Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Medieval Charters from the Batthyány Family Archives enter the National Archives

Charter of King Béla IV, 1256

On August 2, 2021, it was announced at a press conference that the collection of the Hungarian National Archives had been enriched with 520 original charters, which the Hungarian state had purchased from the Batthyány family for a price of 5,6 million EUR.

This collection consists of the most important documents in the Batthyány family archives originally held at Körmend. Members of the family took these charters with them in 1945 and preserved them in Austria until now. The remainder of the archives was badly damaged when the Soviet army plundered the Batthyány mansion at Körmend. Anything saved after that event was nationalized in 1949 and has been preserved at the National Archives since (it is estimated that about 15 percent of the medieval charters were destroyed in 1945).

Görgy Rácz, deputy director of the National Archives, explained at the press conference that the newly purchased collection contains the historically most important part of the family archives and is filled with irreplaceable documents of medieval Hungarian history, as the members of the Batthyány family held high government positions for centuries.

One box of the Batthyány-charters

Most of the charters are from the three series of the old archives of the Batthyány family preserved at Körmend castle until 1945: the Memorabilia (297 diplomas) series is the most valuable historical material of the Batthyány archives from the national point of view. The new acquisition makes this former series almost complete. Here the earliest piece is King Louis the Great's charter of 1352 on the nobility of the Pechenegs in Fejér County. There are also letters from King Louis II from 1526, calling Ferenc Batthyány to battle against the Turks - dating from just a couple of weeks before the catastrophic Battle of Mohács. The other outstanding part of the collection is the so-called Heimiana or “Himfiana” series, which was the family archive of the Himfis of Döbrente, one of the most influential baronial families of the Anjou era. Their charters went to the Batthyánys, who preserved them. The documents purchased now contain 141 pieces of this series, including 11 charters from the Árpádian period and 125 from the Anjou period. The third series is Acta Antiqua (48 charters), which contains the oldest documents concerning property in the family’s ancient estate. The earliest piece in this series is the 1355 charter of King Louis the Great.

Charter with the seal of King Sigismund, 1411

The documents will now join the other part of the Batthyány family archives in the National Archives as part of the nation's cultural heritage, where they will be available for scientific research after their inventory, processing, and digitization. All the medieval charters of the Batthyány family archives already in the National Archives can be consulted in the Hungaricana database.

Source of text and photos: Hungarian National Archives, Budapest

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

In memoriam Ernő Marosi (1940–2021)

Ernő Marosi in 2017

Ernő Marosi (1940–2021), professor emeritus at the Institute of Art History of ELTE and a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, died on July 9, 2021, at the age of 81. With his death, we lost one of the most important Hungarian art historians of our time. His impact as a researcher and author of groundbreaking books as well as a teacher for almost six decades is immeasurable.

A simple listing of his professional positions does not do justice to his career. He started teaching at the Department of Art History at ELTE in 1963, immediately after graduating. In addition, he was a researcher at the Art History Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, serving as the director of the Institute between 1991 and 2000.  He had been a full member of the Hungarian Academy of Science since 2001 and from 2002 to 2008, he was the Vice President of the Academy. He also taught at the Central European University and was an active board member of CIHA. Research fellowships took him to places such as Washington D.C., where he was a Senior Visiting Fellow at CASVA in 1991, and Berlin. Among the prizes he received was the prestigious Széchenyi Prize (1997) and the Commander's Cross with Star of the Hungarian Order of Merit (2009). He continued teaching even after his retirement and remained active as a researcher until his death. 

His contribution to the field of medieval art history is better measured by his groundbreaking publications, which cover all areas of Hungarian medieval art. His research fundamentally re-wrote our knowledge of the field, placing Hungarian monuments in their broader, European context. During his career, there were several topics which he often revisited, providing new insights and interpretations to the most important monuments of medieval Hungary. His publications cover very diverse subjects ranging in time from the Coronation Mantle donated to the Székesfehérvár provostry by King Saint Stephen in 1031 to the patronage of Matthias Corvinus. Among his most important publications, we should first mention his book on the beginnings of Gothic architecture in Hungary, published in 1984 (Die Anfänge der Gotik in Ungarn. Esztergom in der Kunst des 12–13. Jahrhunderts. Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1984). A catalogue on stone carvings from the Árpádian-period and an illustrated overview of Hungarian art of the Árpádian-period (1997, co-authored with Tünde Wehli) also attest to his interest in architecture and stone carving of the 12th-13th centuries. The other focus of his research was the art of the 14th and early 15th centuries, primarily the period of King Sigismund. His dissertation focused on the Church of St. Elisabeth at Kassa (Košice), which was then published as a series of studies. Starting from 1974, he provided the proper art historical context for the famous statue find of Buda castle, a key monument of Central European sculpture of the International Gothic period. He co-organized two exhibitions on this period: first, in 1982 on art at the time of King Louis the Great (1342-1382) and in 1987, on the period of King Sigismund (1387-1437). Parallel to this work, Ernő Marosi edited and co-wrote the monumental handbook on Art in Hungary, 1300-1470 (published in 1987). In a series of later studies and in his academic doctoral dissertation, he almost immediately started to deconstruct the picture of the period given in the handbook, reflecting on new finds and providing new approaches (see especially: Image and Likeness: Art and Reality in the 14th and 15th Centuries in Hungary. Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1995). In 2006, he was one of the key advisors and authors of the new exhibition dedicated to the period of King Sigismund (Sigismundus Rex et Imperator, Budapest-Luxemburg, 2006). 

Ernő Marosi examining the inner reliquary of St. Ladislas, 2004

Another focus of his research was historiography, especially the 19th-century beginnings of Hungarian art history. He edited a number of source collections on art historical writing as well as a volume on Hungary and the Vienna School of art history (Die ungarische Kunstgeschichte und die Wiener Schule 1846–1930, Vienna, 1983). He also wrote a basic overview of the methods of art history aimed at students (1973). He also dealt extensively with issues of monument protection and museum history - often writing on contemporary issues in these fields as well. Naturally, he was a keen observer of contemporary art as well.

As a university professor, he also provided some of the basic surveys and textbooks on medieval art in Hungarian. In 1972, he wrote a survey book on Romanesque art, which was later expanded into a textbook on the art of the Middle Ages, 10001250 (published in 1996). This was soon followed by a second, much larger volume on the art of the Middle Ages, 12501500, published in 1997. He also wrote overviews of Hungarian Romanesque Art (2013) and Gothic Art (2008). His collection of primary sources on medieval art translated into Hungarian (first published in 1969 and then in an expanded edition in 1997) is a much-used source collectionto this day.

During his long career, he published hundreds of studies in various journals, conference volumes, and exhibition catalogues. Coinciding with his 80th birthday, a three-volume collection of his selected studies on medieval art was published, coordinated by the Thesaurus mediaevalis research group led by Imre Takács (Fénylik a mű nemesen”. Válogatott írások a középkori művészet történetéből. Budapest, Martin Opitz Kiadó, 2020). The book makes available many of his studies published internationally, in the form of newly made and annotated Hungarian translations prepared by Marosi himself. The ninety studies in two volumes are accompanied by a third volume containing 1359 illustrations. A bibliography of his publications is also included there: it fills almost forty pages of the book. His colleagues and students paid tribute to his work in a Festschrift published for his seventieth birthday (Bonum ut pulchrum. Essays in Art History in Honor of Ernő Marosi on his Seventieth Birthday. Eds. Lívia Varga - László Beke - Anna Jávor - Pál Lővei - Imre Takács. Budapest, Argumentum, 2010) and he was also celebrated with a conference organized by the Institute of Art History of ELTE, titled Disputatio de quodlibet. In 2010 and 2020, Enigma, a journal of art theory, published two thematic issues dedicated to Ernő Marosi (Enigma vols. 61 and 100).

Ernő Marosi in 2005

Like generations of art historians studying in Budapest, I took some of my first art history classes with Ernő Marosi, who taught European medieval art. He was my supervisor when I was an MA student in medieval studies at Central European University (1994–1995) and encouraged my doctoral studies, suggesting I work on the newly discovered fresco cycle at the Augustinian Church at Siklós. Later, he would also serve as an external reader of my dissertation, which was supervised by Walter Cahn at Yale University. I had a chance to work with Ernő Marosi on numerous occasions after I returned to Hungary – especially during the preparations for the international exhibition on King Sigismund (2006). He participated in the international conference organized in Luxemburg (2005) in conjunction with the exhibition and also provided the art historical commentary for a digital edition of the Viennese manuscript of Eberhard Windecke's chronicle on Emperor Sigismund (Eberhard Windecke emlékirata Zsigmond királyról és koráról = Eberhard Windeckes Denkwürdigkeiten zur Geschichte des Zeitalters Kaiser Sigmunds. Budapest, Arcanum, 2009). More recently, Marosi published numerous studies on late medieval wall painting – including an introductory essay to a volume on wall paintings in north-eastern Hungary, co-authored by me (2009) and edited by Tibor Kollár. In June of this year, he graciously agreed to present our new book on medieval wall paintings in Zólyom County (Zsombor Jékely – Gergely Kovács: Falfestészeti emlékek a középkori Zólyom vármegye területén. Ed. Tibor Kollár. Budapest, 2021), although his illness prevented him from fulfilling the task. He was an inspiration and mentor to me for 30 years and he will surely inspire future generations of art historians, even those who never had a chance to meet him. He will be greatly missed.

A final, personal note: Thirty-one years ago, as a first-year art history student, I had an opportunity to travel to France. Ernő Marosi's lectures on medieval art were a fresh experience - the notes of his lectures served as my guide on my trip. I visited everything from Romanesque pilgrimage churches in the south of France to the great Gothic cathedrals of northern France and the late Gothic and Renaissance castles of the Loire Valley. After my first year of college and this French tour, I decided definitively that I would like to pursue medieval art. In 2021, news of the death of my teacher, Ernő Marosi, reached me inside the Benedictine abbey church of St. Denis, the birthplace of Gothic.

Ernő Marosi and Zsombor Jékely listening to József Lángi, 2019

* (Most of the links above take you to full-text versions of some publications written or edited by Ernő Marosi. Photos by Attila Mudrák and the author).

Friday, July 02, 2021

Two New Exhibitions on Monastic History at the Hungarian National Museum

In the middle of June 2021, two exhibitions opened at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest, each dedicated to the history of a monastic order.

The first exhibition is dedicated to the 900 anniversary of the foundation of the Premonstratensian (Norbertine) order. The members of the order have been present in Hungary almost since its foundation. In the last centuries, the Premontreians were also participants and shapers of Hungarian society, religious life, art and science. On the occasion of the anniversary, the Hungarian Norbertine Order  and the Hungarian National Museum presents the history of the order in a joint exhibition. The exhibition provides an overview of the spirituality, founding, past and present of the order in Hungary. It presents the material heritage of the Premonstratensians in Hungary and highlights the contribution of the members of the order to the Hungarian culture. In addition to the works and documents preserved in the abbeys and monasteries of the order in Hungary today, the nine-hundred-year-old Hungarian history of the order comes to life through a number of works of art borrowed from many domestic and foreign collections. The exhibition presents a number of important medieval churches of the order, in particular Zsámbék, Rátót, Ócsa, and Lelesz, displaying stone carvings and copies of medieval wall paintings as well. 

The other exhibition (postponed from last year) is dedicated to the most important order established in medieval Hungary: the Pauline order. The exhibition was organized on the occasion of the 750th anniversary of the death of Boldog Özséb, the founder of the order and it gives a comprehensive picture of this Hungarian monastic order. Considering that the Hungarian origin of the order and the history of the order are little known, the exhibition mainly presents the Pauline history as well as the modern life of the Paulines, highlighting the historical role of the Polish center of the order at Częstochowa.

The exhibited objects (archeological finds, medieval manuscripts, modern prints, liturgical objects, numerous sculptures, paintings and engravings) testify to the rich heritage of the order. Among several Pauline manuscripts, three come from ELTE University Library, these can also be consulted online: A 115, Cod. Lat. 115, Cod. Lat. 131

Fragment from the tomb of Saint Paul the Hermit,
from the Pauline church of Budaszentlőrinc, c. 1490
 (Budapest History Museum)

Both exhibitions remain on view at the Hungarian National Museum until the middle of September 2021.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

An Overview of the Excavations of Pétermonostora near Bugac

Detail of one of the reliquary plaques
It is well-known that the majority of the medieval monuments of the Hungarian Great Plains had been destroyed, primarily during the Ottoman Period. However, the territory had already suffered a major trauma before that: the Mongol invasion of 1241. Already at that time, entire settlements were destroyed and many of these locations were never rebuilt in later centuries. One such place was the medieval town of Péteri. The town was located near present-day Bugac, just south of Kecskemét, on the Kiskunság plains between the Danube at Tisza rivers. It was established possibly as a royal foundation in 1050 and developed quickly during the next two centuries. Around 1130-1140, members of the Becse-Gergely clan established a monastery there, which likely contributed to the development of the town. Pétermonostora was first mentioned in 1219. In the Spring of 1241, the town was overrun by the Mongols of Batu Khan and the site seems to have been abandoned after that. Recent excavations have brought to light evidence of the massacre of the town's population. Sometime after the Mongol invasion, Cumans were settled in the area - who used the ruins as a convenient quarry.

The site of the monastery

Excavations of the area lead by Szabolcs Rosta since 2011 have brought to light the remains of the medieval monastery of Péteri or Pétermonostora. A large, three-aisled basilica was discovered here, along with various monastery buildings. Remarkably, the ruins preserved a large number of important liturgical objects from the church. Along with the ongoing excavations of the nearby cemetery and the remains of the town itself, Péteri by now has become an extraordinarily rich source of Árpád-period material objects. The most famous objects come from the monastery church itself: among several smaller enamel reliefs from Limoges, the most important finds are two enamel plaques, which originally must have decorated a reliquary. Based on its iconography - the scenes show the Washing of the Feet, Christ talking to St. Peter, and the Ascension of Christ - the reliquary must have preserved the relics of the patron saint of the church, St. Peter. The enamel plaques were made in the Rhine region, around 1180. They are kept at the Katona József Museum in Kecskemét, and an interactive feature developed by Pazirik Ltd. gives a very useful overview of them.

Enamel plaques from Pétermonostora

Another extraordinary find came to light in 2018: it is a book cover made of bone, with figures of the evangelists and inlaid rock crystal decoration. Here are some pictures, along with some other pieces from several hundred finds:


Excavations of the medieval town of Péteri and its monastery dedicated to St. Peter will likely continue in the coming years and will undoubtedly shed more light on the flourishing life of the Hungarian Great Plains in the decades before the Mongol invasion. To get more information on the site, have a look at this study of Szabolcs Rosta or this very useful 2017 overview by Edit Sárosi or watch a short film focusing on the site and on the restoration of the reliquary plaques (2020, in Hungarian). Pétermonostora is part of the Central European Via Benedictina network.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Restoration of the High Altar of Kisszeben

After many decades of restoration, the High Altar of Kisszeben (Sabinov, Slovakia) has been assembled in the Hungarian National Gallery. The restoration of one of the largest and most ornate winged altars from the medieval period of the Kingdom of Hungary began in 1954 and was completed in the summer of 2020. The high altar was put on view from 24 September at the Gallery’s exhibition titled Late Gothic Winged Altarpieces (it is currently not on view due to the national lockdown).

I wrote on this altarpiece several years ago, when it was first put on display at the National Gallery, at that time still without its gable - see this earlier post. Further details about the history of the altarpiece can be found there. 

The winged altar, which was one of the largest and most ornate ones in the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, is dated to 1496 according to an inscription on the frame of the paintings - but it naturally took a longer period to complete. The altar was “renovated” in the baroque period, the panels of its workday side were all overpainted. This overpainting was not removed in the restoration campaign. The predella and the gable of the altar - both of which got seriously damaged - were both reconstructed.

On the occasion of the completion of the restoration, a special website was launched by the Museum of Fine Arts - Hungarian National Gallery, and a short film was also released about the altarpiece (both are in Hungarian). 
Art historians are also encouraged to read a study about the gable the altarpiece, which details the limits and possibilities of the reconstruction of this part of the altarpiece. Poszler, Györgyi: Kutatás-módszertani gyakorlat: új források, új gondolatok a kisszebeni Keresztelő Szent János-főoltár oromzatával kapcsolatban. Művészettörténeti Értesítő, 64 (2015/2). pp. 239-267.

(Source of text and images: Museum of Fine Arts - Hungarian National Gallery. For additional photos, see this report.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

In memoriam Zsuzsa Urbach (1933-2020)

Zsuzsa Urbach at the Piliscsaba campus, 2003 
(Photo by János Jernyei Kiss)

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of art historian Zsuzsa (Susan) Urbach, Hungary's foremost scholar of Early Netherlandish Painting. She was 87 years old. She studied art history and archaeology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest - even though it was hard for her to get accepted to University in the early 1950s for political reasons. Finishing her studies also took some time, as, after the 1956 revolution, she spent two years abroad (studying in Munich and in London). Eventually, she returned to Hungary and finished her studies in 1959, receiving a doctorate in 1963. She started working at the Collection of Old Master Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1966. She worked at the Museum until her retirement in 1992. Although she continued to study the Old Masters, in 1994 she started a new venture: she established the second Department of the History of Art in Hungary, at the newly founded Faculty of Humanities at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba. She was instrumental in creating a very successful art history program, hiring a number of young colleagues who teach there to this day. 

The primary field of research for Zsuzsa Urbach was Gothic paintings. She published groundbreaking studies on medieval iconography - on subjects ranging from the Visitation (focusing on the painting of Master M.S.) to the Nativity and the Doubt of St. Joseph to portrait iconography. She was among the first ones to draw attention to copies of Early Netherlandish Painting - publishing important early copies of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan van Eyck in Budapest, among others. She was also a champion for the use of phototechnical examinations for medieval paintings in Hungary. At the Museum of Fine Arts, her attention focused on Early Netherlandish Painting, and she published a series of important studies both in Hungary and abroad on the topic. She also wrote several smaller monographs on the holdings of Hungarian museums. Her research culminated in the monumental catalogue of Early Netherlandish Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, which was published in two volumes by Brepols in 2014.

By the time I got to know her, she was one of the grande dames of Hungarian art history. She was usually at the library of the Museum of Fine Arts, always eager to talk to younger researchers. I remember these conversations fondly. In preparation for the 2006 exhibition on King and Emperor Sigismund, her connections made possible the restoration of the copy of the Way to Calvary after Jan van Eyck in Brussels. This panel is a highly interesting item in Old Master Paintings collection in Budapest and its restoration was done at KIK/IRPA in Brussels. Volume 44 of Acta Historiae Artium was dedicated to her in 2003 and another Festschrift, titled Als Ich Can, was published by her colleagues and students for her 80est birthday in 2013. It is well-known that her students at Pázmány Péter University greatly admired her. For the reminiscences of her career, Hungarian-speaking readers are encouraged to read the interview with her, published in MúzeumCafé in 2014.

After Jan van Eyck: Way to Calvary. Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
for high resolution, see here

Susan Urbach, Early Netherlandish Painting in Budapest I & II. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-909400-09-2
ISBN: 978-1-909400-29-0

For a fuller bibliography of the works of Susan Urbach, click here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Mapping Eastern Europe Website Launched

The North of Byzantium initiative has launched a new open-access digital project – Mapping Eastern Europe – intended to promote the study, research, and teaching about the history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries among students, teachers, scholars, and the wider public.

Mapping Eastern Europe gathers a multitude of specialists – early career and senior scholars who have either already published or are currently researching new topics – to supply original online content in English in the form of historical overview, art historical case studies, short notices about ongoing projects, and reviews of recent books and exhibitions. 

This platform aims to stimulate new research and outreach focused on the networked regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into early modern Russia, which developed at the crossroads of the Latin, Greek, Slavic, and Islamic traditions during the late Middle Ages and early modern periods. This a very wide focus, and so far most of the resources on the website are related to Byzantine and Post-Byzantine art - after all, the North of Byzantium initiative focuses on art and culture of the northern frontiers of the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe. The website has a map-based interface to browse overview, notices, and book reviews and it will be continuously updated. Already in this early phase, there are a number of pins in the territory of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary as well.

Mapping Eastern Europe is made possible through generous support from the “Rapid Response Magic Project of the Princeton University Humanities Council”. Co-founders and editors are: Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan.