Artwork of the Month, June 2023: Stained-Glass Window with the Life of Saint Stephen by Lili Sztehlo (1938)

1938 was an important year in the history of Hungary’s authoritarian interwar regime. The  nine hundredth anniversary of the death of King Stephen I (Saint Stephen, c. 975–1038), Hungary’s first king, was declared a Jubilee Year, and a long series of celebrations and commemorations were organised on the occasion. One of the most significant projects was the Ruin Garden in Székesfehérvár: a new memorial site set up to preserve and make accessible the ruins of the basilica Stephen had founded in the town in the early eleventh century. The garden was flanked by a mausoleum built to house a sarcophagus believed to have been the king’s. Behind the sarcophagus, elevating the sacral aura of the space, the wall was divided by a tall and imposing stained-glass window. Its maker, Lili Sztehlo (1897–1959), was the most prominent artist working in this technique in interwar Hungary.

Stained-glass window by Lili Sztehlo in the Székesfehérvér Ruin Garden

Lili Sztehlo: Stained-Glass Window with the Life of Saint Stephen, 1938,
reconstructed by Gábor Gonzales and Judit Fűri, 1997, Székesfehérvár, Ruin Garden – photo: Nóra Veszprémi

Saint Stephen was central to the memory politics of Regent Miklós Horthy’s regime. The King had founded and first ruled the historical Kingdom of Hungary: the ‘Greater Hungary’ which the regime sought to re-establish by regaining territories lost in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Furthermore, Stephen had overseen the conversion of Hungarians to Christianity and hence served as a figurehead for the regime’s ideology of Hungary as a Christian nation.[1] The Székesfehérvár Ruin Garden was a prestige project where scholarship, politics and art worked together to promote the regime’s view of history and Hungarian identity.

The Artist

In the patriarchal art world of interwar Hungary, in an official culture that celebrated masculinity, it was hard for a woman artist to rise to prominence. Lili (or Lily) Sztehlo (sometimes spelled Sztehló) was one of the few to succeed. She studied at the Hungarian Royal College of Art between 1915 and 1919.[2] Although she trained as a painter, she was drawn to stained glass early on and dreamed of choosing it as a career. In the early 1920s she spent a few years in Vienna and took a long study trip to Italy and France. In 1927 she married the architect Bertalan Árkay (1901–1971). For many women artists, marriage meant giving up their career plans, but in Sztehlo’s case becoming a member of a family of architects enabled her to realise her aspirations. In 1928 her father-in-law, Aladár Árkay (1868–1932), asked her to produce windows for two buildings he was working on at the time: the town hall in Mohács and a church in Győr-Gyárváros. In the following decades Sztehlo collaborated with the Árkays on a series of projects, while also gaining separate commissions. In 1928–30 the couple lived in Rome, thanks to a Scholarship of the Hungarian state awarded to Árkay. Initiated by Minister of Education and Religion Kuno Klebelsberg (1875–1932) and managed by the art historian Tibor Gerevich (1882–1954), the Rome Scholarships served to train artists in fulfilling monumental state and ecclesiastical commissions in a modern style, the so-called Hungarian School of Rome, derived from the grand art historical tradition of Italy. Sztehlo developed her art further by studying the churches of Rome. In the next years, former awardees of the Rome Scholarship often collaborated on the interior decoration of buildings, and Sztehlo’s windows were integral to these projects. One of the most outstanding examples is the Városmajor Parish Church (1933) in Budapest.

The two Árkays received a long series of public commissions in the interwar period, including many churches. The way these commissions evolved stylistically also reflected the trajectory of ecclesiastical architecture and its conflicted relationship to modernism. The older Árkay started out from historicism and Art Nouveau, but his son, Bertalan, who took over his projects after his death, soon came to be known for a more radical approach. Drawing on the modernism of the Bauhaus and Italian rationalism, he designed cubic buildings with flat surfaces and minimal ornamental decoration on the outside. His Városmajor church was considered scandalous by many when it was consecrated in 1933.

Made for consecutive buildings by the Árkays, Sztehlo’s windows followed the same trajectory from fin-de-siècle trends towards contemporary modernism. The artist was, however, not simply a follower, and the windows were not simply decorative elements easily adjusted to any context. Stained glass had its own rich tradition. In the nineteenth century, medievalism had inspired a revival of the technique, and this continued to the turn of the century. Aided by technological innovations, stained glass became one of the art forms that best expressed Art Nouveau taste, and makers such as Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) gained international renown. By the 1930s tastes had changed, but stained glass was indispensable to modern church architecture. Retaining a medieval air even when it adopted modern forms, it connected modern ecclesiastical art to the venerable past.

Connecting Times: The Saint Stephen Window

The mausoleum in the Székesfehérvár Ruin Garden, designed by the architect Géza Lux (1910–1945),  is an austere-looking structure that combines stripped-down Romanesque forms with a modern rationalist aesthetic. Inside, the space housing the sarcophagus of St. Stephen was decorated with murals by Vilmos Aba-Novák (1894–1941), a prominent member of the School of Rome. Sztehlo’s window was located on the main wall, facing visitors as they entered.

Interior of Saint Stephen's Mausoleum

The interior of Saint Stephen’s mausoleum c. 1940, from Dezső Dercsényi, A székesfehérvári királyi bazilika [The royal basilica of Székesfehérvár (Budapest, 1943) p. 69

In keeping with the sparse amount of architectonic decoration in the interior, the window is rectangular with no arch on the top. It is divided into 8 x 3 squares. In the upper half, Saint Stephen stands facing the viewer, with the orb in one hand and a sword pointed downwards in the other. Angels fly towards him on both sides. The six squares below this larger figure show the scene of Stephen’s coronation in front of his basilica. Underneath, six squares show six separate scenes from the king’s life: Stephen reading out his Admonitions to his son, Prince Emeric; the founding of the Benedictine monastery of Pannonhalma; Pope Sylvester sending Stephen a crown; the baptism of the future king, then known by his pagan name Vajk; the foundation of bishoprics; finally, the king accepting tributes from Hungarian leaders. These were basic scenes from the saint’s life, essential to any narrative. In the ideological framework of the Horthy regime, they showed Stephen as the founder of a cultured, centralised, strong Christian state that fitted into the feudal Europe of the eleventh century as an equal to its neighbours.

Two scenes from Lili Sztehlo's window in Székesfehérvár

Lili Sztehlo: Saint Stephen reading his Admonitions and Founding the Monastery of Pannonhalma, details from the Saint Stephen window – photo: Rolf Singer / CC BY-SA 4.0

By the time Sztehlo completed the Székesfehérvár window, she had been producing large-scale stained-glass windows for more than a decade. In her early work, such as the Mohács town hall, she followed Art Nouveau models which fitted the formal idiom of the older Árkay’s buildings.[3] She was, however, drawn to more modern trends and soon developed a geometrical, decorative medievalism by simplifying the forms of medieval church windows according to twentieth-century taste. Then, in her mature work, such as the windows of the Városmajor church or the Székesfehérvár Ruin Garden, she revelled in the richness and plasticity of details. She still employed geometrical structures, but in the composition, rather than in the details: she used linear rays of light – represented by using glass of a lighter colour – to cut through the scenes and join them into an encompassing abstract system. By the end of the 1930s, she combined this with a new inspiration: having received many commissions to depict Hungarian saints in smaller churches, she opted for a folkloric, fairy-tale idiom. Proceeding in this direction, in her last works she eschewed geometrical forms in favour of stylised plants and animals, an overall softer touch.

The Saint Stephen window is a good example of how Sztehlo consolidated medieval and modern, abstract and realistic in her work. It also demonstrates that her shift towards more realistic details had a political, as well as an artistic dimension. To understand this, it is first necessary to locate the window within Sztehlo’s oeuvre. In many ways, the Székesfehérvár window expanded on the deeper interest Sztehlo had previously developed in medieval models. The bright blues, reds and greens, the frontal figure of Saint Stephen, the narrative scenes reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, all provide the window with a medieval quality. The scenes are medievalesque in their iconography, with the architect of the Pannonhalma monastery holding its small-scale model, or the scenes of baptism and veneration. Nevertheless, a few years earlier the artist had conceptualised her medievalism as decidedly more modern. In the Church of St Anthony of Padua in Pasarét, where she completed the windows in 1934, she placed a simplified, almost abstract figure of the saint in the centre of a medieval cityscape, with the block-like houses seen from varying perspectives, as in a Cubist composition. Compared to St Anthony, the figure of St Stephen in Székesfehérvár is more detailed, his face has more plasticity. The hint of Cubism has disappeared. Sztehlo only retained a modernist geometry in the diagonal rays that dissect the composition: more visibly in the top half, but also present underneath. This feature of the windows has been connected in literature to French Orphism, an avant-garde trend that emerged out of Cubism but prioritised light and colour and was linked to spiritualism.[4]

Uppert part of Székesfehérvár window

Lili Sztehlo: The upper part of the Saint Stephen window – photo: Rolf Singer / CC BY-SA 4.0

By drawing on early-twentieth-century modernism, Sztehlo asserted her position as an innovative artist within recent developments in stained-glass making. In Hungary, the undisputable master of Art Nouveau stained glass was Miksa Róth (1865–1944). Starting in the 1880s, Róth had decorated a vast array of public buildings in Hungary up to the 1920s. When Sztehlo started her career, Róth’s influence was still very much present, and employing Cubist or Orphist designs helped her break new ground. This was a time when Art Nouveau stained glass still lived on elsewhere in central Europe, too. Alfons Mucha’s (1860–1939) stained-glass window in Saint Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague, completed in 1931, featured the artist’s signature curvilinear forms and large clear blocks of colour, nothing like the sharp straight lines and Orphist light effects employed by Sztehlo. This is not to say, of course, that Sztehlo was alone in Europe with her modernist innovations, but it does point to an independent artistic personality who aimed to develop her own approach to each commission. She searched for ways to integrate the medieval with twentieth-century modernism, and did so before modernist stained glass truly flourished in Europe after the Second World War.[5]

Ideology and Scholarship: The Székesfehérvár Ruin Garden

Sztehlo’s combination of medieval and modern was an artistic aim rooted in stained glass as an art form, but it also fitted into broader trends in the official culture of the Horthy regime. That culture is often described as Neobaroque, based on the doubtless propensity for Baroque revival in architecture and design. Medievalism was, however, just as prominent: it suffices to mention Cathedral Square in Szeged. Built in 1929–32 to complement the Neoromanesque cathedral begun in 1879, but only finished in the early 1930s, this was one of the regime’s most monumental projects. Yet, the regime’s culture is rarely described as medievalist. The reason might be that this medievalism mostly appeared in the guise of modernism, and hence in an understated way. Árkay’s Városmajor church, for instance, clearly drew on Italian medieval architecture, but the forms are so modern that this seems to override any historicist tendencies. Another example is the Székesfehérvár Ruin Garden. A closer look at the historicism of this project reveals its deeply ideological nature.

The 1938 Saint Stephen Jubilee Year began with a World Eucharistic Congress held in Budapest and continued with a range of mass celebrations and artistic commissions commemorating the King. As the city where Stephen had founded a basilica and where he was subsequently buried, Székesfehérvár played a central role in the celebrations; it even hosted a festive session of the Parliament. The new display of the remains of the basilica was considered one of the most important projects.

Due to the ravages of history, very little was left of the basilica by 1938, or indeed, by the early nineteenth century, when excavations first began at the site. Although most of Hungary’s medieval kings had been buried there, only one tomb, that of King Béla III (1148–1196), was discovered intact in 1848. In the years leading up to the 1938 Jubilee, the National Commission for Monuments launched a new round of excavations, but archaeologists soon realised it was unlikely they would make new discoveries matching the nineteenth-century finds in significance.[6] To mark the Jubilee, something spectacular was needed, but authentic remains were too scarce to allow even a partial reconstruction of the medieval building. The president of the Commission, who was no other than Gerevich, strongly opposed built reconstructions if they were not based on solid facts. Hence, a decision was made to create a ruin garden that would be ʻmore scholarly than ideological’ and would contain ʻtechnical, architectural surveys and imaginary reconstructions [in pictures] illuminating Saint Stephen’s basilica.’[7] Nevertheless, the ʻideological’ element could not be pushed aside. The plan was to include the mausoleum: a quasi-sacred space where people could pay their respect.

The Székesfehérvár Ruin Garden, 1938

The Székesfehérvár Ruin Garden in 1938 with Saint Stephen’s Mausoleum in the background – photo: Fortepan / Tibor Somlai

The structure incorporating the mausoleum stretched along one side of the ruin garden and comprised colonnades with arches on two sides of the taller building. It drew on Italian Romanesque architecture, especially from Lombardy and Ravenna, which was in line with how Gerevich and other scholars described the eleventh-century architecture of Saint Stephen’s basilica. Based on the decorative stone carvings unearthed in Székesfehérvár, Gerevich and his student, Dezső Dercsényi (1910–1987) argued that these had been produced by a royal workshop consisting of itinerant stonemasons from Italy and local Hungarian artisans; hence, it combined northern Italian models with ancient Hungarian culture, creating a special Hungarian Romanesque taste.[8] Lux’s building was to provide a modern reflection of this, but it was Italianesque in another sense, too: its stern simplicity recalled the Italian rationalist architecture of the 1930s, and hence the culture of Fascism. Given the Italian orientation of Hungarian politics, solidifying into close allyship by 1938, the hypothetical Italian contacts of Saint Stephen’s architects and stonemasons were extremely convenient from a political standpoint.

The sculptural decoration of the building, designed partly by Lux and partly by the sculptor Walter Madarassy (1909–1994), continued the idea of Italian models combined with Hungarian imagery. Aba-Novák’s murals – depicting The History of the Holy Crown and The Mystery of the Holy Right Hand, a relic of Saint Stephen – and Sztehlo’s window also had to fit into this broader scheme.

Vilmos Aba-Novák - The History of the Holy Crown

Vilmos Aba-Novák: The History of the Holy Crown, 1938-40, restored in the 1990s – photo: Nóra Veszprémi

The Saint Stephen jubilee was a political occasion saturated with ideology, but its organisers aimed to bolster its message by building heavily on scholarship. The Ruin Garden was emblematic of this aim. The Minister of Culture in the 1930s, the increasingly right-wing radical Bálint Hóman (1885–1951) was a historian, a medievalist with a considerable scholarly output. Most official commissions for the jubilee called for historical accuracy. A competition for murals depicting St Stephen had specified that entries had to respect ‘historical, iconographical and archaeological findings of scholarly research.’[9] The winner was Aba-Novák with his sketches for the Székesfehérvár murals. Yet, despite his success, there was a detail that did not fully fit the requirements. The Hungarian Royal Crown known today – and since early modern times – is not the crown that Pope Sylvester had sent to Stephen, but an object constructed one or two centuries later. This was well-known to scholars in 1938: Gerevich argued that the upper part of the crown had originated from the Pope, while the lower part had been attached later.[10] In a competition for designs for jubilee stamps, the Ministry specified that Stephen could not be depicted wearing the preserved crown, but the artist would have to produce a reconstruction of what his early eleventh century crown would have been like.[11] It is conspicuous, therefore, that Aba-Novák’s Székesfehérvár murals eschewed this element of accuracy. In The History of the Holy Crown, the known crown glows in the centre of the composition – acceptable, as this is an allegorical image. However, Aba-Novák also depicted this crown in the scene showing Stephen’s coronation.

Detail of the St Stephen window with ancient Hungarian warriors

Lili Sztehlo: Detail from the Saint Stephen window with ancient Hungarian warriors – photo: Rolf Singer / CC BY-SA 4.0

This was also true of Sztehlo’s window. The standing figure of St Stephen wears the Holy Crown, and the same object also features in the scene showing the Pope sending the crown to Hungary. Hence, although Sztehlo opted for a more realistic style here in comparison with her cubistic work, this did not come with greater historical accuracy. Instead, realism was a vehicle for sending a political message, for making the regime’s conception of history seem real. The faces of the figures have plasticity, and they also have detailed facial features. These features correspond to another requirement set by the organisers of the Jubilee: that historical figures should display their Hungarianness through their appearance. Hence, Sztehlo depicted the characters according to a racialised idea of Hungarianness. Their almond-shaped eyes and facial type alludes to their Asian origin, and their thin moustaches also conform to this type. Like the architecture of the mausoleum, Sztehlo’s window aimed to provide the essence of Hungarian character. In a time of heightened chauvinism – 1938 was the year of the First Anti-Jewish Law in Hungary – the ideological implications of this cast a solemn shadow over the brightly coloured window.

Looking Back

Where the architecture and the decoration were concerned, the ideological nature of the Székesfehérvár project had always been clear. After the Second World War, Aba-Novák’s frescoes were covered up. Sztehlo’s window had been destroyed earlier, in the war. Visitors to the site today can view reconstructions of the murals and the stained glass, produced in the 1990s.

The ideological nature of the scholarship underpinning the project had been less obvious, but it, too, was challenged in the decades following the war. The supposed Italianness of Saint Stephen’s basilica was refuted by later scholars and the fragments on which Gerevich and Dercsényi had based their ideas are now dated later, to the twelfth century.[12] The most important piece on display, the sarcophagus, is another point of contention. It is now thought to have been made at the end of the eleventh century, and its connections to Saint Stephen or the cathedral are far from clear.[13]

Following the reconstructions of the 1990s, the mausoleum looks largely like it did in 1938, although the descriptions provide up-to-date information on the medieval remains. As a whole, the building and its decoration preserves a snapshot of the memory politics of the 1930s; a cautionary tale about the symbiosis of scholarship, art and politics. It also preserved the conflicted memory of Lili Sztehlo herself. She had succeeded in a playing field unfriendly to women artists due to her unique skills in an art form that was increasingly in demand. The fact that her art is little studied today undoubtedly reflects the status of women artists relative to men, as well as that of an applied art relative to the fine arts. There is, however, a larger elephant in the room: the difficulty of discussing the unsavoury politics of artworks that, at the same time, charm us through creativity and innovation.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] On the Horthy regime’s political Christianity see Paul Hanebrink, In Defense of Christian Hungary: Religion, Nationalism and Antisemitism, 1890–1944 (Ithaca and London, 2006).

[2] Literature on Sztehlo is scarce. The most detailed discussion is István Bizzer, ’Árkayné Sztehlo Lili üvegablak-művészete’ [The stained-glass art of Lili Sztehlo, Mrs Árkay], in Árkay: Egy magyar építész- és művészdinasztia [Árkay: A Hungarian architects’ and artists’ dynasty], ed. Tamás Csáky (Budapest, 2020) pp. 250–279.

[3] On the phases of Sztehlo’s artistic development see Bizzer, ‘Árkayné Sztehlo Lili üvegablak-művészete,’ p. 251.

[4] Petra Gärtner, ‘Az idézet bűvöletében’ [Under the spell of quotation], in Gärtner, ed., Szent István király bazilikájának utóélete: A Középkori Romkert 1938-tól napjainkig [The afterlife of King Saint Stephen’s basilica: The Medieval Ruin Garden from 1938 to the present day] (Székesfehérvár, 2016) p. 13.

[5] Lawrence Lee et al., Stained Glass (London, 1976) pp. 158–159.

[6] Viola Pleskovics, ‘Építőkövek az államalapító korából – Az 1938-as jubileum székesfehérvári romkertje,’ Építészfórum, 20 August 2021,–az-1938-as-jubileum-szekesfehervari-romkertje. On the building and the excavations see Pál Lővei, ‘Székesfehérvár, Romkert – 1936–1938,’ Építés – Építészettudomány, 29.3–4 (2001) pp. 379–388.

[7] Pleskovics, ‘Építőkövek az államalapító korából.’

[8] Tibor Gerevich, Magyarország románkori emlékei [Hungary’s Romanesque monuments] (Budapest, 1938) p. 13; Dezső Dercsényi, A székesfehérvári királyi bazilika [The royal basilica of Székesfehérvár], with an introduction by Tibor Gerevich (Budapest, 1943) pp. 32–35.

[9] A Szent István Emlékév, kiadja a Szent István Emlékév Országos Bizottsága [The Saint Stephen Jubilee Year, published by the National Committee of the Saint Stephen Jubilee Year] (Budapest, 1940) p. 31.

[10] Gerevich, Magyarország románkori emlékei, p. 237.

[11] A Szent István Emlékév, p. 40.

[12] Sándor Tóth, ’A 11. századi magyarországi kőornamentika időrendjéhez’ [On the chronology of eleventh-century stone ornament in Hungary], in Pannonia Regia: Művészet a Dunántúlon 1000–1541 [Art in Western Hungary], ed. Árpád Mikó (Budapest, 1994) p. 54.

[13] Sándor Tóth, ‘A székesfehérvári szarkofág és köre’ [The Székesfehérvár sarcophagus and its circle], in Pannonia Regia, pp. 82–86; Orsolya Bubryák, ‘“E meditullio basilicae erutum”? – Megjegyzések a székesfehérvári Szent István szarkofág provenienciájához’ [Comments on the provenance of the Saint Stephen sarcophagus], Ars Hungarica 35.1 (2007) pp. 5–28.

DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/3UJHR

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