Insider’s Guide: Matthias Church in Budapest

  • 8 Jun 2023 12:33 PM
Insider’s Guide: Matthias Church in Budapest
As you gaze over at Buda’s historic skyline from the embankment on the Pest side, soaring high above rises the Gothic spire of Matthias Church, Mátyás templom to Hungarians.

Also known as the Church of the Assumption of Buda Castle, this distinctive landmark dates back to the time of Hungary’s first king, St Stephen, at the start of the previous millennium.

What is Matthias Church?

Complemented by the gingerbread-pattered roof of signature Zsolnay tiling, the church is a great national symbol, on a par with Parliament, the Basilica and the Chain Bridge.

Named after the revered Renaissance king Matthias Corvinus, who ruled over Hungary and Croatia in the second half of the 1400s, the church has witnessed seminal moments in Hungarian history, from the Ottoman invasion to World War II and beyond, not to mention the coronations and royal weddings that took place here.

Destroyed by the Mongols in 1241, the church was rebuilt by King Béla IV later that century, significantly augmented and embellished by Matthias Corvinus in the 1400s, before being transformed into a mosque by the Ottomans.

The subsequent Habsburg takeover saw everything in the then separate city of Buda be built in Baroque style, including this church. Matthias Church owes its current look to the painstaking work of architect Frigyes Schulek in the later part of the 1800s.

When was Matthias Church built and by whom?

The short answer is between 1874 and 1896, by Frigyes Schulek. While the original building went through several transformations, the one conceived by this Budapest-born architect, still in his early thirties when entrusted with this project by Emperor Franz Joseph I, is the most significant.

Schulek delved into the medieval records to find the original Gothic plans upon which he based his design. Not only that, but he and his team discovered significant architectural features that had been buried under centuries of history and conflict.

Like Miklós Ybl who was working on the Basilica around the same time – both aiming for a completion date of 1896 to mark the Hungarian millennium – Schulek brought in renowned artists Bertalan Székely and Károly Lotz to create the figurative murals within.

Where is Matthias Church?

Matthias Church towers over Szentháromság tér, Holy Trinity Square, that centrepieces the historic Castle Quarter, Várnegyed. This is deep in tourist central, with groups being guided round in many languages, and clip-clopping horses pulling carriages along cobbled streets.

From here the views over the Danube and Pest beyond are spectacular.

Access is by Funicular from Clark Ádám tér or the little 16 bus that sets off from focal Deák Ferenc tér and pootles up Castle Hill via Clark Ádám tér. Alternatively, you can walk up via the stairs and walkways that zigzag around the Funicular.

What else should I know about Matthias Church?

The last Habsburg coronation took place at Matthias Church in 1916, of Karl I and his wife, Zita of Bourbon-Parma, during World War I.

Half a century before, his great uncle, Emperor Franz Joseph, was crowned here as Hungarian king after the Compromise of 1867 that granted Hungary a certain autonomy as a partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Franz Liszt wrote the Coronation Mass for the occasion, performed here for the first time.

Of the many prestigious weddings to have taken place here, perhaps the most significant was that of Matthias Corvinus, his second, to Beatrice of Naples in 1476. His royal court duly welcomed artists and architects from Italy, and Buda came under Italian influence at the height of the Renaissance. 

More recently, as part of the church’s complete remodelling under Frigyes Schulek in the later 1800s, Zsolnay tiling was used for the roof.

This chimed with the times, as its bright colours also embellish other key architectural landmarks in the Budapest, such as the Museum of Applied Arts. The unique properties of the tiling glaze, as developed by the Zsolnay factory in Pécs, protects the surface from the effects of rain and snow.

To sum up, why visit Matthias Church?

Matthias Church is not only a stunning architectural masterpiece but also a national landmark steeped in European history. Stepping inside reveals a stunning interior adorned with vibrant frescoes, stained-glass windows and a majestic altar.

The Matthias Church organ, with its melodious tones, adds to the ethereal atmosphere, and concerts here are a particularly memorable experience. You can also scale the 197 steps of the Mátyás Tower for incredible views and take a guided tour in English.

Words by Peterjon Cresswell
Peterjon has been researching the byways of Budapest for 30 years, extending his expertise across Europe to produce guidebooks for Time Out and his own website

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