Artwork of the Month, May 2021: The Church of St. Anthony of Padua by Gyula Rimanóczy (1931–34)

In the western suburbs of the 2nd district of Budapest, on Pasaréti Square, is one of the more striking examples of interwar modernist architecture in Hungary: the Franciscan Church of St. Anthony of Padua. The innovative nature of the design is apparent if we compare it with other churches built in Hungary shortly before, such as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Győr of 1929, or the Church of St. Emeric in Balatonalmádi (1930). We can also gain a sense of the striking addition it made to the cityscape when we view it in its environs, a low-density neighbourhood of villas. It is commonly regarded as one of the most important churches built in interwar Hungary, and as evidence of the embrace by the Hungarian Catholic church of modernity. Consecrated in October 1934, it might have been the first example of functionalist church architecture in Hungary, had it not been for the tumultuous process of its approval that delayed its completion. As a result, the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus by Bertalan (1901–1971) and Aladár Árkay (1868–1932) is generally held to have that distinction.

The Pasarét Church in Budapest by Gyula Rimanóczy

Gyula Rimanóczy: The Church of St. Anthony of Padua in Pasarét, Budapest, 1931–34, photo from 1940 – fortepan.hu/Attila Jurányi

View of Pasarét, Budapst, in 1938

View of Pasarét with the Church of St. Anthony in 1938 – photo: fortepan.hu/Jesuit Archive

Erected to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of the Portuguese Franciscan priest St. Anthony of Padua (1195–1231), it was designed by Gyula Rimanóczy (1903–1958). He was born to a dynasty of architects; his grandfather, Kálmán Rimanóczy the Elder (1840–1908), was a prolific architect based in the busy provincial city of Nagyvárad (now Oradea, in northwest Romania) and had been responsible for many of the major public buildings in the city, including the synagogue (1878), the Municipal Savings Bank (1887), the renovated Railway Station (1900) and the Theatre (1900). His uncle, Kálmán Rimanóczy the Younger (1870–1912), was also a prominent architect in the same city, and had endowed it with some notable buildings such as the Miksa Moskovits Palace (1904–05) and the Apollo Palace (1912–14). Gyula, however, would leave these provincial origins behind, to become a prominent figure on the national stage.

Gyula Rimanóczy, Design for a church in Újhatvan

Gyula Rimanóczy: Design for a church in Újhatvan, 1928 – photo: Magyar Építőművészet, 1928, nos 5–6, p. 18.

He moved to Budapest in 1920 to study at the Royal Joseph Technical University between 1920 and 1924 and then, from 1925 to 1928, worked in the studio of Gyula Wälder (1884–1944). Wälder had developed a reputation as the designer of buildings in a variety of historical and vernacular styles. In the 1930s he was associated above all with a resurgence of interest in Hungarian architecture and applied arts in Baroque revivalism.[1] One can see a reflection of this approach in the designs of Rimanóczy in the 1920s when working for Wälder; they mostly consist of Renaissance-revival suburban villas with added folkloric details.[2] This conservative outlook can also be seen in his first church designs, such as his entry into a competition for the Catholic church of Újhatvan (1928), in Hatvan, a small town some 60 kilometres to the northeast of Budapest. The design is utterly conventional, drawing on the combination of Baroque and folkloric elements that had been pioneered before the First World War by Ödön Lechner. In 1930, however, Rimanóczy changed his approach in a radical way. An earlier design he drafted for a Church of the Four Evangelists – it was not for a specific competition or commission – consisted of a simple planimetric building denuded of any historicising details or ornamentation.[3] In addition, where the previous designs had been for conventional longitudinal structures, the plan for this church was for a much more compact basilica. The significance of this change in ground-plan will be outlined later.

Gyula Rimanóczy: Design for a Church of the Four Evangelists, 1930

Gyula Rimanóczy: Design for a Church of the Four Evangelists, 1930 – photo: Hungarian Museum of Architecture and Monument Protection Documentation Centre

It is difficult to ascertain precisely what prompted this shift. He had undertaken a trip in 1925 to other European countries, including Switzerland, France, Austria, Italy and Britain, but there was little evidence that this had made an impact on his thinking. We might attribute it, perhaps, to a growing interest in Hungary in contemporary developments in architecture elsewhere. The year 1928 saw the founding of CIAM (Congrès International d’architecture moderne) by Le Corbusier, Sigfried Giedion and Hélène de Mandrot) in Switzerland. It quickly became the public platform for the dissemination of ideas concerning modern architecture and, as its name indicates, was an international organisation. The following year saw the involvement of Hungarian architects and designers including Farkas Molnár, Marcel Breuer and József Fischer. In addition, in 1928, the first issue was published of the journal Tér és Forma (Space and Form), edited by the architect, architectural historian and critic Virgil Bierbauer (also known as Virgil Borbiró), who played an important role in promoting modernist design and architecture in Hungary. Indeed, the journal, which continued to be published until 1942, was perhaps the main platform for the exchange of ideas about contemporary architecture.[4]

Front cover of the first volume of the periodical Tér és Forma

Front cover of the first volume of the periodical Tér és Forma, 1928

We can therefore interpret the change in direction in the work of Rimanóczy as a response to the growing impact of the modernist architectural ideas. He did not immediately embrace the ideas of Le Corbusier and others; his submission to a competition for a new town hall in the city of Debrecen in 1931 owed much more to the expressionist architecture of the early 1920s. It was to be a clinker brick structure that evoked medieval municipal building – a common topos in expressionism – and the similarities were not missed by contemporaries. An article discussing the design in Tér és Forma compared it with the Chile Haus (1921) by Fritz Höger (1877–1949) in Hamburg.[5] At the same time, it represented a significant step away from the designs he had been producing while under the tutelage of Wälder.

The church of St. Anthony was one further step away from his earlier works. It was also the first of his designs to be realized. Its modernity was signalled by the choice of material: reinforced concrete. In addition, it consists of simple unornamented geometric masses, a free-standing campanile with the main body of the church a simple basilica. The free-standing campanile represents a departure from traditions of Hungarian church building (although it was a feature of the Church of the Sacred Heart by the Árkays). As an architectural element more commonly associated with Italy, we may interpret it as a gesture towards the city where St. Anthony was active: Padua, but it is also a clue to a wider interest in Italian culture – the significance of which will be discussed shortly. The interior consists of a single nave; the supporting columnar arches running either side of the nave form a counterpoint to its basic rectangular dimensions, and they also articulate the main space, creating room for small side chapels, but it would be misleading to refer to them as aisles, for they are not large enough for this.

Interior of the Franciscan Church in Pasarét, Budapest

Interior view of the Church of St. Anthony of Padua in Pasarét, Budapest – photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tamás Thaler

The single nave basilica design was common practice in modernist churches; although the idiom was different from that for the Church of the Four Evangelists, they shared a similar layout. Later in 1937, Rimanóczy designed a bus station on Pasaréti Square which, as a photograph from 1940 shows (see image 1), complements the structure and heightens its modernity. Yet although the church is celebrated now as a monument of modernist architecture, it was a contested building. The original design was rather more innovative, consisting of a simple massive structure with rectangular windows, the tower an integral part of the building in contrast to the building that was eventually built. Even though it was accepted by the Central Office of Ecclesiastical Art, it was rejected twice by the city planning office. The entrance portico, the attenuated columns and high arches, as well as the arched windows along the side that we now see on the church, were modifications Rimanóczy added in response to criticisms.[6]

Gyula Rimanóczy's orignal design for the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua in Budapest

Gyula Rimanóczy: Original design for the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, 1931 – photo: Hungarian Museum of Architecture Monument Protection Documentation Centre

Many had been hostile to the design; as the newspaper Az Est (The Evening) reported, it was complained at the Catholic General Assembly that there had been an intrusion of ‘Soviet-style’ architecture into church building.[7] The portico and other details of the version that was eventually built, including the coffered ceiling of the nave, were a concession to historic tradition, but in a language that was unmistakeably modern. We gain a sense of the compromises Rimanóczy made if we compare the church with his design for the villa of Lajos Szakáts in 1934. The latter is thoroughly immersed in the language of international modernism, a flat-roofed, whitewashed concrete structure, its expansive windows also exemplifying the modernist ideology of transparency.

The Szakáts Villa in Budapest by Gyula Rimanóczy

Gyula Rimanóczy: The Szakáts Villa in Budapest, 1934 – photo: Hungarian Museum of Architecture and Monument Protection Documentation Centre

The very fact that the church was built, even in this form, was nevertheless a sign of changing attitudes and debates within the Church over acceptable forms of architecture. The Code of Canon Law of 1917 issued by Pope Pius X had stipulated that church design had to be mindful of church traditions. This reflected a wider attempt on the part of the Vatican to maintain church traditions; at the turn of the century the Church had been embroiled in the so-called modernist controversy, when a number of theologians and clerics had been excommunicated for promulgating ideas that were deemed theologically unacceptable. These included, for example, exploring personal religious experience as well as emphasising the historically changing character of church doctrine and treating writings of the church fathers as historical texts.[8]

The Code of 1917, which was a formal codification of all aspects of church law, was an ambitious attempt by the Church to reassert its authority and reinforce dogma. Yet while the Code might seem to have represented the Church at its most intolerant of modernity, the situation was more complex. While the Codex insisted that traditional designs must be kept to, this was an ambiguous formulation. It could be easily argued, for example, that a church such as St. Anthony, with its round arches and rounded windows, was an attempt to evoke tradition, in particular, Romanesque architecture. This reference was not missed by the Az Est correspondent.[9]

The same could be said of the basilica design, which we may interpret as an attempt to return to the roots of early Christianity, an ecclesiastical counterpart, perhaps, to modernist primitivism. The Church was not unanimous in its attitudes. Even if the Vatican was deeply suspicious of modern architecture, there were many voices that argued for a greater openness. As already noted, the Office of Ecclesiastical Art in Hungary approved design and Antal Somogyi (1892–1971), prebend of the diocesan seminar in Győr, wrote a number of widely read and influential books on church art that endorsed acceptance of modernism.[10] There were limits to his tolerance; like many other Catholic writers on art, he was critical of the idea of artistic autonomy. Art had to serve the needs of the Church. Nevertheless, it was important to recognise that modern art practice – he singled out Expressionism for particular attention – might also achieve this. Indeed, not only was it the case that authors such as Somogyi argued for a positive engagement with modern art, there was also an anxiety that officially approved Church art might be of inferior quality through having been left behind by current developments. In fact this was a general issue for the Church. The question as to what kind of modern art was commensurable with Church doctrine and religious belief was a subject of intense discussion. In Germany, in 1919, for example, Art and Religion by Gustav Hartlaub (1884–1963), a prominent advocate of Expressionism and New Objectivity, considered not only what kind of art was compatible with the Church, but also whether religious art had any relevance in the present.[11] One of the very first articles to be published in Tér és Forma was a discussion of modern church architecture, bemoaning the fact that it seemed to have lost contact with architectural practices in general.[12] Indeed, it is notable that church architecture was a recurrent subject in the journal, including a review of Rimanóczy’s church on Pasaréti Square.[13] In 1938, the Hungarian art historian János Jajczay (1892–1976) published a book on Hungarian Ecclesiastical Art Today, that was nothing short of advocacy for the viability of the very idea of religious art. Published in English, German and Italian as well as in Hungarian, it was a work of unashamed propaganda.[14] Yet there is something about its insistence on the modernity of the works it showcases that betrays this anxiety at being considered out of date.

This, therefore, is the context in which we may wish to discuss the Church of St. Anthony: a period in which the Catholic Church was going through considerable internal debate over what ‘modern’ church art and architecture might mean. Indeed, while most attention tends to focus on the building, it is important to attend to the interior decorations. The church contained work by a number of prominent ecclesiastical artists, such as Éva Lőte (1906–1966), who carved a side altar as well as a series of reliefs along one side depicting the stations of the cross, and Lili Árkayné Sztehló (1897–1957), who also completed the stained-glass windows for Church of the Sacred Heart in Városmajor.

Side chapel in the Church of Saint Anthony of Padua with altar by Éva Lőte and stained-glass windows by Lili Árkayné Sztehló

Side chapel in the Church of St. Anthony of Padua with altar by Éva Lőte and stained-glass windows by Lili Árkayné Sztehló – photo: Hungarian Museum of Architecture Monument Protection Documentation Centre

Side altar in the Church of Saint Anthony in Pasarét by Éva Lőte

Éva Lőte: Side altar in the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, Pasarét, Budapest, 1934 – photo: Hungarian Museum of Architecture Monument Protection Documentation Centre

Questions about church design were driven not only by aesthetic considerations but also by theological issues. In 1918 the German cleric Romano Guardini (1885–1968) had published a highly influential study, On the Spirit of Liturgy, that sought to reform how Christian liturgy was performed and understood. For the present purposes the most important aspect of his book was his argument that liturgy should be a performance that enhanced the communal identity of the faithful.[15] The implications of this idea were seized on by a number of commentators, of whom the most important was the Catholic priest Johannes van Acken (1879–1937), who issued a short booklet, Christocentric Art, that laid out prescriptions for church design that might align it with such ideas of liturgical reform.[16] Specifically, he recommended that traditional church layout, in which the main body of the church was divided into the nave and the aisles, should be abandoned, for it physically fragmented the congregation and impeded that sense of community. Instead, he argued, new churches should be built without aisles.

It is not known whether Rimanóczy was a reader of Van Acken, but the latter’s booklet, and the writings of Guardini, were widely cited in Hungarian publications, including those on architecture. We can therefore see the Church of St. Anthony as the product of a context not only in which the traditional architectural practices were being radically revised and questioned, but also the liturgical practices they were built to enable were also being reshaped and reformed.

Rimanóczy’s design for the Church of St. Anthony was exhibited, along with his drawings for the unbuilt Church of the Four Evangelists, at the International Exhibition of Sacred Art held in Rome in 1934. The exhibition was part of a concerted effort by the Church to engage with contemporary art making and was one of a sequence of exhibitions held in Italy to promote sacred art, including exhibitions held in Turin (1898), Venice (1920), Monza (1923) and Padua (1931). The exhibitions generally garnered little positive praise, indeed, were mostly met with indifference, and although the event in Rome was flagged as an international enterprise, there was little international participation.[17] There was, however, keen participation by Austria and Hungary at the Rome exhibition. This has two reasons. First, promotion of religious art and architecture was an important aspect of the cultural policy of the two states, Austria under the dictatorial regime of Engelbert Dollfuß (1892–1934) and Hungary under the regency of Admiral Miklós Horthy (1868–1957). Horthy declared Hungary to be a Christian state, and his energetic culture ministers Kuno Klebelsberg and his successors pursued policies that were aligned with this national state ideology.[18] This included participation in international cultural events such as the exhibitions of religious art. Second, the fact that they were held in Italy is also not without significance. For after Mussolini became dictator of Italy in 1925, successive governments in Hungary attempted to cultivate diplomatic and cultural alliances with him through the 1920s and 1930s. Following the First World War Hungary had been politically isolated. As post-war boundaries were being established it had been involved in military combat with the new states of Romania and Czechoslovakia which, together with Yugoslavia, formed the Little Entente as a means of countering any attempt by Hungary to regain territory lost as a result of the Treaty of Trianon concluded in 1920s.

Hungarian governments thus turned to Mussolini’s Italy as an ally, both to overcome their isolation and also because the authoritarian administration of Horthy found Fascist Italy to be, in certain respects, a sympathetic ideological partner. In the domain of culture this involved encouraging academic and artistic exchanges; in 1927 Klebelsberg founded the Hungarian Academy of Rome (Collegium Hungaricum). Hungarian artists and architects such as Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941), Bertalan Árkay and Pál Molnár-C. (1894–1981) benefitted from scholarships that enabled them to stay at the Academy, and the experience had a visible impact on them. Such was the distinctiveness of the work that resulted from this exercise, neo-classical figurative painting, often involving religious subjects, that contemporaries talked of a recognizable School of Rome.[19] Rimanóczy was never awarded a scholarship to Rome, but some of the collaborators on the Pasarét church, including Lili Árkayné Sztehló, were. In its combination of modernity and classicism one might thus consider the church as a showpiece of the aesthetic ideology of the School of Rome.

The House of Fascism in Como by Giuseppe Terragni, 1936

Giuseppe Terragni: The House of Fascism in Como, 1936 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

The cultural and political connections with Italy may also have contributed to the acceptance of modernist architecture in Hungary. In 1926 a group of young architects in Milan, Gruppo 7, published a manifesto that proclaimed a new architectural language that reconciled classicism with contemporary industrial demands. Announcing their stance in opposition to Futurism, they proclaimed allegiance to Vitruvian notions of order and rationalism, later gaining formal recognition as the Movimento Italiano di Architettura Razionale (MIAR). The Rationalists, as they are commonly referred to, enjoyed considerable state support and patronage, in contrast to the hostility towards modernist architecture in Nazi Germany. Members of Gruppo 7 designed the Houses of Fascism, for example, buildings designed to anchor the rule of Mussolini’s regime across municipalities in Italy. For all its problematic political associations, the 1936 House of Fascism in Como by Giuseppe Terragni (1904–1943) is still considered a major example of Italian modernist architecture, exemplifying the architectural ideals of the group. Church architecture in interwar Italy was rather more hidebound by tradition, but new design ideas proliferated there, too, such as Marcello Piacentini’s (1881–1960) Church of the Sacred Heart of Christ the King in Rome (1920–34).[20]

Church of the Sacred Heart ofChrist the King in Rome by Marcello Piacentini

Marcello Piacentini: Church of the Sacred Heart of Christ the King, Rome, 1920–34 – photo: Wikimedia Commons

Amidst the streets of contemporary Budapest the novelty of Rimanóczy’s church may no longer be evident. As the responses to it indicate, however, it was an innovative design that, for some, was a provocation. It thereby it serves as a striking illustration of the ways the Catholic Church navigated the challenges of modernity, and it also reminds us that within the Church there were diverse attitudes. An important ‘document’ of the cultural politics of interwar Hungary, it nevertheless has wider significance as an example of twentieth-century architecture and of the competing values and demands with which architects had to contend.

Matthew Rampley

[1] Paul Stirton, ‘Faces of Modernism after Trianon: Károly Kós, Lajos Kozma and Neo-Baroque Design in Interwar Hungary,’ Art East Central 1 (2021) pp. 11–49. arteastcentral.eu

[2] The drawings and plans are included in Zoltán Fehérvári and Endre Prakfalvi, Rimanóczy Gyula (Budapest, 2019) pp. 21–32.

[3] Jenő Rimanóczy and András Ferkai, ‘A Rimanóczy építészdinasztia története (II. rész): Idősebb Rimanóczy Gyula (1903. január 19. – 1958. december 21.)’ [The history of the Rimanóczy architects’ dynasty, Part II: Gyula Rimanóczy Sr.], in Építés – Építészettudomány 46.1–2 (2017) pp. 5–6.

[4] Pál Ritoók and Ágnes Sebestyén, ‘Communicating “space and form”: The history and impact of the journal Tér és Forma as the Hungarian pipeline of Modernism,’ docomomo 59 (2018) pp. 19–25. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.52200/59.A.YXTYK1Q6

[5] Károly Weichinger, ‘A debreceni városháza: Egy tervpályázat tanulságai’ [The Debrecen town hall: Lessons from a design competition], Tér és Forma 6 (1931) pp. 183–90.

[6] On the story of the development see Rimanóczy and Ferkai, ‘A Rimanóczy építészdinasztia története (II. rész), pp. 9–10.

[7] Anon, ‘Szovjetstílusú-e az új pasaréti ferences templom terve?’ [Is the design for the new Franciscan church in Pasarét in Soviet style?], Az Est ,14 October 1933, p. 12.

[8] Darrell Jodock, ed., Catholicism Contending with Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context (Cambridge, 2011).

[9] The article describes its ‘southern Italian, early Romanesque atmosphere.’ – ‘Szovjetstílusú-e az új pasaréti ferences templom terve?’

[10] See, for example, Antal Somogyi, Vallás és modern művészet [Religion and modern art] (Budapest, 1927).

[11] Gustav Hartlaub, Kunst und Religion: Ein Versuch über die Möglichkeit neuer religiöser Kunst (Leipzig, 1919).

[12] János Komor, ‘Templomépitészet’ [Church architecture], Tér és Forma 1.1 (1928) pp. 5–15.

[13] Tibor Brestyánszky, ‘A pasaréti új templom’ [The new church in Pasarét] Tér és Forma 7.12 (1934) pp. 345–9.

[14] János Jajczay, Mai magyar egyházművészet (Révai, 1938).

[15] Romano Guardini, Vom Geist der Liturgie (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1918).

[16] Johannes van Acken, Christozentrische Kirchenkunst. Ein Entwurf zum liturg. Gesamtkunstwerk, second edition (Gladbeck, 1923).

[17] On the exhibition see Lucia Mannini, ‘Italian Exhibitions of Modern Sacred Art, from the Early 20th Century to the 1930s,’ in Maia Wellington Gahtan and Donatella Pegazzano, eds, Sacred Art and the Museum Exhibition (Florence, 2018) pp. 80–95.

[18] On the notion of Christian Hungary see Paul Hanebrink, In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism and Antisemiticism 1890–1944 (Ithaca, 2009).

[19] Tibor Gerevich, ‘Római magyar művészek’ [The Hungarian artists of Rome] Magyar Művészet 7 (1931) pp. 189–212. See, too, András Zwickl, ‘La “Scuola di Roma” – borsisti ungheresi a Roma,’ in Rita Camerlingo, ed., La Scuola Romana: Artisti ungheresi a Roma negli anni Trenta (Rome, 1998) pp. 15–32.

[20] On interwar church design in Italy see Luigi Monzo, Croci i Fasci: Der italienische Kirchenbau in der Zeit des Faschismus 1919–1945 (Karlsruhe, 2017).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply