The Castle Hill of Esztergom has always played an important part in the history of the Hungarian nation since the foundation of our state, and its significance has remained undiminished in the face of the trials and tribulations of the past centuries. This unique position stems both from the natural beauty of its picturesque situation among hills over the Danube Bend and from the buildings that elevated it now to a secular now to an ecclesiastical centre. An easily accessible yet isolated area which is easy to defend and has an air of solemnity but at the same time it is an attractive and relaxing natural setting as well. It is not surprising that the Castle Hill became first the seat of Hungary’s rulers, then the main centre of the Catholic Church of Hungary.
Historical records tell us about seven churches that stood on the Castle Hill in the Middle Ages.The Saint Adalbert Cathedral, which according to written sources had been built by around 1010, lay approximately on the site of the present-day Basilica. North of it, next to the north tower of the Basilica stood the Church of Saint Stephen the Martyr. Built by Prince Géza, it was chronologically the first church erected on this site. According to old tradition Vajk, the later King Stephen was born in a room next to the church, that had been turned into a chapel. The third church was a circular chapel from Saint Stephen’s age, unearthed in the Royal Palace of the kings of the Árpád dynasty. It is not known who the patron saint of the chapel was. The fourth church, the Saint Vitus Chapel, which stood on the ramparts of the Esztergom Castle is mentioned in a charter from 1284. Its ruins have been uncovered recently. The fifth church of mediaeval origin, the castle chapel of King Béla III can be found in the Royal Palace of the Árpád dynasty. This palace chapel is one of our architectural monuments with the earliest appearance of Gothic style, or the mixture of early Parisian Gothic style and late Romanesque architecture, to be more precise. These characteristics make it an outstanding monument of Hungarian mediaeval architecture. And finally, the sixth church is the Bakócz Chapel, the unique monument of Hungarian Renaissance architecture, built in the 16th century. In 1823 it was moved from its original location and added to the Basilica as a side-chapel.
The modern period saw the erection of only one church on the Castle Hill. It is, however, one which not only surpasses all its predecessors in its dimensions, but embodies all of their spiritual heritage as well. This is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and Saint Adalbert.
The Basilica was built on the site of the mediaeval church from 1822 to 1869 in Classicist style. Construction work was based on the plans of Pál Kühnel, János Packh and József Hild and supervised by four Prince Primates:
Sándor Rudnay (1819 -1831) -- coepit - commenced,
József Kopácsy (1838 - 1847) -- continuavit - continued,
János Scitovszky (1849 - 1866) consecravit - consecrated
János Simor (1867 - 1891) consummavit - completed.
The construction of the Esztergom Cathedral was the biggest church building project in the first part of the 19th century. Prince Primate Sándor Rudnay (1819 - 1831) started looking for an architect to draw up the plans for the new Cathedral in 1820. First, he commissioned Ludwig von Remy, the director of the Royal Architectural Chancery in Vienna to prepare the plans. At the same time, also one of Remy’s junior architects, the young Pál Kühnel drew up his own ideas and, in the end, the Prince Primate decided on Kühnel’s plans. In compliance with Rudnay’s instructions, Kühnel designed a huge ecclesiastical complex on the Castle Hill of Esztergom - a veritable Hungarian Vatican. Unfortunately, from this impressive plan only the Cathedral and some of the canonical houses were realized. Demolition and rubble removal work began and on 23 April 1822, the day of Saint Adalbert the foundation stone was laid. The construction manager was Pál Kühnel’s nephew, János Packh, to whom we owe the removal of the Bakócz Chapel to its present location. The red marble chapel built in the 16th century is the only remaining Renaissance monument in Hungary. Its preservation for posterity was the achievement of Packh, who incorporated the chapel into the Cathedral in 1823 after dismantling it in 1600 pieces and changing its orientation. The construction of the Basilica with Packh in charge proceeded at a good pace and by Primate Rudnay’s death in 1831 first the side-chapel on the right of the Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Stephen the Martyr, then one of the arches supporting the dome had been completed. When Rudnay died, the main walls of the building, the four huge pillars which were to support the dome and the connecting arches had already been erected and the building of the arch of the sanctuary had been under way.
The construction continued only after the appointment of the Bishop of Veszprém, József Kopácsy to the Archbishop of Esztergom (1839 - 1847). Then, however, a new obstacle occurred when János Packh, the expert manager of the construction was murdered in his home and the project was left without skilled supervision. Primate Kopácsy then commissioned József Hild to to proceed with further work. Hild constructed the dome with an iron structure, which was unprecedented in Hungary at that time, and he elevated the drum and surrounded it with columns. His aim was to increase the monumentality of the church by making it a spectacular view even from a greater distance. The construction proceeded without further impediment until the death of Primate Kopácsy in the autumn of 1847. By then, the arches had been completed and the cross had been placed to the top of the dome.
After a two-year stop, the newly appointed Prince Primate, János Scitovszky (1849 - 1866) continued the work with great effort. The consecration festivity took place on 31 August 1856 in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph and with the tunes of the Esztergom Mass composed by Ferenc Liszt specially for this occasion. The church, however, was still far from being completed: the portico of the main front was missing and the south side tower stood unfinished. The building of the portico started only in 1862 and though it was completed in quite a short time, work on the interior of the church went on well into the last three decades of the 19th century. After Scitovszky’s death in 1866, the appointment of the new Primate could not be postponed for long, as the coronation of the king, following the Compromise of 1867 was approaching, and it had to be performed by the Primate of Hungary. Early 1867 the Bishop of Győr, János Simor was appointed the new Prince Primate (1867 - 1891). He finished the construction of the monumental Basilica in two years. The keystone was placed on 1 November 1869. Simor all but reconstructed the Cathedral and improved its interior with many finer details. He relied on the support of architect József Lippert for his efforts.
The Esztergom Cathedral is, in spite of the different ideas of its builders, a monumentally simple, beautiful, harmonious and integral work, in short a genuine Classicist masterpiece.