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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, Template:Lang-sl) is a former Cistercian monastery in Szentgotthárd in Vas County in the south-west of Hungary, about 3 km from the present border with Austria and 18 km from that with Slovenia.


History of Building the Monastery and the Church

Foundation and Period of Prosperity: 1183-1391

In 1183, Hungarian king Béla III [‘beιlə] (1173-1196) founded a monastery in honor of Saint Gotthard in the countryside where the rivers Raba and Lapincs [LΛpint∫] (in German: Raab and Lafnitz) meet and Cistercian monks were settled there from Trois Fontaines, France. Twelve monks arrived in our country lead by an abbot. With the founding the king had the intention to give help to his folk in farming the land, because the Cistercians had highly developed agriculture. Béla III entrusted them too with the task of establishing settlements in this border-land, and bringing them into the circulation of the country. The Cistercians started to build their new monastery-centre in 1184, which is evidenced by the foundations of the monastery and church excavated by archaeologists. The building complex itself, with its 94 m long and 44 m wide foundations was unambitious, but capable of further extension. The monastery started to flourish soon. In the Szentgotthárd district – in the surroundings of the new monastery – agricultural settlements were established, in the form of small villages built one after the other, in a short time.

King Sigismund [Zsigmond, жigmәnd] (Affiliation: House of Luxemburg; 1361-1437) in 1391 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 actions the warriors of the monastery marched under the banner of the Széchy’s and they had a say in the abbot-election. 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 get back to their monastery in 1556, Margit Széchy banished them from Szentgotthárd with her armed forces. The 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. An old adage is: “Stones are speaking.” The ancient stones of Szentgotthárd are also speaking and sadly bearing witness to the irretrievable consequences of human short-sightedness and destruction. One is always overcome with emotions when they look at the apsis of the old church, where the one-time altar stood, the traces of the ambulatory, the remains of the pillars separating the two aisles from the nave, the place where the Cistercians used to “pray and work” and celebrate holy-mass. From 1605 the residents of Szentgotthárd had no church for seventy years and the believers had to go to nearby Rábakéthely [Rabəkeιthej] for church services.

Age of Non-Cistercians: 1675-1734

György Széchenyi [djərdj ‘seιt∫enι] archbishop of Kalocsa acquired the Monastery’s right of presentation from Leopold I (Lipót, King of Hungary 1640–1705 and Holy Roman Emperor). This high-eruditioned and energetic man had reconstructed the ruins of the church, so with the partial use of the former stones, between 1676-1677, 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 [yo:жef]), uncrowned King of Hungary (the hatted king, son of Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Emperor 1765-1790), the church’s spirelet was demolished and turned into a granary. From then on, the church was simply referred to as a “granary-church”. It should be noted here, that the large, unused building was finally taken in hand by the town-council, and in 1988 the building was transformed into Town Theatre with great financial sacrifices. 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 got back the Monastery of Szentgotthárd for the Cistercian order. The document about this presentation was dated 29th July, 1734 and signed in Vienna by Emperor Charles III (father of Maria Theresa, king of Hungary 1711-1740 and Holy Roman Emperor as Charles VI 1685-1740.) Five ordained priests and two laymen arrived with the first group of the new “settlers” from Heiligenkreuz. The two laymen had an important role in the embellishment of the monastery and the baroque church of Szentgotthárd. Their names are worth mentioning: painter Matthias Gusner and carpenter, woodcarver Kaspar Schretzenmayer master craftsmen. 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), the Europe-reputed architect born in Vienna 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 14th 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 above mentioned “granary-church” has 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. If one looks at the other famous abbeys of modern Austria – Heiligenkreuz, Lilienfeld, or Melk on the Danube – one can not help realizing sadly, that the terrible disasters of historical destiny robbed Szentgotthárd of such values, but we need not be ashamed of the remains handed down to us.


The inscription on the traceried façade of the church informs us that the construction was started by abbot Robert Leeb and finished by his successor abbot Alberik. The consecration ceremony was held on 16th March 1779 by Szombathely’s first bishop János Szily, who was so inspirited in all probability by the new splendid, baroque church as to dream his own cathedral as a similar “dynamic and picturesque“ one.

Ceiling pictures

Our church, which is one of the most beautiful baroque shrines of Hungary, preaches the victory of faith not only with its building-form, but also with the interior design and ornaments. 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 (so called 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 Holy Crucifix of Jesus. 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 whit seven seals (c.f. Book of Revelation 5, 1-5), which contains the eternal plans of God Almighty. He is the only one who deserves to open the book and proclaim the secrets on the day of judgement.


The High Altar 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 1st 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 Franca 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 St Jacob´s fountain. 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 Budapest „Aquincum” organ factory.


The church of Szentgotthárd proclaims a historical message, a unique doctrine for both visitors and believers. This is summarized by Dr. Zlinszky Sternegg Mária [zlιnskι ∫ternegg Marιa] as follows: “The first section of the church proclaims the dogma of the Unity of the Saints... The picture illustrates the victory of the Christians by means of the unworld over the faithless. The praying Church mediates the victory. The victory is a sign which should fill our lives: You can rely on the help of the supernatural powers in all difficulties...The Crucifix, as royal banner preaches the victory of the Good over the Evil, the victory of God´s hosts over Satan. The individual believer can take part in this victory, by contemplating the passion of Jesus Christ, adding their own passions to the passion of Jesus, regretting their sins and atoning. You can share in the redemption of the cross, if you die as a truthful person after a fruitful life. This can be achieved by means of a guardian angel, saying our prayers and keeping vigil. The encouragement for the true life is given by the words of God, which are voiced from the pulpit. The victory of the Holy Lamb proclaims the abolishion of the sins and the resurrection of the body. The countless names of the truthful are recorded in the Book of Life. And St Mary’s apotheosis is the first example of resurrection, which has been promised for every believer. The Church itself preaches the new growth and the eventual victory to this day.”


  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 version edit/upload: Zoltan Fuzi 2009

External links


hu:Szentgotthárdi ciszterci apátság

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