The archabbey of Pannonhalma founded by Grand Prince Géza in 996 has played a prominent role in the Hungarian cultural heritage for more than a thousand years. This monastery is the first of the educational institutions in the country, an architectural masterpiece with traces of several centuries, the source and preserver of the earliest written texts in Hungarian, and last but not least, a World Heritage Site. However, religion and education in Pannonhalma are not only of historic importance but serve as a guideline for an existing monastic community too in accordance with the founder's will.
A thousand-year-old abbey
It was in 999 when Grand Prince Géza founded a monastery atop Szent Márton Hill (named after Martin of Tours), close to the western border. The area had been inhabited by Romans, Huns, Avars and Slavs long before Hungarians arrived. In early stages of Christianity Hungary was short of local clergy so the Prince invited Benedictine monks from Bohemia to be the first residents of the monastery. The monastery was important for Géza’s son, Stephen too, who vowed to donate all revenues from lands of his uncle Duke Koppány to the monastery, if he would defeat him in the forthcoming final battle for the throne.
As he became king, Stephen donated further estates and privileges that granted the monastery a status as strong as that of the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the birthplace of Benedictine Order. The most important element of this was the prescription of the abbot’s consent for secular jurisdiction over lands and people under monastic control.
Unfortunately, it is unclear why the first Christian building was named after St. Martin. Some sources suggest that Martin of Tours was born here and not in the ancient Roman town of Savaria (today Szombathely) as mainly believed. The date of dedication is uncertain, but it probably took place in the first years of King Stephen’s reign.
However, it is for sure that the monastery is at the same age as the state of Hungary, and the first monks there served as a major basis to choose senior members for the Hungarian clergy in early stages of Christianity.
The first generation of Benedictines with Hungarian origin soon grew up. The first „puer scolasticus” (schoolboy) who we know by name was Saint Maurus. He learnt and grew up in the monastery, lived there as a monk and later became the abbot. In 1036, he was appointed Bishop of Pécs by King Stephen.
Although kings of Hungary kept establishing Benedictine abbeys over the 11-12th century, their prestige and reputation did not compare to that of Pannonhalma Abbey. Estates and privileges were extended, the monastery was renovated and expanded, partly due to increasing private donations.
The first heyday of the monastery began in the first half of the 13th century under the leadership of Abbot Uros. He governed the monastery for 35 years, quite exceptional those days, and made considerable achievements, such as reconstructing monastery buildings, doubling estates and revenues and earning further privileges from kings and popes. It was under his management when the census of lands, people and services of Pannonhalma were first taken in 1239, which is one of the most significant sources for historical sociology from the early Middle Ages in Hungary. Abbot Uros must have been a highly influential and talented figure of his time, who was given important assignments by the king and the pope on a regular basis. Whenever he made a visit to Rome the monastery got stronger. His reputation was further built by the successful defence of the fortified monastery against the Mongols in 1242, and it was also him who helped the king after the lost battle of Mohi.
Political fights during the 14-15th century badly damaged the reputation of the monastery including a decline in morale among monks and wealth of the order.
In the early 1500s a complete moral and organizational recovery of the Hungarian Benedictine Order began by Abbot Máté Tolnai (Matthew of Tolna). The 8 royal abbeys were incorporated in a union under the leadership of Pannonhalma. In 1514, with the Pope’s approval Tolnai extended the union over the whole order in the country creating the third national Benedictine congregation in the world and making Pannonhalma the archabbey. Archabbot Tolnai being the first with this title had gained a dominant influence over the monasteries of the congregation.
Mainly due to the abbots’ outstanding contribution the abbey of Pannonhalma played a key role in the cultural life of medieval Hungary. Early medieval book and literary culture as well as legal literature have strong connections to the monastery and inventories both from the 11th and the 16th century certify this extraordinary cultural richness.
During the Turkish rule residents of the abbey were forced to relocate more times, while the church and more residential buildings were devastated by fire once. Pannonhalma was occupied and burned by Turkish troops in 1585 causing the rest of the monks to flee.
After the Turkish occupation military activity in Pannonhalma ended and reorganizing the order as well as reconstructing the buildings could begin. In the 18th century, upon Queen Maria Theresa’s recommendation, the monastery was remodelled in Baroque style and the role of education was further enhanced.
In 1786, his son, Joseph II banned the Benedictine order together with many others and closed the monastery of Pannonhalma, as part of his secularization concept. This was a tremendous disaster to the abbey because values of several centuries were scavenged or, in some lucky cases, ended up in archives and university libraries. It was not until 1802 that the order was rehabilitated by Emperor Franz II in a way that secondary education was prescribed as their primary role. Accordingly, Benedictine communities started to teach in towns of west Hungary and monastic life continued in monasteries of Pannonhalma, Bakonybél, Tihany, Zalaapáti and Celldömölk. As the order was shifting towards education the role of teachers’ training gained more and more importance. Openness to sciences made Pannonhalma one of the cultural centres of the Reform Era (1825-48). It was in this period when the name “Pannonhalma” was first ever used in correspondence between theologist Izidor Guzmics (former student in Pannonhalma) and renowned author Ferenc Kazinczy.
The impressive library building and the classical tower were built in the 19th century as well as the interior of the cathedral and the cloister was restored by Ferenc Stornó. The 20th century did not start well for the monastery as it was greatly impacted by WWI. Between the two world wars the secondary school was constructed, however, properties and schools of the order were nationalized past WWII. It was only Pannonhalma and Győr where education and monastic life were allowed.
After the political changes at the end of the 80s the abbey was returned to the Benedictine Order. In 1996, an overall refurbishment finished and the abbey was listed as a World Heritage Site. In modern times the abbey has got involved in additional activities and revived some old traditions. They established a winery, an arboretum, a herbs garden and a restaurant as well as cultural events are frequent too.
Parts of the abbey open to the public
The basilica and the crypt
Saint Martin Basilica was mostly built in the early 13th century in early Gothic style during the times of Abbot Uros and dedicated probably in 1224. The building with a length of 50 meters and 3 naves is divided into 4 distinct parts. It was extended during the reign of Matthew I, when the stellar vault of the shrine, the eastern end of the side aisles and St. Benedict Chapel were constructed. During the Turkish occupation the interior was completely devastated. Major reconstruction works began in the 1720s during the times of Abbot Benedek Sajghó and in the 1860s by Ferenc Stornó. A masterpiece of classical architecture, the tower over the entrance with a height of 55 metres was also built in the 19th century.
The most recent renovation took place in 2012 by the plans of English architect John Pawson with a focus on restoring the monastic character as the basilica is primarily the home and heart of the local Benedictine community. Süttő limestone floor, solid nut wood furniture, tarnished copper lamps are meant to represent this peaceful and strong world.
The recessed seat made of red marble in the crypt dates back to the 13th century and it is believed to have been used by King Stephen I. Relics of Saint Martin, the patron of the monastery are also placed here.
Porta speciosa (ornate gate) and cloister
One of the main entrances to the church built in the 13th century is called Porta Speciosa (ornate gate). It connects the cloister with the church so it was used only by the residents. The richly ornate portal with red marble and limestone columns, arches and carvings features a painting of Saint Martin as its centrepiece.
The cloister was constructed during the times of Matthias I, probably finished in 1486 by royal craftsmen. The inner garden surrounded by the cloister was often referred to as Paradisum (Paradise) where mainly herbs were grown.
Reading, accurate recordkeeping, fostering culture have always been a top priority in the life of the monastery. Although today’s classical building of the library was built only in the 19th century, ancient manuscripts and spiritual heritage have greatly contributed to its overall value.
Nearly 30 (around half) of Hungarian documents from the 11-12th century are held in Pannonhalma, many of which written by local monks. Although in the archives not open to the public, the charter of the Abbey of Tihany (1055), which is the first linguistic record (partly) in Hungarian.
According to a document from the times of Ladislaus I (around 1090) Pannonhalma possessed 80 books with around 200 works including those of ancient authors at the time. When the order was disbanded in 1786, they had a collection of more than 4000 volumes. In 1802, only 757 volumes and 27 manuscripts were returned, which needed just a few rooms for storage. The sharp increase in the number of books in the early 19th century called for the decision to build a new library.
The longitudinal part of the building was planned and built by Ferenc Engel in the 1820s. In the 1830s, the architect of the Esztergom Basilica János Packh was assigned to expand the building and build the oval hall. The interior was ornamented by Josef Kleibert from Vienna. The gypsum king statues (King Stephen I, the founder, Emperor Franz II, the restorer), which were just recently replaced to their original site, are also his works. The central fresco of the longitudinal hall displays Athene (Minerva). The short side walls feature portraits of ancient sages, philosophers and scientists as well as prominent figures of Hungarian culture.
The hallway hosts an exhibition on local archaeology and history. Copies of vital Hungarian manuscripts, such as the charter of the monastery (1001), the charter of the Abbey of Tihany (1055) and the records of the survey in 1086. The originals are kept in the archives.
Arboretum and herbs garden
The Benedictines have put a great emphasis on growing herbs for healing since the beginnings. However, from the 19th century on, they have been conscious to create and maintain a natural environment for themselves too. In 1830, the arboretum had 80 species of trees and shrubs. In the 1840s, it was redesigned into an English garden by Benedictine monk Fábián Szeder. Today the garden has more hundreds of trees and shrubs with several unique ones among them and an extensive population of singing birds.
Next to a large lavender field a herbs garden awaits visitors to learn about herbs and spice plants, how lavender oil is made and even to taste herbal teas.
Our Lady Chapel
The Baroque burial chapel was built on a hill opposite the abbey in 1714. Originally, it was aimed to serve as a parish church for non-native locals living nearby. It was remodelled in Romantic style in 1865, when walls and the portal were ornamented. The interior hides Baroque altars and a small organ from the 18th century. The crypt below is still used as a burial place for local monks so that part is closed to the public.
The Millennium Monument
In 1896, seven monuments were erected in the country to commemorate the Millenium of the Magyar occupation in the Carpathian Basin. One of them is still standing in Pannonhalma (the other one left of the seven is in Ópusztaszer). The building is topped with a simple dome, columns of the main wall support the tympanum. Generally, it resembles a scaled-down classical museum. The monument has never been completed. Although renowned painter Vilmos Aba-Novák began to paint a fresco in the 1830s, it remained unfinished. Visitors cannot enter the building.