The history of St Stephen’s Basilica
Why was the Basilica built?
St Stephen’s Basilica stands in a slightly elevated area on the flat Pest side of Budapest. In 1838 there was a great flood in Pest (at that time Buda and Pest were not united yet) and many people found shelter on the very place where the Basilica is situated now. Those who survived the flood gave generous donations to erect a church as a token of their gratitude.
But in fact, the need for a church in this part of the city was already expressed in 1817, two decades before the flood of the river Danube flushed out large parts of Pest. So it’s more true to say that the flood gave some immediacy for the plans to have a church in ‘Leopold town’ (as this district of Pest is still referred to).
1850’s – after the revolution
The short historical context is that Hungarians were in utter turmoil in the middle of the 19th century. They thought that they no longer needed Austrians to rule over them, take away their lands, savings, send their sons to wars for Austria, etc. Hungarians wanted to use Hungarian as the official language not German and wanted to have their own press, their own freedom in short.
So in 1848/49 many a Hungarians (and neighbouring ethnic groups) fought in the biggest Hungarian revolution to get rid of the Austrian emperors. And it failed. (but Hungarians still celebrate its brightest moment, March 15 as a national holiday!)
Neoclassicist style vs Neo-renaissance style
Now building the basilica started right after the revolution in 1851, when the mood of Hungarians couldn’t have been gloomier with all the execution of leading Hungarian thinkers and patriotic aristocrats in 1849, imprisonments of freedom fighters, etc.
While the revolution was a hopeful and romantic moment in the nation’s life, the failure was sobering. Romanticism was gone. Sober and cool stylistically manifested in neoclassicism.
No wonder that in the post-revolutionary Hungary the most popular architectural style was neoclassical. So Jozsef Hild started to design the ‘house of souls’ in a style that revokes rational balance, and stoic harmony. And indeed St Stephen’s Basilica is a massive piece of balance and strength.
Two deaths, three architects
Hild, however, died 16 years later, so in 1867 Miklos Ybl took over the basilica project (most well-known for designing the magnificent Opera House in Budapest).
1867 was the year when the Hungarians and Austrians could find a political solution, the so called Austro-Hungarian Compromise, which would more or less suit suppressed Hungarians too: it was the start of dualism when Hungary was no longer subject to the Austrian Empire, although the Austrian Emperor-King remained the unified commander-in-chief.
With the political and social revitalisation, there came artistic revival too. The new architectural style Miklos Ybl tried to inject into the original neoclassical Basilica was neo-renaissance.
The dome in the Basilica
One day the dome collapsed. So Ybl had even more scope and reason to make changes in the original design.
Works continued for several years, but Ybl grew too old to see his project finished.
When he died in 1891 a third architect took over the project (Jozsef Kauser) who followed Ybl’s design and the basilica was finally completed in 1905, 54 years after the founding stone was laid.
The consecration of the basilica took place in 1905, and not much later in 1906 Franz Joseph put the keystone on its place.