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St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

With 96 meters, it is the third tallest building of Hungary though its close to being second in a tie. The idea of a church on this spot was born as early as 1805 but the Basilica only became reality by 1905. In the 100 years between the city was developing rapidly while the Basilica was being built slowly. Thousands of locals and tourists see the building every day yet we know so little about the most famous church in the country.

Basilica seen from Szent István Square
Basilica seen from Szent István Square Photo: funiQ

Let's imagine that on the spot of today's Szent István Square, there was an amphitheater that could seat 2000 people and where the programme, similarly to ancient Greece, was lions, bears and dogs fighting to death. In the 1780-90's such a place was located here which was called Hecc Theatre after the German Hetztheater. The so called 'bullfight of Pest' was enormously popular during its short run but many people were opposed to the idea so by the turn of the century the Council of Pest banned this not really humane form of entertainment.

The Idea of the Church Is Born

During the 18th century, the population of Pest experienced a boom in numbers, which resulted in many new houses built bringing about the need for a more conscious urban planning including the construction of a large church. After the Hecc Theatre was demolished, there were storage buildings, workshops, a coach house and a palinka brewery on the spot until a rich citizen, János Zitterbarth built a small church here. The small, temporary church was not the liking of the locals who thought it was too rural, and the badly constructed building had to be closed in 1848 and demolished a few years later.

After the funding was collected by the congregation, the city council asked József Hild in 1845 to make a plan for the church. Though he completed the design, the construction could not begin due Hungarian Revolution of 1848.

1851-1905: The Half Century Long Construction

The foundation stone of the Basilica was set on the 4th of October, 1851. In the following 15 years the construction had to stop many times due to lack of funds while the plan of the church was constantly changing.

By 1861, there was a temporary sacristy in the southeastern tower of the church which was used as a temporary church seating a few hundred people.

József Hild led the construction until his death in 1897 when Miklós Ybl took over the duties. When Ybl was surveying the building he noticed faults and cracks in the dome. When he tried to warn the construction committee about them they did not take it seriously as they pointed out these were not dangerous. As it turned out, Ybl was right: the dome collapsed in January 1868. This halted the construction for years which was continued with a new design in 1874 still under the guidance of Miklós Ybl.

The Basilica, meant to be a symbol of the city, was being built for more than 20 years by this time with problems continuously arising around the construction which became a source of jokes among the citizens of Pest. Another negative influence on the image of the Basilica was that it blocked the possibility of connecting Andrássy Avenue to the Chain Bridge. At the same time, in 1885, the construction of another emblematic building, the Parliament began.

Ybl had to redesign the building again in order to make it more imposing and monumental among the tall buildings in its vicinity. The construction was restarted in 1874 but it was coming along with difficulties due to lack of funds so the plans of it being ready for the Hungarian Millennium of 1896 were scrapped.

By 1891, when Ybl died at the age of 76, the exterior of the Basilica was already finished. The dome, the towers and the facade were ready, the interior space was divided, only the decorations had to be finished but it was a subject of many debates and again it took years to settle. These tasks were led by the third architect of the Basilica, József Kauser.

Due to the popularity of the Millennial Celebrations of 1896 and the changing political situation, it was decided that the church will not be dedicated to Saint Leopold, the patron saint of the Habsburgs, but rather the founder and first king of Hungary, Saint Stephen.

The Opening of the Basilica

St. Stephen's Basilica, after many delays of course, was finally consecrated in November 1905. The keystone ceremony was held one year later where Franz Joseph I and all the members of the Parliament were also present. Between the two events, the first large scale ceremony of the Basilica was held: the remains of Francis II Rákóczi and his family were returned, with the coffins being escorted to the Basilica by a large procession where their catafalque was set and ceremony was held.

Leopold Square in front of the church was renamed Saint Stephen Square in 1909. This is also the time when people start to call the building basilica though there were numerous debates about this. Architecturally the church is not a basilica, in this case the title refers to its ecclesiastical rank, and it was granted the rank of basilica minor by the Vatican in 1931.

1951 was the next important year in the history of the Basilica: the mummified Holy Right Hand of St. Stephen was placed in the building. The more than 900 years old relic was held for decades in a safe but since 1971, the basilica became its official home. On every 20 August, the procession of the Holy Right Hand begins from the Basilica.

Renovated Completely

After many unfortunate events, like a fire in 1947, the complete renovation of the building could not be postponed any more. The plans were made in 1985 and the works took 20 years to finish. The renovated building was opened in 2003 with the space between the outer and inner dome made available for visitors which meant that now the panorama terrace could be also visited. Fortunately the new plans included an elevator to the panorama besides the 364 stairs leading up to the lookout. The building also received new lights and the Saint Stephan Square was also renovated being one of the most popular squares of Budapest ever since.

Szent István Square seen from the Basilica
Szent István Square seen from the Basilica Photo: funiQ

The tympanum of the facade is decorated by a group of statues by Leó Fessler depicting Hungarian saints, Saint Leopold, Madonna and the Baby Jesus. Below there is a quote from the Bible: EGO SUM VIA, VERITAS ET VITA - meaning ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life'. The statues of the towers depict Saint Ambrosius, Saint Augustine, Saint Gregory and Saint Jerome. On the Eastern end of the building, above the Holy right Chapel there are statues of the 12 apostles and Christ.

towers and tympanum of the Basilica
Towers and tympanum of the Basilica Photo: funiQ

The interior of the Basilica contains many statues, reliefs, mosaics from the most important artists of the era: Bertalan Székely, Mór Than, Gyula Benczúr, Alajos Stróbl, János Fadrusz, Árpád Feszty and Béni Ferenczy.

A real spectacle of the interior is the main altar made of white marble by Alajos Stróbl. It is decorated by a statue of Saint Stephen which is radically different from the Catholic traditions and it needed a permission from the pope before being put on the altar.

The towers house six bells, 5 in the left and one in the right one. The latter is the Saint Stephen Bell which is the largest bell in Hungary, weighing 9250 kilograms with a diameter of 252 centimeters.

Today the Basilica, with 96 meters, is the third largest building in Hungary (the first being the Esztergom Basilica), and it is only surpassed by the Parliament which is also 96 meters tall because it was finished one year earlier in 1904.

The monumentality of the building is best described by its dimensions: it has a floorspace of 4147 m², a length of 86 meters, a width of 55 meters, its towers are 80 meters tall each, the inner height of the dome is 65 meters and the interior can hold up to 8000 people.

Basilica seen from Szent István Square
Basilica seen from Szent István Square Photo: funiQ
  • the Basilica seen from the tower of the Matthias Church
    The Basilica seen from the tower of the Matthias Church Photo: funiQ
  • the Basilica seen from Zrínyi Street
    The Basilica seen from Zrínyi Street Photo: funiQ
  • entrance of the Basilica
    Entrance of the Basilica Photo: funiQ
  • Saint Stephan relief above the entrance of the Basilica
    Saint Stephan relief above the entrance of the Basilica Photo: funiQ
  • interior of the Basilica
    Interior of the Basilica Photo: funiQ
  • interior of the Basilica
    Interior of the Basilica Photo: funiQ
  • ceiling of the Basilica
    Ceiling of the Basilica Photo: funiQ

The Treasury houses an exhibition where visitors can see items from the long construction of the building, a piece of embroidery by Empress Elisabeth of Austria and the complete bequest of Archbishop József Mindszenty.

Free organ concerts and chorus events are regularly held in the Basilica.

More than 150 years after the setting of the foundation stone, the Basilica lived up to the expectations and became a symbol of the city. Many tourists visit the Basilica, which besides being an important building of Catholicism, became a touristic and cultural sight.

Saint Stephen's Basilica can be visited free of charge though there is an admission fee to the panorama terrace.

Opening times:

Mondady - Friday: 9.00 - 17.00
Saturday: 9.00 - 13.00-
Sunday: 13.00 - 17.00

The masses and ceremonies in the Basilica can alter opening times.

Contact:

Tel.: +36 1 338 2151, +36 30 703 6599
E-mail: turizmus@basilica.hu
Web: www.bazilika.biz