished product, with some major restoration work done in the late 19th century, is what stands today.

The most memorable aspect of the church is the Norman-styled portal. This architectural motif was likely transmitted from northern France to Germany, where Hungarian craftsmen may have seen examples at castles and churches in Bavaria. The portal is adorned with lavish sculptural decoration, which includes Christ and the 12 apostles who occupy niches above the portal. Only the sculpture of Christ and the apostles flanking either side of him are original. While the church escaped destruction from the Mongols, it did sustain damage by the Ottoman Turks.

The interior is structured as a basilica with three naves and three apses. It is an airy space, much larger than I imagined. Only when I walked around the exterior did I understand the church’s sizable proportions. The interior is both austere and grand. In comparison to the portal’s lavish ornamentation, the interior feels minimalistic. The narrow yet spacious confines give the impression of spiritual echo chambers, in the weighty silence one can hear the slightest sounds. I could only imagine the glorious chanting which must have taken place here across the centuries. The church was a monument which could match those moments.

The Ultimate Portal – Romanesque Church at Jak

The Greatest Treasures – Of People & Place
The church at Jak was everything we thought it would be, an astonishing work of architecture that reminded me that a whole other world had been lost in Hungary due to the Mongol invasion. Surviving Romanesque architectural works, such as the church, are much more powerful due to their rarity. Traveling to Jak was worth the time and energy we expended getting there. The greatest treasures in Eastern Europe are often found in remote villages. While the church at Jak is rightfully famous, the man who provided us with a warm welcome and valuable information was entirely unexpected. Proving that it is not just the place, but also the people who make travel so memorable. 

Click here for: Looking Down From A Great Height – Rasnov Citadel (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #8)