Budapest Stories and Tips

St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika)

Tympanum over Main Portal, St. Stephen's Basilica Photo, Budapest, Hungary

St. Stephen’s Basilica, V. Szent István tér 1, Tel: (1) 317 2859

St. Stephen’s is the largest church in Budapest (we heard that it can seat 8,500 worshipers). The Basilica was built between 1848 and 1905, and is dedicated to St. Istvan, the first crowned king of Hungary (crowned in 1001) and the man responsible for bringing Christianity to the Hungarian people.

The Basilica is a spectacular example of neo-classical architecture – from its broad façade to its ornate marble and gilt interior. The soaring 315-foot high neo-Renaissance dome was added following the 1868 collapse of the church’s original dome (the pamphlet we purchased from the church blames faulty workmanship and materials for the collapse). The building also suffered damage during World War II, but we didn’t see any outright evidence during our October 2001 visit. The square in front of the Basilica was undergoing extensive construction, however, and it will continue for the foreseeable future. We were told that the Basilica itself had undergone extensive renovations during the 1980s. As a result, the interior of the Basilica is simply breathtaking.

The church’s interior reflects its grand and austere façade. The spectacular altar features a small marble baldachin that houses a statue of St. Istvan. Scenes from the king/saint’s life are portrayed behind the altar. The interior of the gilded dome is decorated with mosaic work depicting angels and saints. All of the impressive artwork within the basilica was done by Hungarian artists, sculptors and artisans. One painting of particular note depicts King Istvan offering his country to the Virgin, the patron saint of Hungary. This image, painted by Gyula Benczur, can be seen in the central chapel on the right of the main aisle (if you are facing the main altar).

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of St. Stephen’s is the Chapel of the Holy Right Hand. Encased in an elaborate reliquary is the mummified forearm of St. Stephen himself. Even stranger – the reliquary will light up for a better view when a donation of 100 ft is placed in a nearby alms box. It’s definitely worth a look. And once you finally stop staring at the gnarled black hand and forearm, you’ll notice that artistry and craftsmanship of the reliquary and the chapel are outstanding in their own right.

Be sure to take your time when exploring this fascinating church. Check out all of the little nooks and chapels; sit down and soak up the meticulous artwork that adorns the ceilings, walls, columns and floors. I was able to visit the small Chapel of Saint Jobb behind the altar, which is accessible through double doors to the left of the altar. In that chapel, I caught a glimpse of the beautiful sacristy (they left a door open that I could peer past –just be mindful of signs that designate tourist areas). The church is awe-inspiring in its size, artwork, and significance to the Hungarian people.

We didn’t go up into the bell tower, which is said to offer good views of the city. The right bell tower houses a 9-ton bell – the largest in Hungary. The bell was a gift to Budapest paid for by German Catholics to replace the original bell, which was taken by invading Nazis during World War II.

Admission to the Basilica is free; admission to climb the tower ranges between 400-600ft depending on the time of year.

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