Matthias Church in Budapest: A Different Kind of Gothic

Matthias Church is a Roman Catholic church in Budapest, Hungary. More properly, it is in Buda, perched atop castle hill, next to the Fisherman’s Bastion and north of the castle itself. A church has been here for about as long as Christianity has, since St. Stephen of Hungary founded the first one in the early 11th century. St. Stephen was the king who introduced Christianity to Hungary.

IMG_9612 ~ Matthias Church-6

The church hasn’t always had its current form, however. In fact, the current church looks nothing like the original, which was Romanesque. The edifice was replaced, in the Gothic style, after the first church was razed by the Mongol army in 1241. If you know your Mongol history, this was the feared army of Tsubodai, probably the Mongols’ greatest general, which was only halted at the doorstep of western Europe by the death of the Great Khan in Karakorum and the resulting recall of the Mongols to elect a new overlord. Had Ogedai Khan not died when he had, the course of European history almost certainly would have been completely different.

So it was after the Mongol hordes that the Gothic took root, and the church has been Gothic since. Not that it has survived intact, the present structure being mostly rebuilt from heavy damage in World War II. But even before that, the church suffered the loss of its ecclesiastical art upon being converted into a mosque when the Turks took over in the 16th century. Then it suffered plenty of damage during the reconquest in the 17th, though that damage also came with the “Mary Wonder,” the appearance of an old votive statue of Mary from behind a wall collapsed by cannon fire. And in an even greater indignity than the various conquests, there was an attempt to refashion the church in the Baroque style.

Shortly after all this, the church took its name; previously it had been dedicated to Mary, or Our Lady, but beginning in the 19th century, it came to be called Matthias Church, after King Matthias Corvinus, son of Janos Hunyadi, who ordered the construction of its tower and was married there twice. It is sometimes erroneously called “St. Matthias,” though its namesake was in reality anything but saintly, regardless of what the Hungarian folktales say.

IMG_9618 ~ Matthias Church-7

Inside the church, you can still see the raven motifs of the Corvinus family who traced their lineage to the Roman Corvini family, no doubt through impressive genealogical gymnastics. “Corvus,” by the way, is Latin for raven.

IMG_9600 ~ Matthias Church-5

The church as it stands today closely follows the plan of the 13th century Gothic church, and its interior paint, frescos, and organ have been completely redone. It is this interior decoration, however, that really seems to set Matthias Church apart. Instead of the stark stone found in most Gothic churches, Matthias Church is almost entirely painted, largely with geometric and floral motifs, and with a pretty blue “sky” above it all.

IMG_9598 ~ Matthias Church-4

The effect is hardly Gothic at all, but rather feels smaller, closer, and more intimate. The effect is really quite unique. A different kind of Gothic.

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