Left side: Plant motif from Tákos, 1766, work of Asztalos Leánder; "self-wounding bird"; the "ark"; Right side: "two-headed bird"; "dragon with curly tail"
Hungarian Paneled Ceilings, in a Nutshell1
Horváth Zoltán György
Painted paneled church ceilings, unique to Hungary, are found in significant numbers throughout the Carpathian Basin. As artistic ensembles, they are not found elsewhere, or only in insignificant numbers. Despite all destruction and devastation, hundreds of churches with such ceilings may be found in historic Hungary. The number of panels per church ceiling is around one hundred, so all in all, this represents a treasure amounting to tens of thousands. There are, of course, some similarities in depiction, but each panel may be considered a unique work of art, which in its totality is a stunning variety.
Plant motifs are the most prevalent, and they are similar, as were the painted or carved tendrils during the Renaissance. Some scholars prefer to regard these as copies from Italian pattern books, despite the fact that our panel paintings are bursting with original artistic passion, dynamism, and there is no question of any dilettante dabbling.
With the spread of Protestantism in the 16th century, there appeared the slogan ”Let us return to the uncorrupted faith of our ancestors”. This was understood across Europe as a return to biblical foundations; but in Hungary, people looked at each other and asked, ”Really? May we?” And all that had been preserved as an inherited store of knowledge suddenly burst into flower – at the same time and everywhere in the Carpathian Basin, proving its existence everywhere. And the churches truly ”blossomed”! Our oldest ceilings date back to the 16th century. There are many more from the 17th century. The 18th century is still part of the flowering period, followed by the decline caused by the Enlightenment and rationalism, by the spread of literacy, so that by the 19th century, there would be only repetitions. This was pictography at its best, one only had to understand the message.
Painted paneled ceilings are found in great numbers primarily in Reformed (Presbyterian) churches; nevertheless they may not be considered ”church-specific” art, since they are also found in countless Unitarian churches in Székely-land, and (although in much smaller numbers) in churches such as Csíkdelne and Gelence which, throughout their history, had always been and remained Roman Catholic. Because the treasure of paneled ceilings is ”ethnic-specific”, or more simply put: it is Hungarian.
Then where did the pictographic message originate? From that variation of Christianity which existed already before Szt. István accepted Latin Christianity, and which lived on, having been passed on over the centuries, so that it would ”explode” at the impact of the above-mentioned ”slogan”. This Christianity is Eastern, but it has nothing to do with Orthodoxy; let us call it ”Scythian” Christianity (the Apostles themselves had been missionaries to the Scythians!), related to the ”bowmen” (based on the continuity of Scythian-Hun-Avar-Hungarian as laid out in the works of László Gyula and Pap Gábor).2
That the ”explosion” was simultaneous in the Carpathian Basin is proven by the numerous still existing focal points, in very disparate areas. Today, the largest number of painted panels may be found in Transylvania’s Székely-land, Kalotaszeg, Mezőség and Szilágyság; in the tiny villages of the Upper Tisza region, including numerous settlements in Subcarpathia; in the northeastern mountains; as well as in the churches of Ormánság in the southern Dunántúl area.
The term ”panels” needs to be defined more precisely: what we can see from below are ”panels”, but the ceilings are technically planked ceilings, which were often divided, by laths, into square, or rectangular ”panels”. Which means that these ceilings were made on site, with hard labor, painted up high, not comfortably created by painters somewhere else and then placed up there piece by piece. The ceiling painters created a system from unique concepts. And the ceilings (mennyezet in Hungarian is derived from the word menny, meaning heaven) truly depicted the sky, ”mennyország” (or heaven) – represent Christian salvation history. It is not happenstance that the two Hungarian words have similar meanings...
A little astrology is necessay to explain the four most often used basic motifs. To prove that astrology is very much compatible with Christianity, let us consider that in many large European cathedrals, the Zodiac, with its 12 animal signs, is a regularly recurring theme among the carvings, and generally not just anywhere, but encircling the entrance portal, where everyone is emphatically confronted with it.
The first basic motif of the yearly cycle is the ”two-headed bird”, the astrological sign of Aries (the Ram), pictograph of the vernal equinox (picture 2, Csengersima, Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County, 1761). It is not the Habsburgs’ ”two-headed eagle” from their coat of arms. It is a pictograph of the explosive new birth, of nature’s spring renewal, which everyone can experience in nature in the sign of Aries, at the end of March and in April. Oh and Easter, the greatest holyday of Christanity also falls during the same time, the resurrection of Christ after His death? Of course...
The two heads represent two phases of the upward flying bird, as it flutters with great dynamism. If we also note that the tail piece forms a pitcher, which is the pictograph of Aquarius (the Water Carrier), and instead of feathers, the animal’s body is covered with scales – an obvious reference to the sign of Pisces (Fishes) – then we also get the sequence of the Zodiac: the winter sign of Aquarius is followed by Pisces, from which comes rebirth brought by Aries.
According to the yearly cycle, the second basic motif is ”the self-wounding bird, which feeds its young with its own blood”, the astrological sign of Cancer (the Crab), pictograph of the summer solstice – picture 3, Rudabánya, Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County, 1758, by Contra András and Mátyás. We purposely did not use the term ”pelican”, since our bird does not have the form of a pelican. All the more does the rendering speak of self-sacrificing love, which is so great that it gives of itself. It is during the summer solstice that the greatest amount of light, energy, is identified with love, goodness, ”free grace”, and this gushes forth in a self-sacrificing way. The depiction is naturally and obviously a symbol of Christ, so it is not by chance that the Reformed churches used this as the closing motif of their splendid pulpit canopies. For the pulpit is of major importance in the Reformed liturgy, as the word of Christ speaks to the congregation from there through the mediation of the minister.
At the same time, Christ is also ”the Sun of Justice”, so the rising sun is also an ancient symbol of Christ, which is why, during the Middle Ages, churches had to be situated so that He could enter the church at sunrise through the eastern window. A wonderful pictorial proof of this is the fresco of Aquila János (14th century) at Velemér, where the Archangel Gabriel and the Blessed Virgin Mary may be seen on the two sides of the eastern window, as part of the Annunciation. What happened at the Annunciation? Christ came into the world!
The third basic motif, according to the yearly cycle, is the ”ark”, pictograph of Libra (the Scales), of the autumn solstice (picture 4, Csengersima, Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County, 1761). The term ”Noah’s ark”, to which the ”N B” signage refers, indicates the same thing: to save what can be saved, for whatever does not take shelter during the time of Libra, will be irretrievably lost, since it is followed by six months of frost, darkness and cold. The four-petaled pictograph of light kernels may be seen in the body of our ark, which had been protected.
Finally, the fourth basic motif of the annual cycle is the ”dragon with curly tail”, the astrological sign of Capricorn (the Goat), pictograph of the winter solstice (picture 5, Csengersima). This is the most natural, roughest reference to death, with its noose reminiscent of the hangman’s rope. This is when there is the least amount of light, life is merely flickering, the reign of darkness is at its maximum, frost and cold rule. The noose threatens life itself, so Life has to have such a jolt here, that everything may continue to live. In other words, the annual cycle continues. And what is this jolt? Christians know that the Sun of Justice, Jesus Christ, was born on Earth in the darkest moment, and this changes the darkest day into the Christmas feast of joy. We might also say that Christ had to be born at the most inauspicious point, lest the inhabitants of the earth who might have been in even more inauspicious circumstances remain unredeemed. And in truth: Christ is the Redeemer of every person!
Horváth Zoltán György is the Owner of Romanika Kiadó publishing house in Budapest (www.kalotaalapitvany.hu/romanika). He is also an award-winning Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Technology and Economics, Budapest.
1 Based on the writings and presentations of Pap Gábor, art historian. Basic source:
Az ég mennyezeti – festett kazettás mennyezeteinkről, by Pap Gábor. Uropath Kiadó-
Fabi Digitally Kft., Debrecen, 2012
2 Numerous examples of material proof for the relationship of first-millennium Christian
architecture in the Caucasus area with the earliest 10th-11th century Hungarian
Christian architecture in the following: Ani, az ősi örmény főváros és magyar
vonatkozásai (Ani, the Ancient Armenian Capital and its Hungarian Connections, by
Horváth Zoltán György and Gondos Béla, Romanika Kiadó, Budapest 2003. Also in:
Tbiliszi magyar emlékei (Hungarian Memorials of Tbilisi), by Horváth Zoltán György
and Gondos Béla, Romanika Kiadó, Budapest. 2020.