Power Without Glory – Esztergom Basilica: A Matter of Perspective (For The Love of Hungary Part 29)

I climbed all the way to the top of Castle Hill in Esztergom only to suffer a massive let down. My expectation that the Esztergom Basilica would live up to the incredible history that had occurred on Castle Hill was to end in disappointment. Scarcely had so much effort been put into a structure that turned out to be so unimpressive. The Basilica left everything to the imagination. Perhaps it was the gray weather or my weary mindset that made me loath the Basilica, but for me it was a stylistic dud of gargantuan proportions. The first thought that crossed my mind while facing it was of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. The eight gigantic Corinthian Columns which commanded the portico were similar. It looked administrative and “official” to the point of sterility. I asked myself how a nation as cultured and creative as Hungary could have fallen for such oversized neo-classicism permeating one of its most important structures. The Basilica was the antithesis of such styles as eclecticism and vernacular architecture. The structure looked like something that belonged anywhere but on this hill. Its iron dome loomed large, always hovering in the background. This was its most noticeable characteristic, more a point of novelty than fascination.

Monumentally Massive - Esztergom Basilica

Monumentally Massive – Esztergom Basilica (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Monumental Monstrosity – Lost In Space
The one thing that the Basilica had going for it was girth. Its list of superlatives was impressive or depressive depending upon one’s point of view. It was the largest church in Hungary which was hardly surprising. I did find it shocking to learn that the Basilica was also the nation’s tallest building. The organ inside was also Hungary’s largest and once a major reconstruction is complete, will be the third largest in Europe. I supposed that all this size was a disguise for the lack of aesthetics. The Basilica felt more like an imposition than anything else. Here before me stood power without glory, a temple of rigidity. Even those architectural elements which could have been sized up on a more human scale were bafflingly large. A pair of bronze doors at the entrance towered above me. They were heavy and uninviting. I felt like a miniature figure entering a house built for giants.

The Basilica’s interior was not much better. Looking up at the dome was vertigo inducing, a dizzying experience that left me reeling. This only added to the lack of charm. There was space everywhere I looked. A feeling of hollowness and vacancy pervaded the interior. A massive altarpiece with the largest single canvas painting in the world tried to compensate. It was designed to inspire awe, but the overall effect was one where scale got in the way of substance.  The building might be interpreted as the architectural manifestation of Hungarian Catholicism, distant, remote and lacking in humanity. Anything personal was lost in space, buried beneath tons of marble and covered by an iron dome. I felt like it was built to intimidate and evoke power, but ironically it left me with a feeling of indifference. The spacious interior swallowed everything and everyone.

The Bronze Doors - There Might Be Giants

The Bronze Doors – There Might Be Giants

The Past Isn’t What It Used To Be – Regression To The Mediocre
I was not surprised to learn that the building took almost fifty years to complete. To put that time period into the proper historical perspective, consider that construction began in 1822 when Hungary was completely under the thumb of the Habsburgs, continued with starts and stops despite a failed revolution. Work was finally completed two years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed. It took the combined efforts of three architects, though strangely enough they did manage to synchronize their designs. Unfortunately, the outcome was unappealing. The lone exception was a single chapel that gave an approximation of what might have been.

Prior to the Esztergom Basilica’s construction, St. Adalbert’s Cathedral had stood on the site in one form or another since the late Middle Ages. It was ravaged by fire and the Ottoman Turks, but part of it remained until the 18th century. Before demolition, the spectacular red and white marble 16th century Bakocz Chapel was taken apart and salvaged. Sixteen hundred pieces of it were numbered and saved so it could be later reconstructed within the Basilica. It remains the premier work of Renaissance art in Hungary. No finer example of master craftsmanship from that time period exists anywhere else in the country. It is a reminder that art and architecture, even in the most exalted places, has sometimes regressed rather than progressed over the centuries since the Renaissance. The Basilica as it stands today cannot compete with the Bakocz Chapel. In a clever ruse, the chapel was incorporated within the Basilica. Without it, the Basilica would be known for little more then its massiveness. The Bakocz Chapel alone is worth the visit.

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Paying Homage = The Tomb of Mindszenty

Shadowy Moods – A Lack Of Compromise
Before long I found my way down to the crypt. Its quiet, sequestered chambers haunted by the contrasting moods cast by shadows and light. I had come here, like so many others, to see the burial place of Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, the famously uncompromising primate of the Hungarian Catholic Church who had opposed everything from social democracy to fascism and communism. Mindszenty spent many years in prison and an even longer period living as an internal exile at the American Embassy in Budapest. A man of iron clad principles who suffered more than others because he was the kind of true believer whose actions matched his words. This made him feared by enemies and sometimes loathed by allies. He was a great, but flawed man. Steadfast in his beliefs, Mindszenty’s release was negotiated by the Vatican. He died in Austria, embittered by the Catholic Church’s political machinations which had led to his removal from the embassy and Hungary. Mindszenty was not exactly likable, but that was never his concern. He was more than a man, Mindszenty was a way of life.

Mindszenty finally came home in 1991 when he was reburied in the Basilica’s crypt. The morning I saw the tomb it was covered in ribbons representing colors of the Hungarian flag. All around was silence, a place of quiet contemplation. Hungary’s most famous and feared primate was now finally able to rest in peace. A life that had been marked by seemingly endless tumult was now part of history. The fury and fight, the principles and priesthood were all gone. The only thing left was a final resting place beneath the great weight of Esztergom’s Basilica.

A Last Bastion – The Mongol Siege Of Esztergom: Up Against The Walls (For The Love of Hungary Part 27)

As the morning mist began to lift only to reveal a leaden sky, I began the climb up Castle Hill (Varhegy) in Esztergom. Up to this point I had been sleepwalking through the lower part of the city. Castle Hill would demand much more of me. This was not so much a climb as it was an ascent. In my present state of physical stupor, scaling Castle Hill was strenuous in the extreme. Though the weather was cool and overcast, it did not take long before I was sweating. Walking uphill toward the castle helped me understand that the hill was as much a part of the castle’s defensive architecture, as the works of man. Any foe hoping to subdue Esztergom would be forced to reckon with the hill’s formidable topography. Coupled with the stone defensive works constructed atop it, potential conquerors were faced with a near impossible task. Castle Hill would not defeat me on this day. I slowly made my way to the top without opposition. The Mongols in the mid-13th century happened to not be nearly so lucky, it was on the slopes of Castle Hill where they finally met with defeat.

A Mongol Manhunt - Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A Mongol Manhunt – Bela IV being pursued by the enemy

A King’s Ransom – The Search For Bela IV
In the Mongol siege of Esztergom was the beginning of a new and more secure Hungary. Prior to their arrival in northern and western Hungary, the Mongol hordes had laid waste to the entirety of eastern Hungary. They had destroyed the Hungarian Army at the Battle of Mohi during the spring of 1241. They then proceeded to rape, pillage and plunder almost all the villages and settlements across the Great Hungarian Plain. The Magyar inhabitants had little in the way of defenses to put up any kind of resistance. The most formidable fortresses were made of nothing more than earthworks and wood. The Mongols found these easy to penetrate and easier to destroy. The region’s agriculture and population was nearly wiped out. Once the Mongols headed towards the Danube, the odds of a repeat performance looked likely. If they could get across the river, western Hungary would be theirs for the taking.

Esztergom, as the capital of Hungary and seat of royal power was squarely in the Mongol’s sights. While it only had a population of 12,000, Esztergom was Hungary’s largest city at the time. During the Middle Ages, an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population lived in scattered settlements. Some of the larger population centers, such as Esztergom, did have castles and defensive works made of stone, but there were very few of those in the entire country. Certainly not enough to stop the Mongol assault or protect most of the population. The Mongols were particularly fixated on Esztergom. As the royal capital, it was the home of Hungarian King Bela IV who had barely managed to escape the rout at Mohi with his life. For the Mongols, their conquest would not be complete until they captured and killed Bela. He knew this, so instead of going back to Esztergom he fled the country. He made his way to an island off the coast of present-day Croatia.

The Defeated Victor - Royal Seal of Bela IV

The Defeated Victor – Royal Seal of Bela IV

Lightning Advances – Magyar and Mongol Horsemen
With their king nowhere to be found, the Hungarians were resigned to the same fate that had befallen so many of their countrymen. This was ironic. Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the Magyars (Hungarians) had swept into the Carpathian Basin and penetrated the frontiers of Central Europe using tactics now employed by the Mongols. Lightning advances by expert horseman had been a Hungarian hallmark. Nomads no more, they were now settled and virtually defenseless against a more powerful version of what they had once been. The Mongols on horseback were a weapon of mass destruction that swept all before them. The light infantry and cavalry of the Hungarians offered only tepid resistance. They were up against an all-conquering force that looked to be unstoppable.

On Christmas Day in 1241 a Mongol force of approximately 100,000, thundered across the frozen Danube into western Hungary. It was not long thereafter that they appeared on the outskirts of Esztergom. While the peasants and upwards of 300 nobles from the area in and around Esztergom were slaughtered, those lucky enough to find their way within the city’s hilltop citadel held out hope that they could somehow withstand the Mongol onslaught. During their retreat, the townspeople had employed scorched earth tactics. This deprived the Mongols of foodstuffs and valuable treasure. It is also served to infuriate them. It was now the dead of winter, with the weather looking just as bleak as the defender’s prospects of survival.

For the Mongols, the situation was not ideal either. They were on tactically suspect terrain when it came to siege warfare, reduced to using catapults to try and breach stone walls. When this tactic failed, the Mongol commander Batu Khan decided to order his troops to storm the walls. This was also repulsed when crossbowmen within the walls unleashed a torrent of arrows. The Mongol force was decimated. Batu Khan called off the siege and accepted defeat. The Hungarian victory was a signal success, but it did nothing to expel the Mongols from the Carpathian Basin. That would come about later in 1242 when news arrived that the Great Khan had died. The Mongols subsequently pulled out of Hungary, heading back eastward to take part in the election of a new leader.

Towering Above All - Esztergom Castle as it looks today

Towering Above All – Esztergom Castle as it looks today (Credit: Batomi)

Securing The Kingdom – A Hard Lesson Learned
Bela IV soon returned to his devastated kingdom. He set about on the monumental task of rebuilding Hungary. This meant not only resettling the land, but also ensuring that when the Mongols tried to invade again, the kingdom would be ready. The siege of Esztergom had offered the Hungarians a lesson in how to defend themselves against these rapacious, nomadic horsemen by building impregnable hilltop castles and citadels out of stone. Bela IV soon propagated a construction program to place these across the Hungarian Kingdom. These fortresses, along with heavily armored knights and crack shot crossbowmen, had turned the tide of victory during the siege of Esztergom. They would also turn the tide toward a more secure Hungary. The Mongols would never again get anywhere close to Esztergom.