University Church of the Nativity of Mary

1053 Budapest, Papnövelde utca 5-7.

A brief historical guide


            Historical background

One of the most beautiful baroque landmarks of Budapest is perhaps the former church of the Pauline Fathers (Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit — Ordo Fratrum Sancti Pauli Primi Eremitae, OFSPPE), currently the University Church of the Nativity of Mary, that is located at the junction of Kecskeméti street, Károlyi street, Papnövelde streets and the Egyetem (University) square in the fifth district of Budapest.

For a long time, Pest could not compete with Buda – which were separated municipalities back in time – and it remained a relatively small city during the Turkish occupation. Its medieval territory had three city centres: one near Egyetem square. Most likely here stood the Dominican St. Anthony monastery as well. After occupying the city in 1541, the Turks transformed the churches: Evliya Çelebi reported in 1663 that the city had five djami = mosques. We know that there was a djami at the site of the University Church as well and between 1694 and 1720, after the re-conquest of Buda in 1686, it was used as a chapel by the Pauline friars who settled down here. Buda Castle was still under siege when the Pauline friars, the only religious order for man founded by Hungarians, requested the return of their monasteries. They received the mosque here and a few ruined houses.

Who are the Pauline friars?

It is worth getting to know the history and spirituality of the Pauline order because that inspired the works of art in the church. Gergely Gyöngyösi wrote in his work (written in 1521–1526), that the hermit lifestyle had been known since the Hungarians became Christians, but it transformed into a structured as order only in the 13th century. “Bartholomeus, bishop of the city of Pécs, built a monastery at a hilltop in his estate in Patacs in honour of St. James the apostle, as many hermits had already gathered there.” Eusebius, canon of the city of Esztergom, joined the hermits of mount Pilis after the raid of the Tatars (in 1241–1242), and he built a monastery in honour of the Holy Cross around 1250 (these are the ruins of Klastrompuszta today, near the municipality of Kesztölc). The hermits at Patacs and those living in hills throughout the country soon joined the community lead by Eusebius. They were called the hermits of the Holy Cross, after their house in mount Pilis. Laurentius, general prior of Buda, built a monastery at the southern slope of hill Hárshegy in honour of martyr St. Lawrence, which became the centre of the order in 1309. This is the time when they received permission from the papal envoy to follow the Augustinian rule, and they received papal affirmation in 1329. They had approximately 30 houses in 1330, 47 around 1400, and 63 in 1526. An important event was obtaining the corpse of St. Paul the Hermit of Thebes: on the 14th of November 1381, in the presence of king Louis the Great of Hungary and Poland. A celebratory procession escorted the corpse of the patron saint from the chapel of Buda Castle to the church in Szentlőrinc. The chapel containing the marble coffin became one of the most popular pilgrim destination in Hungary by the Late Middle Ages. The order chose the first hermit as its patron already from the beginning of the 14th century, and has been called ‘Pauline’ ever since. In 1382, Ladislaus, prince of Opulia in Poland, asked Pauline friars at Márianosztra to assist in the foundation of the monastery in Częstochowa (Poland) as well.

One might ask why they chose a saint from the far-away Egypt as their patron saint? The Hungarian hermits followed their own path from the beginning. Their small communities lived in hillside forests full of springs, where they could keep their strict solitude and live off from what they produced with their own hands.

St. Jerome wrote down the story of Paul the First Hermit, who found refuge from persecution in the desert of Thebes in the middle of the 3rd century and spent the rest of his life in solitude. Paul was visited at the end of his life by the hermit Anthony the Great. As a sign from heaven, a raven arrived with a whole loaf of bread in its beaks. ‘The Lord has sent meal to both of us—said Paul. For 60 years I’ve received half a loaf of bread every single day, but Christ has doubled the ration for his soldiers at your coming.’ On his next visit Anthony found Paul dead. Two lions arrived ‘running straight to the dead body of the saint. There they stopped, wagging their tails they lay down fawningly at his feet, roared fiercely, and were definitely mourning. Then they started to dig a hole nearby with their paws, spilling the sand around and digging a hole large enough for one person.’ Anthony buried St. Paul the Hermit into the grave prepared by the lions.

The medieval hermits were taken away by this popular legend and could see themselves in the Egyptian hermit who kept his solitude and became friends with animals. Because of this they often pictured the patron saint in his clothes made of raffia, the raven on the palm tree with bread in its beaks, and the lions.

Two weeks after the battle of Mohács (in 1526), the central monastery in Szentlőrinc was ruined by the Turks. The takeover of Buda Castle sealed the fate of the order as well for a considerable time. Once the castle was taken back in 1686, two friars appeared and started to search for the old monasteries and to claim them back. As the ruined church in Szentlőrinc was too far away from safe settlements, they asked for a slot in Pest to build their church on. In 1688, Emperor Leopold I. gave them permission to settle down. In the upcoming years they bought the former mosque and several neighbouring houses. This is how the Pauline friars settled in Pest to build their convent and church.

            History of the construction of the University Church

The construction of the monastery started in 1715, and a part of the southern wing got ready in 1720. Then they demolished the djami and built a chapel in honour of Christ’s Five Wounds in its place, on the expense of Mária Magdolna Doloczky. Soon enough this proved to be too small, so the construction of the current church started on April 8, 1725. The chapel was still standing in 1742 while the convent was finished in 1744.

The construction was started by the building master Mátyás Drenker. Soon he received help from András Mayerhoffer, born in Salzburg, who became a citizen of Pest in 1724. First he worked as a foreman then, after Drenker’s death, lead the construction on his own until 1735. The sanctuary and its sidewalls had already been done when Márton Siegl, a building master from Upper Silesia, took over the control, and the construction of the roof and the facade was carried on under his supervision. The architect who designed the church is unknown. Its plan and structure is almost identical to that of the cathedral of Kalocsa (1728–1754).

It seems that due to financial difficulties the construction stopped from time to time. A sizable donation by Ferenc Babarcsy, the canon of the town of Várad, accelerated the process, and by 1741 only the internal works were left unfinished. The church was consecrated on September 8, 1742 by Gábor Patachich, archbishop of the town of Kalocsa. In the following years, the side altars of the church were finished, the main gate and the graven oak benches were ready in 1744, and by 1746 the main altar was ready as well. In 1748, thanks to a donation by Ferenc Harruckern, one of the most beautiful Hungarian pulpits, an ornamented choir railing, as well as the gilded stalls of the sanctuary were added to the Pauline church. Perhaps this is the reason why the consecration of the main altar was postponed until June 15, 1748, which was conducted by Károly Althann, cardinal and bishop of the town of Vác. The two towers, covered by shingles, were completed only later: the eastern one in 1768 and the western in 1771. The frescoes of the church were made under the supervision of Johannes Bergl by 1776. The well-known master was frequently employed by the Paulines in Hungary.

The church remained in the property of the Pauline order until 1786, when the order was dismissed. Later it became the property of the university, which had moved to Pest and had its main building built to the left of the church. The former convent became the Central Seminary in 1805, which used the church together with the university.

            The riches of the Church

Beyond God’s glory, the church serves Holy Mary’s honour, therefore the preferred saints and patrons of the Pauline friars take second place. The main facade is difficult to be enjoyed as it is closely surrounded by buildings; only if coming from Henszlmann street is it possible to see the rich, balanced but dynamic main frontispiece. The main facade is divided into three parts. There is God’s eye (symbol of the Holy Spirit) in the triangle of the ridge in the middle, below the statue of the Immaculate Conception. On the top there is the Pauline coat of arms: a palm tree, surrounded by lions, with a raven on it, holding bread in its beaks. There are two grave figures among the towers and the triangle: on the left St. Paul the Hermit is standing in his raffia overcoat, on the right the hermit, St. Anthony the Great is holding a book of his religious rule in his hand. The facade basically contains all that is represented in various details in the works of art inside the church.

The nicely carved gate as well as the ornamented stone framing stand out a bit more, and for that reason, catch the attention of the visitor immediately. On the ledge holding the reticulated attic there are two angels, and another two in the middle of the attic, they are holding high the letters of Mary’s name on a coat of arms. The copestone of the arch gate is also a coat of arms, which is held by a half-naked wooden figure, kneeling on one knee, and this figure unifies the superabundant stone frame and the richly carved gate.

The visitor entering the church is warned by the ceiling picture beneath the choir: “Holy is the place where you stand!” One of the disciples of Johann Bergl depicts Moses as he is untying his sandals in front of the burning wild rose bush.

The harmony of the interior reveals as the visitor stands in the centre, behind the pairs of pillars that hold the choir: on both sides, a series of chapels joins the nave which is covered by a Bohemian spherical vault supported by lintels, and the rhythmic breaks of the sidewalls guide the eye toward the two enormous, detached pillars holding the triumphal arch. Then from there toward the triple column groups which stand beside the right and left sides of the main altar and which surround the main altar—being divided into two parts, yet forming unity—and hold the baldachin above the sanctuary. High up the mighty ledge divides the space horizontally and this makes the vertical fragmentation harmoniously complete. The walls of the church are covered by artificial marble, which was added in the 19th century and it suits well the colours of the space.

The murals of the vaults are the works of Johann Bergl from 1776, whose works of art can be seen at many different places in the world: ranging from Schönbrunn to the Melk Abbey or the Pauline church in Felsőelefánti. Throughout his life the artist found the late baroque style influential and authoritative which he learned at a very young age, and due to this fact the paintings, which are placed in the church relatively late, harmonizes well with the whole church. The first large painting above the choir is the Visitation (Mary visits Elisabeth). The pregnancy of the two women is indicated by a beam centre, which is considered already an archaic tool at the end of the 18th century. The next painting is quite damaged and it shows the Annunciation: the picture of Mary and the angel is swamped by the irradiation of the floating Holy Spirit. They make the sight more animated, and they open the perspective into infinity by bowling the cloud out of the frame. In the middle, the third work of art is the Immaculate Conception, which has a central figure: Mary, hovering over the globe, holding the child Jesus in her arms. The double figure is endowed with steadiness by the long, thin cross in Jesus’ hand, which stabs the head of the snake winding on the surface of the globe. Near the globe there are the first parents: Adam and Eve. Eve, who committed the first sin, casts down her eyes, because she was the first who succumbed to temptation, while Adam looks hopefully to the new Adam, Jesus. Above Mary the Father is hovering, his arms wide open, wearing the loose, white clothing of the Pauline friars, the Holy Spirit as a pigeon on His chest. One of the dozens of angels is stepping out of the picture sneaking into the interior of the church. The painting in front of the triumphal arch depicts the Presentation of Jesus at the Church in Jerusalem. The high priest is holding the Child, whose head is brilliantly illuminated. On the stairs there are two young pigeons and the kneeling figures of Mary and Joseph. On the triumphal arch, in the middle there are two “adult angels”, one holding an open book, while the other a beaming heart stabbed by a sword. This picture alludes to the words of Simeon saying to Mary in Luke’s Gospel: “and a sword shall pierce your own heart”.

On the main altar (1), the work of Lipót Antal Conti is the lively group of statues that presents the birth of Mary. The tiny body of the newborn baby is gold-plated, denoting that he is chosen. On both her sides two angels assist with incense at the coming bathing indicating the supernatural character of the event. Above the group of statues one can see the painted Byzantine style picture of Madonna from Częstochowa in a golden frame held by four angels. The Pauline friars did not forget that the national shrine of the Polish was established by the hermits at Márianosztra, that’s why the picture of the Mother of God was placed in a central position, over the main altar.

The mural of the Sanctuary adjoins the double theme of the main altar, it shows the Assumption of Mary. Having been conceived without sin she could not fall prey to death and perdition. The amazed apostles standing around the empty stone coffin look high up to the sky where the Father together with the Son and the Holy Spirit welcomes Mary, crowned with twelve stars. Behind Christ angels hold the cross, and angels are not missing from Mary’s accompaniment either. One of the apostles stands with arms wide open toward the sky, while another sits on the ledge, thus the picture is freed from the limitations of space. At the end of the coffin three women admire the supernatural event with eyes raised to the sky, while other three down-to-earth women unfold the shrouds left in the coffin considering them as rightful heritage. The traditional picture of the four Evangelists is placed into the corners of the vault.

On the side of the main altar where the sacristy is, among the three pillars stands the statute of Saint Anthony the Hermit, the rule in his hand, opposite him there is Saint Paul the Hermit in his distinctive overcoat made of raffia. The two exceptional works of art made by József Hebenstreit is characterized by baroque pathos and dynamism. On the footing of the altar column the events of Mary’s life are presented, moving from the sacristy one can see the following scenes on the relieves: The Holy Family’s rest in the desert, the engagement of Mary, Mary’s visitation at Elisabeth, the Annunciation, Jesus’ presentation at the church, the flee to Egypt. Beside these the unknown likely Pauline friar carved in the stones the invocations taken from the Loretta litany: Mirror of justice, Gate of heaven, Morning Star, Mother undefiled, House of gold, Seat of wisdom; while the Emmaus scene is presented on the door of the tabernacle. On the top of the tabernacle the Lamb known from the Book of revelation has a rest on the Book with seven seals. On the ciborium over the altar, among playing angels the figure of the powerful Father stands with hands on the Globe together with the Holy Spirit in the usual shape of a pigeon. The inlaid stalls and the gold-plated wooden relieves are the works of János Hyngeller, Pauline friar. On the side of the sacristy Saint Paul the Hermit’s apotheosis can be seen, and also the scene when a wolf shows the right way for Anthony who hurries to Paul. The other works present Pauline friars who lived a holy life.

Turning back at the stairs in front of the sacristy one should admire the wooden lattice of the choir, which is decorated with angels making music, and the masterpiece organ (2). The four great Fathers of the Church (Saint Ambrose, Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory the Great) are situated above the ledge dividing the nave, among the windows. This is very well justified by the relationship of the Pauline with Augustine and Jerome.

We start inspecting the side chapels at the pulpit side. The columnar side altars consist of three sections: above and under the altarpieces painted on canvas there are relieves, between the columns on both sides stand statues of some saints. Over the paintings hang the coats of arms of donors. In the painting of the first side altar (3) we can see Saint Andrew the apostle and Saint John the Baptist, near Andrew there is the typical X-shaped cross. On the two sides there are Eve’s and Saint Monica’s statues. The relief above the painting depicts the beheading of Saint John, while the underneath one illustrates Saint Catherine.

The pulpit (4) is a masterpiece, its figural ornaments were made by Lipót Antal Csonti. We can see Christ on the top, under him there are four angels, one of them holding the papal tiara and the triple cross. In front of them there are two little angels, one of them is holding an open book, the other one is blowing a horn. On the pulpit there are four sculptures symbolizing the four cardinal virtues (wisdom, temperance, justice, spiritual strength) and among them on the three relieves we can discover the allegory of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love). Underneath the pulpit a bronze wreath cherishes the memory of Ottokár Prohászka, died in 1927.

The next side altar (5) was completed later than the others, it is made of colourful marvel. In the altarpiece Saint Paul the Hermit is kneeling and praying under a palm dates, on the right of him there is the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk, on the left Saint Charles Borromeo. Below we can see Paul and Anthony’s legendary encounter with the raven, above Saint Anthon living a hermit life in the desert. The third chapel (6) was consecrated in honour of Saint Jude Thaddeaus the apostle. In the altarpiece Jesus’ relative is holding the picture of the Saviour, below there is Simon the apostle with the saw, the instrument of his martyrdom, above there is Mary and her parents Anne and Joachim. On this side the last chapel (7) is a less significant work with the painting on Saint John of Nepomuk, as is the fourth chapel (8) on the other side, where Jesus suffering on the Mount of Olives is painted supposedly by Johann Bergl.

Moving forward, the next chapel (9) is consecrated in the honour of the Hungarian saints. The slightly naive altarpiece portrays Saint Martin as he shares his overcoat with the beggar from Amiens. Saint Stephen, Saint Ladislaus the athlete of the country, Saint Emery, and Blessed Vác the Hermit surround Martin. On the altar of the second chapel (10) we can see the Sorrowful Mother. This is a copy of the Pauline icon of Sasvár, and some little objects suspended on it proves that many people had prayed before it for getting healed or lucky child-birth. The statue above illustrates the Father, while the relief below shows Saint John of Nepomuk lying on his bier. It is difficult to identify the two saints, one of them might be Saint Stephen the first martyr because he is holding some stones in his hands. The first chapel (11) was consecrated in honour of Saint Anne and Joachim, but instead of the altarpiece today there is a new fangled Jesus sculpture. Formerly the statues of Saint Joseph and Saint Anthony of Padua were here, now they are standing at the entrance. The stonemason, who was supposedly a Pauline friar, illustrated Saint John the Baptist on the relief below and Saint Rosalia of Palermo on the one above. Saint Rosalia was an effective patron in case of plague.

The pews in the nave are made of oak, they are decorated with rich bine mesh, flowers, birds, ravens, lions, and compete in beauty with the stalls in the sanctuary. The marquetry of seat backs are worth looking on. The marquetry on the side of the pulpit shows Saint Paul the Hermit as he is doing farewell to his sister, than the praying hermit as he is kneeling at the entrance of a cave, and finally the encounter visualized so many times. On the other side we can see the young Paul as an angel is leading him toward the cave, than the hermit making his clothing from raffia is helped by an angel picking palm leaves, finally the dead Saint Paul the Hermit. Next to him Anthony is praying from a book with title “De profundis”.

In the life of the church an outstanding event was Maria Theresa’s visit in 1751, another also that, during the revolution in 1848, it hosted the parliament for a short time.

Upon completion of the visit of the University Church it is useless to asseverate that it is one of the most outstanding works of Hungarian baroque architecture. Beside the cathedral in Kalocsa, the Piarist church in Nyitra (now in Slovakia), and the Cistercian church in Zirc, it is an excellent Hungarian example of the “style being formed during the massive convent building along the Danube”. The powerful plasticity of its frontispiece, the monumental solution of the sanctuary and its triumphal arch all praise the illustrious but unknown designer, the distinguished professional builder, the onetime Pauline friars as customers, and the former Pest citizens who supported financially the construction of the church.

The University Church, always quiet and peaceful in the busy downtown, provides an opportunity to discover a totally new beauty beyond the man-made one.