The Last Coronation – Funeral Rites for the Dual Monarchy

Matthias Church, atop Castle Hill in Budapest, is an architectural fantasy. With its diamond patterned roof tiles and gargoyle covered spire there is scarcely a more stirring scene of eclectic grandeur in the whole of Europe. This beautiful building was reconstructed in the late 19th century to a rough approximation of its medieval self, with flourishes of neo-Gothicism added to recreate it for the modern age. The church has been the site of numerous historical events, including the wedding of famed Hungarian Renaissance King Matthias Corvinus to Queen Beatrix of Naples. It was also the scene of multiple coronations. The last of these, less than one hundred years ago, was the setting for one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of Hungary.  It was at this event, what turned out to the last coronation of a Habsburg Emperor, that the fate of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foretold by an unanticipated event that took place in the church. This event exposed the crumbling decay that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.

Matthias Church - site of the last coronation

Matthias Church – site of the last coronation

“Creating Reality From Imagination” – Crowning A Final King
In the latter part of 1916, Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which he was at the helm of the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was hastily arranged. The demands of a raging war were set aside for the sake of tradition. This was imperative since the tottering monarchy needed to adhere to the trappings of power in order to give the appearance of strength and unity. The coronation in Budapest was set for the next to last day in December of 1916. Franz Josef’s great nephew, the man who would become Emperor Charles I was to ascend the throne.

The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in pageantry and protocol. Soon after it began, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this happened, the audience – made up of the crème de la crème of the aristocracy – was to exit the church. We have an astonishing first-hand account of what happened next from Miklos Banffy, the director of the State Theatres, who was charged with organizing the ceremony. As Banffy watched, “the court ladies and those in waiting started to descend slowly from their places in the gallery on the left of the church…They came down, one by one or in pairs, down the steps from the gallery and into the center aisle, all in dresses of gold and white and silver studded with jewels and glittering like figures from ancient times suddenly come alive again, creating reality from imagination. As they moved slowly out of the church in procession they were accompanied by the softest of organ music as if the disappearance of all this beauty imposed silence in the now emptying basilica.”

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

“The Sad, Grey Tragedy of War” – The Knights of the Golden Spur
With the church now empty, it seemed just a matter of moments before the king and queen would exit as well. Yet protocol took precedence as suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur arrived to receive accolades from the newly crowned king. They were a seen of tragic poignancy at the ceremony:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

A greater contrast of scenes occurring in just a matter of moments could hardly have been imagined. Majesty met a deathly sense of duty. Splendor was overcome by decay and decline. The entire ceremony can be interpreted as a metaphor of life imitating art. In this case, art foreshadowed a tragedy of historic proportions. In the church that day the ladies represented what the empire had been, the alluring glamour and beauty of the aristocracy. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the stark reality of what the empire had become: broken, feeble, on its last legs and fading fast. The future was to be a very different place. After what these men – who were just a few of many millions – had endured nothing could or would ever be the same. The empire was disintegrating at the front. The broken soldiers were the physical embodiment of a mortally wounded monarchy.  The end was near.

Where the Dual Monarchy died - Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

Where the Dual Monarchy died – Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

The Verge of Oblivion – The Dual Monarchy On Its Knees
Studying this scene, it is much easier to understand what happened in the months and years that followed. The shimmering power of the monarchy had all but disappeared amid the dark shadows of war. It was a relic of a bygone era which had come to an end far from the neo-Gothic splendor of the Matthias Church. Belief in the monarchy had been buried in muddy and bloody trenches, drowned in the marshlands of Galicia and blown to bits high in the Italian Alps. The survivors were barely better off than the dead. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the last, stumbling vestige of a tradition that was on the verge of oblivion.  Soon the monarchy, the empire and the Kingdom of Hungary would cease to exist. Chaos would soon reign supreme.

A Maze of Imagination: The Hungarian Parliament Building

There is hardly a more fantastical structure in the whole of Europe than the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. Sitting astride the Danube, on the Pest side of the river, this architectural wonder is an eclectically astonishing mix of neos: Gothicism, Medievalism, Renaissance and Baroque. Viewed from the Buda embankment, it looks as though it is literally floating on the slate gray river waters of the Danube. When the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright, the building’s reflection unfurls upon the ripples of the river, a shimmering image, sparkling in lustrous splendor. If Disney’s Magic Kingdom was ever to have a stone and mortar counterpart, than surely this must be it.  The building looks as though it is out of a fantasy, a reimagining of grandeur on a scale that can be interpreted as confident, prideful and chauvinistic. It is a symbol of both independence and rebelliousness, infused as much by emotion as symbolism. More than anything, it stands as a singular reflection of the people for whom it was built.

A Maze of Imagination - the Hungarian Parliament

A Maze of Imagination – the Hungarian Parliament

A Transformative Optimism – The Building of Budapest
By the early 1880’s Budapest was in the throes of a transformative belle époque. The trigger for this golden age had taken place a decade and a half earlier. A compromise with the Austrians in 1867 led to the creation of the Dual Monarchy. The emperor of Austria was also crowned as the King of Hungary. At the same time, Hungary was offered virtual independence. One result of the compromise was that Hungarians were allowed their own parliament to practice self-rule.  In 1873, the three cities of Buda, Obuda (Old Buda) and Pest were consolidated into one. From this agglomeration came the city of Budapest. Soon it was the fastest growing metropolitan area in the whole of Europe. People poured in from the countryside, leaving the landed estates behind, while looking to take advantage of the industrial revolution.

The city was literally bursting at the seams with economic activity. Hungary was now an equal part of an empire and virtually independent. The Magyar people, having been liberated from what they believed were centuries of oppression by foreign interlopers, cultivated an economic and cultural renaissance. Much of the newly created wealth went into architectural projects. Banks, universities, market halls, churches and a grand basilica rose from the flatlands of Pest. These constructions were the result of a tremendous optimism. The Magyar nation was ascendant. What followed would be the most optimistic construction project in Hungarian history, a brand new Parliament Building.

Crowning acheivement - A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Crowning acheivement – A Renaissance dome under siege by Neo-Gothicism (Credit: Alex Proimos)

Medievalism Without Reason – A Parliament For the Ages
A contest was put on to see who could create the best design. The competition was fierce. Among the runners-up was Alajos Hauszmann, the famed architect who had designed numerous palaces and would go on to lead the renovation of Buda Castle. All was not lost for Hauszmann. For his entry in the competition would become the Ministry of Justice. This building, along with another runner-up which would become the Ministry of Agriculture, occupied positions directly across from the new Parliament. While each of these might be called stately and grand, they were dwarfed in size, scope and scale by the winning entry from architect Imre Steindl. One critic in the late 19th century termed the prize winning creation, “medievalism without reason.” Some of its stylistic elements certainly seemed to recall the Middle Ages, yet more than anything it redefined architectural possibility. It showcased a broad array of styles placed adjacent or piled on top of one another. For instance, the renaissance dome was topped with a gothic spire. It was a little bit of everything and a whole new thing. It was a building both of the ages and for the ages.

The style was both elegant and grandiose. Its size was otherworldly. This became readily apparent to those who visited the interior. The place seemed endless and unknowable even to those whose job brought them to work within its confines. There were no less than 691 rooms, a third of which were offices (big government was around in the 19th century as well).  The main entrance led to the first of 29 staircases, so many in fact that if stretched end on end they would cover twelve miles. Public officials could enter through 27 gates, use up to 13 elevators and relax in one of ten courtyards. It took over two decades to finish construction. It was finally completed eight years after it was dedicated. The architect, Steindl, went blind and died before it was finished. This hardly mattered, since his vision had little to do with sight and everything to do with imagination.

The Grand Staircase - the path to splendor

The Grand Staircase – the path to splendor

The Art of Possibility – A Building and Its People
Beyond the splendor, the building is, as it was at the time, really about a reverence for the past. It was everything Hungary had been. It looked back at various golden ages in Hungarian history. Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture were all inspirations. On the walls facing the Danube every former ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary, leader of Transylvania and famous Magyar military figures was sculpted in stone. On and on it goes. The message is clear. Hungary and Hungarians represent greatness, it is the architecture of exuberant nationalism.

The building may have been officially finished in 1902, but it never really will be complete. It seems to be in a constant of becoming. Renovations have occurred throughout its history and there are, few if any times that it can be viewed without intrusive scaffolding. In this way, it mirrors the Hungarian nation, which is still a work in progress, never quite complete. The building is reflective of the people it was built for. Magnificently seductive, bursting with creativity and filled with a fierce, energetic pride, it is Hungary and the Hungarians, a nation and a people redefining the art of possibility.