Following Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Esztergom Basilica was the third biggest church in Europe at the time of its construction. Construction works began in 1822 on the site of a one-time church built by Stephen I. It is home to the world’s largest altarpiece painted on a single piece of canvas.
The Primatial Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary Assumed Into Heaven and St Adalbert, or simply the Esztergom Basilica sitting on Várhegy (Castle Hill) is the biggest church in Hungary with an area of 5,600 sqm. It is the centre of the Catholic Church in Hungary.
It was built on the site of more churches. One of them named after Saint Stephen, the Protomartyr and built by Grand Prince Géza used to stand near the northern tower. The legend has it that this is where Géza’ son Vajk (later Stephen I) was born.
The other supposed predecessor of the basilica was the Cathedral of St. Adalbert established by Stephen I. According to historical document it already existed by 1010. After serious damages and reconstructions throughout history it was completely devastated during the Turkish era except a Rennaissance side-chapel built by Archbishop Tamás Bakócz in the early 16th century. When construction works of the new basilica began Bakócz Chapel was dismantled into 1,600 pieces and reconstructed as the left-side chapel with a rotated floorplan. This is the only entire Rennaissance building in the country.
Construction of the basilica started in 1822 commissioned by Archbishop Sándor Rudnay and designed by Pál Kühnel. Practically, the construction was managed by Kühnel’s nephew János Packh and preserving the Bakócz Chapel as well as building the crypt in Egyptian style was initiated by him. After Packh’s death in 1839, József Hild was assigned to continue the works. He raised the dome and surrounded it with pillars, which made the building even more monumental.
The basilica was dedicated in 1856, however, it was incomplete. Especially for the ceremony, a mass was composed by Franz Liszt (“Gran” Mass, the German name for Esztergom), who conducted the orchestra himself in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph I. The classicist building has considerable dimensions with a length of 118 metres, a width of 49 metres, a dome height of 71.5 metres (inside). Its tympanum is supported by 8 pillars of 22 metres and walls are 17 metres thick. The altarpiece was painted by Michelangelo Grigoletti on the basis of a Tiziano painting and it is the largest in the world painted on a single piece of canvas.
The copestone was placed on November 1, 1869. By then it was the fourth Archbishop and the third chief architect in charge since the beginning of the works.
The Catheral Treasury on the first floor is the richest church treasury in the country with a huge golden cross from the 15th century called Matthias’ Calvary, the cross of the coronation oath from the Árpád era as well as an extensive collection of goldsmith and textile items.
The Panorama Room on the second floor offers a splendid view over the Danube. Besides a café it is also home to events and exhibitions. The crypt built in ancient Egyptian style serves as a burial place for senior members of the clergy.
In 2019 the first overall construction project started in the history of the basilica aiming to renovate the entrance area, the northern aisle and the dome. An elevator will be installed for easy access to the Treasury and the Panorama Room upstairs. Furthermore, the crypt will be insulated and minor restoration works will be carried out.
The basilica is open to the public even during the construction works.