The Main Parish Church of the Assumption in the centre of Budapest: a short description

  • 27.10.2016

The mighty church with two steeples can be found on Március 15 Square to the north of the abutment of the Elisabeth Bridge in Pest. The church has a history of nearly 2,000 years. Disregarding the traces of the Prehistory, today’s square covers a large Roman relic, a four-sided camp with dimensions of 86 by 84 meters. All the four corners of the camp had a fan-shaped tower. In addition, two U-shaped towers defended the 3.4 meters thick walls on each side. The camp was completed in 350 AD and it was used after 375.

A three-naved church with two steeples occupied the place of the old command building near to the southern wall of the 4th century camp. The church had three semicircular apses (sanctuaries) at its east end. Parts of the building can still be seen today. Although researchers claim that this church was built in the 12th century, there is no doubt that a church stood here as far back as the reign of Saint Stephen I. Excavations at the beginning of the 2000s uncovered graves from the 11th century under today’s sacristy. It is known that cemeteries could only be opened next to a church or possibly in the church itself at that time and this tradition had been preserved for a long time. Earlier, researchers assumed that the church has Early Christian roots. However, the latest research has not found evidence for it. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask the question as to why the church from the Árpád Age was built next to the southern wall of the existing Roman fortress confined in the south-eastern corner of the camp.

According to the longer legend about the life of Saint Gellért (Gerard of Csanád), he was buried in the church in Pest (the predecessor of today’s church) immediately after his martyrdom in 1046. Written data prove that King Andrew I had the building extended in 1053 so that the church can give adequate home to the relics belonging to Saint Gerard whose body was transported to his bishopal residence in Csanád.

The carvings on the stonework of the church include a stone frame carved in a strip form. This design element was created in the 11st century and it was recarved for the second time in the 13rd century.

In 1211 the four-year-old princess, who later became known as Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia, was engaged to Hermann I, Landgrave of Thuringia, in the three-naved church which served as a model for the carved stone churches built later in Lébény and Ják.

The demolition of the three apses at the eastern end of the church marked the beginning of a new period in the history of the building. Today’s huge sanctuary was built in the 14th century instead of the apses. The middle liturgical area of the sanctuary is surrounded by columns and it is crossed by an ambulatory. In the corridor-like passage sedilia can be found along the walls. In the middle, a big niche decorated with frescos marks the end of the sanctuary. Originally the niche had a painted stone baldachin which served as a closing element above the frescos. The original southern Pilgrims’ Gate and the southern steeple must have been built on the preserved Romanesque art southern facade at this time, too.

The western facade of the new sanctuary towered over the aisles of the church which kept its original basilican form.

The building was the scene of several important political events. On 23rd January 1458 the noblemen met here in order to elect a new king. They supported Matthias Corvinus (Hunyadi). The next day, on 24th January the people living in Pest gathered on the frozen River Danube and unanimously proclaimed Matthias King of Hungary.

In 1490 the assembly electing Vladislaus II convened also in this church.

During the reign of Matthias Corvinus and Vladislaus II, in the last decades of the 15th century the church was rebuilt again. The result was a late-Gothic style building. Some parts of the church still bear the hallmarks of Gothic architecture: the entrance to the staircase of the royal oratory above the southern chapel of the ambulatory, the reeded gate frames of the external facades and the original two-storey building of the sacristy. The sedilia of the sanctuary were decorated with a series of frescos. The two Renaissance pastoforia were built at the beginning of the 16th century.

After 1541, during the Ottoman rule the church was used as a djami for a short period of time which is demonstrated by the Mihrab (the simple niche) in the wall of the sanctuary and the remnants of a text painted in black. The Ottomans used only the sanctuary. The western part of the church was in ruins.

After 1686, when the Ottoman rule came to an end in the country, the nave and the southern steeple of the church were built step by step in Baroque style making use of the remains of the Gothic walls. The northern steeple of the main facade was erected at the end of the 17th century.

The church and the parsonage hosted notable events in the 19th century. Although Lajos Kossuth was Lutheran, he married Terézia Meszlényi in this parish church.

On 25th May 1856 Adolf Kolping, a priest from Cologne, delivered a speech in the church. This was the beginning of his movement in Hungary.

Between 1858 and 1871 Ferenc (Franz) Liszt often stayed in the parsonage next to the church. He lived in this house for seven years. It was this church where he conducted the orchestras playing his and others’ compositions.

Flóris Rómer started to discover the archeological and artistic values of the building in the second half of the 19th century. Lajos Némethy’s book about the history of the church was published in 1890. Imre Steindl, the designer of the Houses of Parliament, restored the sanctuary between 1889 and 1890. In 1895 the idea of demolishing or moving the church came up in connection with the construction of the Elisabeth Bridge. Although the plan had not been scrapped until 1937, fortunately it was not realised, so the listed building could remain in its original place.

After the exploration of the church and the excavation between 1932 and 1944, the church was ravaged by the war in 1944 and 1945. Then, the sanctuary was restored between 1945 and 1948. Later, the nave and the steeples were also reconstructed in a step by step fashion.

In 2010 the fresco at the eastern end of the sanctuary was uncovered and restored. The excavation between 2014 and 2015 provided information about the Roman and medieval remains found under the floor. Then, in 2016 the interior of the church was restored. The external facades had previously been renovated. The archeological finds of the excavations are displayed in the new crypt beneath the floor of the church.