Sunday, October 03, 2010

1000 years of Gyulafehérvár Cathedral

Western facade of Gyulafehérvár cathedral
Survey by Márton Sarkadi and Tamás Emődi, 1996 
In 1009, King Stephen I decided to create a new bishopric, with jurisdiction over the territory of Transylvania. The seat of the bishopric was established at Gyulafehérvár (Karlsburg, Alba Iulia) and the first cathedral, dedicated to Saint Michael, was erected during the 11th century. The first cathedral was replaced with a much larger Romanesque cathedral, construction of which started at the end of the 12th century, and was for the most part completed before the Mongol invasion of 1241. At that time the town and the church was sacked and burned. Just as soon as repairs were made, the Saxons of nearby Szeben (Hermannstadt, Sibiu) sacked the town again in 1277. Two very important contracts dating from 1287 an 1291 detail the repairs undertaken at this time, with the latter date indicating completion of the entire edifice. These dates at the same time also underline the significance of this building: apart from smaller expansion and the addition of chapels, the building as it stands today originates from the 13th century. This makes Gyulafehérvár the only cathedral building to have survived from the Árpád-period - well, in fact, from the Middle Ages at all. (Other cathedral cities - including Esztergom, Kalocsa, Pécs, Veszpém, Győr, Vác, Eger, Várad - were in the territories occupied by the Ottoman Turks. To get an idea of their fate, see my previous post on the destruction of the centers of medieval Hungary).

The main body of the church is that of the Romanesque building, although the western part of the nave was vaulted in the 14th century. The two side apses, opening from the transept, are also from this period, while the original main apse has been replaced with a much longer early Gothic apse, built during the 1270s. Chapels on the north side (Lázói and Várdai chapels) originate from the early 16th century, and the monumental south tower also dates from the Gothic period. The building has suffered more during the last few centuries than it could be summarized here (significant dates of damage include 1438, 1565, 1601, 1603, 1658, 1849) - yet it still stands today and serves as the center of the Hungarian catholic church in Romania.

The building underwent major renovation at the beginning of the 20th century. The work, which was led by István Möller, was not fully completed by 1918, when Gyulafehérvár became part of Romania. More recently, several campaigns of restoration have been carried out during the last fifteen years, in preparation for the millennial celebrations of the bishopric. During this period, a large amount of archaeological and art historical research was carried out, the results of which are now largely published.
In this post, I would like to call attention to these publications.

The results of archaeological excavations carried out by Daniela Marcu Istrate have been published in a monumental volume by the László Teleki Foundation in 2008.1 The publisher has made the book available in a PDF version. The 600 page book was published in Hungarian, but if you scroll to the end, there is a long English-language abstract (pp. 609-670).

Even more exciting for art historians is the new book by Márton Sarkadi about the buildings of the medieval cathedrals and the bishop's palace.2 Márton Sarkadi has played a crucial role in surveying and researching the cathedral in the first phase of the most recent restoration campaign (until 2002). After that time he was unable to continue his work there, but now he summarized his findings in a book which is surely the most important one on the subject.3

While Márton Sarkadi mainly focused on the Romanesque and Gothic parts of the building, important discoveries were made concerning the Renaissance additions to the cathedral. Architectural historian Balázs Halmos wrote his dissertation on the Lázói chapel in 2006. The Hungarian-language dissertation is available online, you can also read the abstract in English here. The exterior of the chapel - the first Renaissance facade in Transylvania, completed in 1512 - was fully restored in 2008-09.

The most recent and perhaps most surprising discovery concerns 18th century developments. It has been proven that at the middle of the century, the entire early Gothic sanctuary was torn down and then rebuilt according to the original plan. There is ample archival proof and documentation for this, and a detailed analysis of the walls of the sanctuary also led to this conclusion. Restorer Loránd Kiss and art historian Szilárd Papp already presented their findings in conference lectures, although the full results of these investigations have not yet been published.

All this, and much more will be the subject of a two-day conference organized by the Teleki László Foundation. The conference will be held in Budapest, on October 11-12. You can find the detailed program on the website of the foundation. Also on October 12, an exhibition will open at the Budapest History Museum. Titled "Thousand Years of the Diocese of Transylvania," the exhibition will present the archaeological investigation and the restoration of the cathedral of Gyulafehérvár. This exhibition will present a different material than last year's millennial exhibition held at Gyulafehérvár.

The restoration of the cathedral is still continuing, work on the choir and the main apse is in progress now. More information on the church and on the restorations is available at the website of the Archbishopric of Gyulafehérvár.

Below you can find a slideshow of the cathedral, mostly with my own photographs taken in 2007 and 2009.


1 Daniela Marcu Istrate: A gyulafehérvári római katolikus székesegyház és püspöki palota régészeti kutatása (2000-2002) [The Roman Catholic Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace of Gyulafehérvár. The 2000-2002 archaeological research]. Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 2008, see online here. The most important earlier monograph on the church, written by Géza Entz in 1958 is available in the Hungarian Digital Library, as is the monograph written by Ujfalusi József and published on occasion of the 900th anniversary of the the foundation of the bishopric (pdf version here).
2 Márton Sarkadi: "s folytatva magát a régi művet" - Tanulmányok a gyulafehérvári székesegyház és püspöki palota történetéről. [Studies on the History of Gyulafehérvár Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace]. Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 2010.
3 Hungarian-speaking readers can get more details about the history of the restoration of the cathedral during the 1990s from an article by Márton Sarkadi: "A gyulafehérvári székesegyház és érseki palota 1999-2002 között végzett helyreállítási munkáinak tanulságai," in: Műemlékvédelmi Szemle 2003/1. Published by the Kulturális Örökségvédelmi Hivatal, and available online in the Hungarian Digital Museum Library.

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