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Magyar Treasures: Pannonhalma Archabbey

Top: Archabbey, with some of the grapevines; part of the fortifying wall; entrance with with wrought iron gate; detail of gate. Bottom: Main aisle of Abbey church;  part of library;  section of cloister.

Magyar Treasures: Pannonhalma Archabbey

Judit Vasmatics Paolini 

Pannonhalma is a town in north-western Hungary, about 12 miles (20 km) from the city of Győr and about 82 miles (137 km) from Budapest.  It is famous for the Benedictine Archabbey which beckons visitors for a day trip, but there is more to do and see if one has the time.

The Archabbey is recognized as the second biggest territorial monastery in the world, preceded only by Monte Cassino. Through the centuries, Pannonhalma was instrumental in fostering Christianity throughout Central Europe.  In addition, it is among the oldest historical structures in Hungary. 

Nestled on a hilltop about 300 meters in height (about 984 feet), the Archabbey is surrounded by woodlands as it overlooks the town from its perch.  From atop Márton Hegy (Martin Hill), a visitor has a panoramic view of the surrounding area.  One can see the pleasant Hungarian plain resting below along with hills, small valleys and charming vineyards.

The Pannonhalma Archabbey dates back to 996, when it was established as a Benedictine monastery under Prince Géza. He allocated the land for monks to settle and supported construction of the monastery built in honor of Saint Martin of Tours, who was born here.  King St. Stephen – son of Prince Géza who in time became Hungary’s first king – confirmed the rights of the monastery and endowed it with more land (essential for its upkeep).

The first church did not stand up to the ravages of time, and had to be rebuilt.  The existing Abbey church was dedicated in 1224, under Abbot Uros, who managed to prevent the Mongols from entering within the Abbey’s walls in 1241. Builders utilized the walls of the prior church when constructing the basilica pillars and in creating the early Gothic vault. The new improvements to the monastery exhibited great splendor.  

Under King Mátyás (15th century), renovations and reconstructions were once again underway and great embellishments were added.  The once Romanesque cloister, the hub of monastic life, was modified; and upon completion in 1486, it appeared in Gothic form.  Later, further monastic buildings were added.  In 1526, with the forthcoming threat of Ottoman intrusion, Pannonhalma was fortified once again.

In 1501, Abbot Tolnai Máté initiated the renewal of the Benedictine form of life, which was later confirmed by Pope Leo X.  Because of his age, Tolnai was unable to take part in the Battle of Mohács (1526), and so survived, but his reforms could not be carried out because of the turbulence of the Turkish times.  Only a psalter, the Pannonhalmi breviárium, which he had printed, survived as a witness to his efforts. 

1541 marks an especially significant date for the monastery, for that’s when it was raised to the status of Archabbey. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Turks invaded and occupied Hungary as they aggressively engaged in an attempt to battle their way across Europe.  The Turks arrived at Pannonhalma and breached its walls in 1594; thus, the monks had to vacate the Abbey.  But the monastic community successfully returned in 1638.  However, the Abbey was severely damaged.  Though some restorations were achieved, major reconstruction and embellishments did not occur until many years later.

When Benedek Sajghó served as Archabbot (1722-1768), major restorations to the Abbey were underway.  Extensive Baroque ornamentations and expansions were added.  In the 18th century, Carmelite brother Atanáz Márton Witner was entrusted with designing the Baroque features of the monastery which are especially prevalent in the refectory.  The hall is rectangular in form and has two stories.  The walls and ceiling are painted in a style using secco (fresco-finto) by Davide Antonio Fossati.  The ceiling painting shows the glorification of Szent István király (King Saint Stephen).  The images on the sidewalls are Biblical in nature and are associated with eating.  Finally, its present façade is from this period.  However, it’s worth mentioning that the monastery attained its existing form upon the completion of the west tower and the library, both of which were constructed in classical design and completed around 1832.

We must note that in 1786, the Abbey was closed, for during the era of Enlightenment such facilities were judged on their ability to be productive in the community; Orders which taught nursing and education were allowed to function.  At the time, the Archabbey did not provide such services.

Nonetheless, it opened once again in1802, with the stipulation that it offer secondary education.  The Benedictine High School of Pannonhalma (the Hungarians call it Pannonhalma Bencés Gimnázium és Kollégium) is among the most prestigious schools in Hungary.  It is a secondary school; also, there are 300 students who are boarders. Classes are taught by monks as well as lay teachers.

After 1945, upon the Russian occupation of Hungary, the Abbey and its properties, including the school, were seized. The Communist state took control of it all from 1950 and did not relinquish the Abbey until the totalitarian rule ended in 1989. In 1995, once again major restoration and renovations were made to restore its beauty and luster and resume life at this significant Christian site.  With the work completed, in 1996 – when it commemorated its thousandth anniversary – the Benedictine Pannonhalma Archabbey was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Let’s take a closer look at other features of the Abbey which fascinate visitors.  The Porta Speciosa was created in the 13th century and is a decorative entryway that provides entrance into the church from the cloister.  The architectural design of this portal is late Romanesque.  The cloister surrounds a lovely courtyard which today contains flowers, plants and trees.  During medieval times, the plants were primarily medicinal herbs.

The library, of a sophisticated, classical design, was constructed by Engel Ferenc in the 1820s; its shape was essentially rectangular.  Later on, Packh János enlarged the building and added the oval hall.  In addition, Joseph Klieber was the one responsible for ornamenting the library’s interior. It is splendid, not only in its architecture but also in the paintings and frescoes one finds here.  The paintings on the ceiling on each side of the oval hall are allegorical representations of each of the medieval university faculties (theology, medicine, etc.).  In the Great Hall we find exquisite frescoes, including one of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and art.  One especially colorful fresco represents the illuminating nature of the 19th century.

The collection exceeds three million books, making this the largest Benedictine library in the world.  It includes Bible manuscripts, numerous first editions, and incunabula (early printed books) which are rare treasures.  Especially noteworthy is the copy of the declaration signed by Szent István király in 1001.  This founding decree proclaimed the legitimacy of the Abbey and thus provided it with certain rights and privileges.  So, why is it only a copy and not the original? The original text was scripted on sheepskin and is too delicate to display.

The copy of the charter of Tihany Abbey, founded in 1055, is here as well; what makes this document especially noteworthy is that it is the earliest written text that actually contains some Hungarian words.       

While touring the Abbey’s vineyards, we learn that the monks grew grapes for making the wine used during Mass.  In time, they began to produce the well-known Pannonhalmai Rizling, a type of smooth white wine.  

By 1949, Hungary’s government had become Communist.  As a result, the Abbey’s vineyards and winery were expropriated.  The gentle caring hands were replaced by big, inattentive machines.  Focus in producing the grapes was now on quantity, not quality.  The vineyards failed to produce the kind of grapes crucial for producing fine wines.  In time, production stopped.

Once Communism collapsed in 1989, the monks returned to the Abbey and bought back the vineyards which it had previously owned.  In 2001, they resumed growing the fine grapes they knew, planting new grape vines; furthermore, they rejuvenated their wine production in 2003.  The Abbey has returned to being a thriving vinery once again!  Among the grapes grown here we find Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewürztraminer, to name a few.

A spacious arboretum only enhances the grounds of the Archabbey, exhibiting 400 different kinds of bushes and trees – a number of them scarce in Hungary.

We did not talk about the colorful lavender (levendula) fields that abundantly grow at the foot of Márton-hegy; they harvest the lavender, and a number of medicinal herbs, to make essential oils.  Perhaps on our next visit we may be fortunate and view the vibrant, alluring levendula fields in bloom!

Judit Vasmatics Paolini is a member of the Southern Connecticut State University Alumni Board of Directors, former lecturer at Tunxis Community College, and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board.

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