Szentgotthárd Abbey

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The Baroque abbey church

Szentgotthárd Abbey[1] (Hungarian: Szentgotthárdi ciszterci apátság; German: Kloster Sankt Gotthard; Latin: Abbatia Sancti Gotthardi, Slovene: Monoštrska cistercijanska opatija, Prekmurje Slovene: Monošterski cistercijánski klošter) is a former Cistercian monastery in Szentgotthárd in Vas County in southwest Hungary, about 3 km from the Austrian border and 18 km from the Slovenian border.


Foundation and Prosperity: 1183–1391

Another view of the abbey

In 1183, Hungarian King Béla III (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈbeːlɒ]; 1173–1196) founded a monastery in honor of Saint Gotthard in the countryside at the confluence of the Rába and Lapincs (Hungarian pronunciation: [ˈlɒpint͡ʃ]) rivers. Cistercian monks were settled there from Trois-Fontaines Abbey, France. Twelve monks arrived in Hungary, led by an abbot. With this founding the king hoped to give help to the local farmers because the Cistercians had highly developed agriculture. Béla III also gave the Cistercians the task of establishing settlements in this borderland and bringing them into the mainstream of the country. The Cistercians started to build their new monastic centre in 1184 (confirmed by archaeological excavation of the foundations of the monastery and church). The building complex itself, with its 94 m by 44 m foundations, was unambitious, but capable of further extension. The monastery started to flourish soon. In the Szentgotthárd district around the new monastery, small agricultural villages were quickly established.

In 1391, King Sigismund (Zsigmond) (Affiliation: House of Luxemburg; 1361–1437) gave the right of presentation of the Monastery in Szentgotthárd to the palatine Miklós Széchy and his son. This right at first merely meant that on the occasion of war or other fighting the warriors of the monastery marched under the Széchy’s banner and they had a say in electing the abbot. Later, the patrons wielded absolute power over the monastery, which was the occasion of many abuses.

Age of the Tyranny of Margit Széchy and the Széchys: 1550–1675

The monastery was rebuilt into a fortified castle in those years, to serve as a defence against the advancing Ottomans. Therefore, the monks were displaced. When the Cistercians wanted to return to their monastery in 1556, Margit Széchy banished them from Szentgotthárd with her armed forces. This gentlewoman, wielding the right of patronage, caused unforeseeable damage with her action. Namely, the Cistercians would definitely have defended their church and their monastery against the measure of Rudolf I’s (King of Hungary 1576-1608 and Holy Roman Emperor as Rudolf II 1576–1612) general, town-governor Wolfgang Tieffenbach, who had the valuable building complex relentlessly blown up after hearing rumours of the Bocskay uprising. One could still see the apse of the old church, where the altar stood, the traces of the ambulatory, the remains of the pillars separating the two aisles from the nave, and the place where the Cistercians used to pray, work, and celebrate mass. After 1605 the residents of Szentgotthárd had no church for seventy years and the believers had to go to nearby Rábakéthely [ˈraːbɒkeːthɛj] for church services.

Age of Non-Cistercians: 1675–1734

György Széchenyi [ˈɟørɟ ˈseːt͡ʃeːɲi], archbishop of Kalocsa, acquired the monastery’s right of presentation from Leopold I (Lipót, King of Hungary 1640–1705 and Holy Roman Emperor). This erudite and energetic man rebuilt the ruins of the church, so with the partial use of the former stones, between 1676 and 1677, the second church of the town was built, in which there were three altars in the single nave: in honour of Saint Gotthard, the Crucified Saviour, and the Mater Dolorosa. After the third church had been built in the middle of the 18th century, this second one gradually lost its significance. Under Joseph II (József II), uncrowned King of Hungary (the hatted king, son of Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Emperor 1765-1790), the church’s spire was demolished and turned into a granary. From then on, the church was simply referred to as a “granary-church”. The large, unused building was finally taken in hand by the town council, and in 1988 the building was transformed into the town theatre at great expense. Today it is an essential part of the art relic group with its landscaped, pleasantly arranged surroundings.

Age of Heiligenkreuz: 1734–1878

After several ups and downs, Robert Leeb (1728–1755), the abbot of Heiligenkreuz, was able to secure the Monastery of Szentgotthárd for the Cistercian order. The document about this presentation was dated 29 July 1734 and signed in Vienna by Emperor Charles III. Five ordained priests and two laymen arrived with the first group of the new “settlers” from Heiligenkreuz. Two laymen had an important role in embellishing of the monastery and the baroque church of Szentgotthárd: the painter Matthias Gusner and the carpenter and woodcarver Kaspar Schretzenmayer. Robert Leeb was a very learned, open-minded, creative abbot, a man of action, who wanted to revive the monastery of Szentgotthárd. Therefore, he commissioned Franz Anton Pilgram (1699–1761) to prepare plans for the new monastery and church. The execution of the great idea had been started in 1740 and the monks could move into the half-made building in 1746. The foundation stone of the church was laid only on 14 August 1748, but the building proceeded so fast that before the end of the rebuilding the church was blessed by Fritz Alberik, successor of Robert Leeb, who had died in the meantime. Unfortunately economic difficulties were too hard on the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz, so the original plan could not be realised. For example, only half of the monastery was built. After the foundations had been built, the northern wing was never started. The “granary-church” survived in this way and avoided demolition. In short, the devastation of the ancient monastery and the first church deprived Szentgotthárd of a mediaeval monument-group of inestimable worth. The financial difficulties faced during the construction in the 18th century prevented Pilgram's great plans from being finished.


The inscription on the traceried façade of the church states that the construction was started by abbot Robert Leeb and finished by his successor Abbot Alberik. The consecration ceremony was held on 16 March 1779 by Szombathely’s first bishop János Szily, who was probably inspired by the new splendid, Baroque church to dream of his own cathedral as a similar “dynamic and picturesque“ one.

Ceiling paintings

The church has a rich interior design and ornamentation. Entering the church, one will see the first vault-section’s fresco depicting the Christians’ victory over the Ottomans at Szentgotthárd. It was painted by the Austrian-born Stephan Dorfmeister (1725–1797), who mainly worked in Hungary. The characters in large lettering (known as a chronostikon) in the Roman inscription on one side of the picture conceal the year of the battle: 1664. The English translation of the legend: “The Moon is spread out on the ground by the arms of King Lipót” (Leopold I, 1640–1705, also Holy Roman Emperor), and on the opposite side: “As the foe of the faith ran routed by Thee, so let this place be in safety under Thy protection, Our Lady.” In the second vault-section, in the centre of the church Matthias Gusner’s (1694–1772) fresco can be seen: “The Triumph of the Crucifix”. In the picture light is streaming from God’s name Jahweh, which is used in the Old Testament. Leading the host of heaven, the Archangel Michael is fighting for the victory of this name so as to defeat the Evil. The name of the archangel itself means: “Who can compare to God?” The Devil’s heresy is annihilated by the tool of redemption: the Crucifix. In the third vault-section over the sanctum was painted by Stephen Dorfmeister John the Evangelist’s apparition in Pathmos: “The Heavenly Altar of God’s Lamb”. As a result of his sacrifice, the victorious Lamb sits on a book with seven seals (cf. Book of Revelation 5, 1–5), which contains the eternal plans of God Almighty.


As a Cistercian custom, the church's painting of the high altar illustrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas which is a so-called apocryphon, the Apostles found Mary’s grave empty, from which the sweet scent of rose was emanating. The disciples of Jesus Christ recoiled first, then in the clouds of the sky they caught sight of the Blessed Virgin glorified in body and soul, taken into heaven. The church has voiced from the beginning Mary’s being taken into heaven, which was proclaimed a dogma by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950. The Cistercians revere the mother of Jesus as the patroness of their order, Queen of Heaven, and the order in Hungary often calls her Our Lady. Going back from the sanctum towards the entrance, the visitor can see the first side altar on the right, which was erected in honour of Saint Bernard (1090–1153), who is known as “the honey-lipped doctor” (Doctor Mellifluus; the world “doctor” also meant “teacher” in Latin). The Cistercian order – as a stricter branch of the Benedictine order – was established by St. Robert of Molesme in 1098. The second abbot of the order was St. Alberic succeeded by the third Stephen Harding. St. Bernard joined the Cistercians during his time with 30 others consisting mainly of his relations. The tradition of the order regards him as the founder of the Cistercians. In his figure they respect the great orator, devout spiritual writer and prayerful ascetic. In the painting the crucified Christ is bending down towards St. Bernard, who is contemplating the passion of the Savior. On both sides of the altar one can see sculptures of angels holding the “arma Christi”, the tools of Christ’s passion. The oval middle-picture depicts the painful mother holding on her lap the dead body of Christ, so called Pieta and the reliefs portray Saint Peter and Mary Magdalene. The second side altar commemorates St. Gotthard (960–1038), patron saint of the church, who was a contemporary of St. Stephen (Szent István, 997–1038), first king of Hungary. St. Gotthard was enthroned as Bishop of Hildesheim as a pious Benedictine monk. His reverence spread soon in the Christian West. The painting illustrates one of the saint’s miracles. On either side of the altar one can see the sculptures of St. Barbara and St. Catherine of Alexandria, in the oval picture St. Sebastian and St. Roch, and the reliefs represent St. Margaret of Hungary and St. Dorothea. As we walk back from the entrance towards the sanctum, the rear altar on the right hand commemorates the canonized kings of Hungary. In the large painting you can see the saved St. Stephen, St. Ladislaus (László) and Prince St. Emeric. An angel with drawn sword and holding the Hungarian shield battles for our nation. On the sides of the altar are the sculptures of two early Christian martyrs: St. Agnes and St. Apollonia. The saints in the oval picture in the middle are also Roman martyrs, the two brothers: John and Paul. The reliefs represent St. Adalbert and St. Hedwig. On the right hand the fourth (last) altar is dedicated to the honour of St. Joseph, the patron saint of dying people. At the bedside of Jesus´ foster-father are standing the Lord of Life and the Blessed Virgin, who prepare the carpenter of Nazareth for the “long journey”. One of the angels is holding a sign in his hand preaching a moral lesson: “lo and behold, the way a just man dies”. On the sides of the altar you can see the sculptures of angels. In the middle of the oval picture is a painting of a guardian angel, and on the reliefs are the figures of abbess St. Frances and St. Wendelin. The paintings of the main and the side altars are indicative of the talent of Matthias Gusner.

Other furnishings

The artistically carved pulpit on the left side of the triumphal arch deserves special attention. Two little angels are sitting on the basket decorated with garlands. In the middle you can see a relief: Jesus teaches the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. The angels hold the symbols of the Old and New Testaments: the two stone tablets of Moses and the papal tiara. In the glass coffin under the pulpit lies St. Vincent martyr's relic-skeleton. The richly decorated choir with twenty seats, the benches and the sacristy's dressing cupboards were carved by Kaspar Schretzenmayer (1693–1782) layman brother. The pulpit was made in his workshop too – during the talented joiner’s faithful service lasting forty-years. The sculptures of the church are works of Joseph Schnitzer (1707–1769), a Cistercian sculptor from Heiligenkreuz. The first organ of the church was built in 1764 in the workshop of organ builder Ferdinand Schwartz. In 1987, a new mechanism was built into the nice baroque organ by the Aquincum organ factory in Budapest.


  1. ^ Janauschek number 470


  • Genthon, István, 1974: Kunstdenkmäler in Ungarn, ein Bildhandbuch, pp. 443–444, with two illustrations of the Baroque church. Budapest: Corvina Kiadó ISBN 963-13-0622-4
  • English translation: Zoltan Fuzi 2009

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 46°57′13″N 16°16′23″E / 46.9536°N 16.2731°E / 46.9536; 16.2731