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Interior, Gellért Hill Church

Gellert Hill Cave and an Unusual Church with a Brutal History

Gellért Hill in Budapest, Hungary was named after Bishop Gellért, who was thrown to his death by pagans in the fight against Christianity in 1046. Unusually for statues, the choice of location is fitting since this was the place where Bishop Gellért was tied up and pushed down into the river. His statue can be seen from many parts of Budapest. 

The Gellért Hill Cave is part of a network of caves within the hill. Saint Istvan, a  hermit who lived there is believed to have used the natural thermal water of the lake next to the cave to heal the sick. It is possible that this water also fed the pools of the Gellért Baths, one of the most famous thermal spa  baths in Europe.

Statue of Bishop Gellért

Statue of Bishop Gellért (Robin Stevens / CC BY 2.0 )

The Pauline Monks Created a Church in the Cave Once Occupied by St Istavan

The first modern entrance for the caves was constructed by a group of Pauline monks which is a monastic order of the Roman Catholic Church, founded in Hungary during the 13th century. Their name derives from the hermit, Saint Paul of Thebes, who is regarded as the first Christian hermit. He lived alone in the Egyptian desert from the age of sixteen until he died in approximately 345 AD at the age of one hundred and thirteen years old. 

The Church, located inside Gellért Hill, isn't your typical church with high vaults and gilded interior. It has an unusual setting of being inside a natural cave system formed by thermal springs.

The church was concecrated in 1926 and originally the congregation was seated outdoors on the terrace with the altar located at the entrance of the cave. Expansion and structural reinforcement followed throughout the 1930s and during World War II, the church served as a hospital and asylum for the Nazi Germany army.

Statue of Saint Istavan on Gellért Hill

Statue of Saint Istavan on Gellért Hill (Dennis Jarvis / CC BY 2.0 )

In 1945, the Soviet’s Red Army captured Budapest. For six years, the cave continued its religious functions, but in 1951, the State Protection Authority (the secret police of Hungary) raided the chapel as part of increasing action against the Catholic Church. As a result of the raid, the cave was sealed with a thick concrete wall.  The monks and their leader, Ferenc Vezér, were all captured

During The Communist Era, the Monks Were Prosecuted and Imprisoned

Ferenc Vezér had been in trouble with the law before. In December 1944 he defended a young women who was being threatened by a soldier. After a brief skirmish, the gun went off and the Russian soldier died. Then in 1945, the police arrested him for his anti-communist statements, but he was acquitted. His arrest in March, 1951 was linked to charges against the Catholic Church. He and his monks were tortured during the interrogations. Then in June of the same year he was found guilty of inciting the death of 30 soldiers and was sentenced to death. On August 3, 1951, he was executed and his remains were buried in an undisclosed grave. The remaining brothers were imprisoned for ten years and in some cases, longer. In 1992, the Supreme Court posthumously acquitted him of all charges. His body was found after a lengthy search and buried in a cemetery in Rákoskeresztúr.

Sacrament Chapel, Church in Gellért Hill

Sacrament Chapel, Church in Gellért Hill (Dennis Jarvis / CC BY 2.0 )

After restoration, the Church in Gellért Hill reopened in 1991 and given back to the Pauline monks and it continues to serve as a church today. The small church contains some curious features…Besides being rumored to connect to a vast system of underground tunnels, the cave church has a replica of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland. Black Madonna’s are paintings or statues of the Virgin Mary that, for debated reasons, have turned black. They are believed to be miraculous and one in particular is said to have saved her Pauline church from fire. Since then the Pauline Monks have worshiped her mysteriously dark visage.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland

Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland (Catholic Church / CC BY 2.0 )

In many cases, the Madonna’s have darkened as a result of physical factors such as the deterioration of lead-based pigments, accumulated smoke from the use of votive candles, and an accumulation of grime over the centuries. Then there are those that have turned black with no ready explanation. One prominent theory is briefly summarized by Stephen Benko: "The Black Madonna is the ancient earth-goddess converted to Christianity." His argument begins by noting that many goddesses were pictured as black, among them Artemis of Ephesus, Isis, Ceres, and others. Ceres, the Roman goddess of agricultural fertility, is particularly important. Her Greek equivalent, Demeter, derives from  Ge-meter or Earth Mother. The best fertile soil is black in color and the blacker it is, the more suited it is for agriculture.

Explore the Cave or Attend a Service

Visitors entering the church are expected to dress modestly. Women’s shoulders should be covered and if not, shawls will be provided at the entrance that can be returned at the end of their visit.

Service is held three times a day with an additional service on Sunday. Tourist visits not allowed during services.

Now a residential area, private homes and embassies line the streets winding up the hill. Since 1987, Gellért Hill has been listed as a world heritage site, as part of the Banks of the Danube area.

Top image: Interior, Gellért Hill Church         Source: ( Public Domain )

By Michelle Freson

References

Dylan. 2015. Budapest Cave Church . Atlas Obscura

Available at: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/budapest-cave-church

2013. Gellért Hill. Visit Budapest Travel

Available at: http://visitbudapest.travel/guide/budapest-attractions/gellert-hill/

https://www.lonelyplanet.com/hungary/budapest/attractions/cave-church/a/poi-sig/411940/359522

Duricy, M. Black Madonnas: Origin, History, Controversy. All About Mary. University of Dayton.

Available at: https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/b/black-madonnas-origin-history-controversy.php

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