Since the Middle Ages, Hungary has been the easternmost outpost of the Roman Catholic Church, jutting deep into traditional Eastern Orthodox territory. It became so thanks to the efforts of its first true king, Stephen, who dedicated his life to spreading Christianity in Eastern Europe. While his home town of Esztergom served as the national capital for three centuries, it was also the heart of the Church in Hungary. The Basilica of Esztergom, or at least its replacement, is his greatest religious legacy. Although there is little left of Stephen’s remains, most of which are now located elsewhere, Esztergom remains the country’s great Catholic pilgrimage destination.
Stephen I was both the founder of the Kingdom of Hungary as well as a champion of Christianity and the Church. Born sometime around the year 970 into a leading family of Magyar nobles, Stephen was trained both in royal leadership as well as in Christian teachings. When his father died, a power struggle ensued, and the popular Stephen put forth his claim for the crown by Divine Right. Supported by both the Church as well as other Christian nobles from Germany, he won the crown and was coronated, according to tradition, on January 1, 1001.
Stephen dedicated the nearly forty years of his rule to expanding the Kingdom of Hungary, organizing it into a major state in European affairs, and, most importantly, establishing it solidly as part of the community of Christian nations supported by the Church of Rome. He both supported other missionaries and personally worked towards the conversion of the country, and keeping it in the political sphere of Rome rather than Constantinople. Tradition holds that he was a popular and just ruler, and rated spiritual matters just as important as worldy matters.
By the time of his death, Hungary had developed into a powerful and influential Catholic state. Apparently, it had been his intention to abdicate his throne to his son at an early age so that he could pursue a career with the Church. However, his son’s untimely death kept him busy with state affairs. He personally oversaw the construction of the original Basilica of Esztergom in the 11th century, and was buried there after his death.
The Basilica of Esztergom is the largest and most important church in Hungary. During the Middle Ages it served as the royal cathedral of the Hungarian kings. It had a rough history, being sacked by the armies of Bohemia in the 14th century and again by the Turks in the 16th century. After centuries of damage and neglect, the original cathedral was finally demolished and completely rebuilt in the mid-19th century. Throughout the Cold War, when Hungary lay behind the Iron Curtain, the Basilica remained a steadfast beacon of religious freedom. It is by far Hungary’s most popular place of Christian pilgrimage.
Esztergom Basilica is not only the religiously most important church in Hungary; it is also one of the most unique buildings in Christian architecture. It dates completely from its reconstruction in the 1800s. The basilica’s outward appearance is something of a cross between the United States Capitol Building and the Taj Mahal. The front of the church, which faces an open green park, is fronted by a colonnade that looks like it came from a Victorian-era bank in London or New York. The main building is flanked by two belltowers separated from the church by great archways designed to let traffic pass through. Three great green domes top the structure, including two smaller ones over the bell towers and one enormous one over the church rotunda.
The church interior is one of the worlds largest. It boasts a number of fascinating features, including a painting of the Virgin Mary by Grigoletti, the world’s largest single-canvas painting. The Bakocz Chapel was built at the height of the Renaissance and was saved when the church was rebuilt. The church organ was once played by Franz Liszt. Only bits of St. Stephen are preservedin Esztergom, though most of his right arm can be found in Budapest.
Esztergom Basilica dominates the old town, approximately 35 miles northwest of Budapest. It is open April through October from 8:00am-6:00pm; and November through March from 8:00am-4:00pm. There is no charge for admission. Web: www.bazilika-esztergom.hu (official website)
Esztergom is one of Hungary’s oldest major cities, and for many years its capital. It boasts numerous other old and beautiful churches, notably the Chapel of St. Stephen and the Franciscan Church. Also worth seeing, especially for Stephen fans, is St. Stephen’s Basilica in nearby Budapest, where the king’s right hand is on display.