Matthias: The People’s Church
Sitting in a school classroom in country Australia, the breeze rustling the leaves on the gum trees outside, it was hard to imagine I would one day be in a place different to this.
Somewhere far removed from the dry open spaces outside the classroom windows.
Learning about other countries, the geography and the different cultures, was something I enjoyed.
Yet in those school days, travelling around the world was something you didn’t seriously consider.
Air travel was the exception, rather than the rule. To go to Europe generally meant a six-week voyage by ship.
That’s how our first overseas adventure took place. A ship to Southampton after sailing around the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa.
It was in 1970. Man had only walked on the moon for the first time the year before.
Within a year we had seen the first Boeing jumbo jets in the sky … and the world had changed.
And now here I am again, a handful of decades later, standing in front of a centuries-old church in Budapest.
This time, our flight from Australia to Hungary aboard an Airbus A 380 took 22 hours.
Within hours of landing we had checked in to the hotel and started exploring this exotic city at the crossroads of Europe.
Our visit was the starting point of the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir’s three-week tour of Central Europe in September 2015 and the impact it made is as fresh in my mind as that first day.
We were one day in from arriving in Budapest and were just finding our feet in this remarkable capital city of Hungary.
Having crossed the Danube River by the Chain Bridge that, like the Parliament House, is a signature landmark of Budapest, we climbed the Castle Hill to the old part of Buda.
The magnificent Matthias Church has been a source of inspiration for the people of Budapest for many centuries. It has also been a sanctuary, a place to retreat to in times of distress.
Regarded as one of the finest in Budapest and the most unique in Europe, the church sits at the top of Castle Hill.
It has been serving the citizens of Buda since its foundation in 1015AD by St Stephen, the first Hungarian king.
And now we had the opportunity to not only visit this enduring building but be a part of its history. A building that has witnessed such glory and upheaval in its time.
The choir, a 60-strong group from Queensland, was scheduled to sing at some exceptional cathedrals, churches and concert halls throughout Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Members and friends had come together at Radisson’s Hotel Beke and after an evening of discovering this city wrapped in history it was time to get down to singing.
On the Thursday we had the chance to visit the church. It was also the venue for our first performance on the tour that was to explore the cradle of so much musical heritage.
Officially named the Church of Our Lady, this famous landmark in Budapest’s Castle District is best known as Matthias Church after the much-loved 15th-century Renaissance king who contributed the towers and was married here.
Matthias I, who was known as Matthias the Just, was born in 1443 and tried to reconstruct the Hungarian state after decades of feudal anarchy.
Born Mátyás Hunyadi, his byname Corvinus was derived from the Latin for “raven,” so he was also referred to as the Raven King.
The southern high tower (60 m high) is called Matthias bell tower and bears the Hunyadi coat of arms – a raven holding a golden ring in its beak.
Matthias was very fond of the arts and sciences and invited famous artists from abroad to help establish Renaissance enlightenment in Hungary.
His royal court was famous even in Western Europe and visitors often praised the magnificence of his royal palace.
It towers over modern-day Budapest.
The first church on the site was founded by Saint Stephen, King of Hungary, but the building was destroyed in 1241 by the Mongols; the current building was constructed in the latter half of the 13th century.
Originally named after the Virgin Mary, taking names such as The Church of Mary and The Church of Our Lady, Matthias Church was named after King Matthias in the 19th Century.
Following the capture of Buda in 1541 by the Ottoman Empire, the church became the city’s main mosque.
Ornate frescoes that previously adorned the walls of the building were whitewashed and interior furnishings stripped out.
Yet this in turn led to the church becoming the site of the “Mary-wonder.”
When Budapest was under siege from the Turks, locals plastered over the niche that contained the statue.
The Ottomans used the church as their primary mosque during the occupation, but never noticed the statue.
More than a century later, in 1686, an explosion of gunpowder at the castle crumbled the wall around the statue, revealing the Virgin’s shining face.
After the expulsion of the Turks in 1686 an attempt was made to restore the church in the Baroque style but historical evidence shows that the work was largely unsatisfactory.
It was not until the great architectural era towards the end of the 19th century that the building regained much of its former splendour.
The church was restored to its original 13th-century plan, but a number of early original Gothic elements were uncovered.
By adding new motifs such as the diamond pattern roof tiles and gargoyles laden spire, the architect Frigyes Schulek ensured that the work, when finished, would be highly controversial.
During World War II the church was badly damaged. It was used as a camp by the Germans and Soviets in 1944–45 during the Soviet occupation of Hungary.
The church was largely renovated between 1950 and 1970 with the organ updated and sanctified in 1984.
It is home to the Ecclesiastical Art Museum, which begins in the medieval crypt and leads up to the St Stephen Chapel.
The gallery contains a number of sacred relics and medieval stone carvings, along with replicas of the Hungarian royal crown and coronation jewels.
Outside, the Fisherman’s Bastion is where locals and tourists come to enjoy the city views … especially those across the River Danube to the Pest side.
But while the Halaszbastya is decorative in today’s Budapest, it has also been defensive, as bastions generally are.
Built between 1895 and 1902, the Fisherman’s Bastion features seven towers in memory of the seven Hungarian chieftains who had led their tribes to the present day Hungary.
But its history is intertwined with the Matthias Church with the architect Schulek also having restored and redesigned the church.
The T-shaped Bastion was to embrace the church while enhancing its beauty, and also to connect the original Buda Castle on the hilltop with the riverside settlement, Fishtown or Watertown.
There were many sieges of Buda through history since being founded by Hungarian kings, conquered by the Turks in the 16th century, re-taken by the Austrians, then attacked by the Nazi and Russian troops in the 20th century.
The old city Varhegy was protected by the castle guards and, if needed, by the residents of the castle.
Some historians say the guild of fishermen (halasz), who lived under the walls in the so called Fishtown or Watertown, helped protect the area between the river Danube and the Castle walls.
In peace, they would fish, and sell their catch at the fishmarket up in the castle.
In war time, they would climb up to the Castle, and take their due part in protecting their home town, Watertown (Vizivaros).
While trying to grasp this sense of history you continually try to put it into perspective with today’s Budapest.
Two musicians attract our attention, with wistful compositions for strings.
That encourages members of the choir to break into song, one of Australia’s widely recognised ballads, Waltzing Matilda. And the two local musicians quickly try to pick up the tune on their stringed instruments.
Such a fitting example of how music speaks all languages.
So that was our introduction to “The People’s Church.”
The following evening we would be singing there. Who could have ever imagined it?
Read more about the 2016 Tour of Central Europe: https://orianachoirtour.wordpress.com/page/3/
For more information on the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir, the musical program for 2018 and the 2019 Tour of Italy, go to: www.oriana.org.au