‘Contemporary for 1,000 Years’: Pannonhalma Abbey Is a Jewel of Hungary’s Medieval Religious Heritage

The historic abbey, which in 2024 is celebrating the eighth centenary of the consecration of its basilica dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, has retained an undiminished attractiveness.

The Abbey of Pannonhalma, founded in 996, sits atop a hilltop like a sacred fortress in the heart of western Hungary, replete with beauty and sacred edifices.
The Abbey of Pannonhalma, founded in 996, sits atop a hilltop like a sacred fortress in the heart of western Hungary, replete with beauty and sacred edifices. (photo: Péter Orosz)

The intrinsically civilizational dimension of Christianity in Europe is best captured when visiting iconic religious sites that came into being even before the countries that house them were established. 

The territorial Abbey of Pannonhalma, founded in 996 on a hilltop like a sacred fortress in the heart of western Hungary, is one of them. This landmark of European Christendom, whose basilica celebrates the eighth centenary of its consecration in 2024, remains a hub of interest in the country for the many cultural and educational activities it offers, as well as for its high-quality wine production, based on ancestral knowledge.

UNESCO, in listing the abbey as a World Heritage Site on the occasion of the 1,000th anniversary of its foundation in 1996, acknowledged that the abbey bears “special witness to the diffusion of Christianity in Central Europe, which is enriched by the continuing presence of the Benedictine monks who have worked towards peace among countries and people for one thousand years.”

Pannonhalma, hill view
The abbey is a World Heritage Site.(Photo: Péter Orosz)


Older Than Hungary Itself

At the entrance to the medieval monastic complex, Father Bánk Szita, a polyglot monk with keen eyes and encyclopedic knowledge, welcomed the Register with warmth and cheerfulness. Despite the pre-summer mildness of a May 31 afternoon, the rainy weather exalted the chromatic contrasts of the buildings, which have undergone various architectural evolutions over the centuries. 

“This abbey is older than Hungary itself, for King St. Stephen [founder of the Hungarian kingdom in the year 1000] was crowned only five years after its foundation,” noted Father Szita, as he strode towards the basilica, where a wedding was about to be celebrated. “It is older than the Hungarian Church itself, for, at the time, there were no bishoprics in the region, only missionaries.”

The basilica, for its part, was built in the early 13th century and consecrated in 1224 — in the presence of King Andrew II — in place of a previous church consecrated by St. Stephen 200 years earlier that was destroyed by fire. In late Romanesque, early Gothic style, the basilica is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, a key figure in early European Christianity who was born in the province of Pannonia, where the monastery is located. 

Pannonhalma Abbey library and basilica
The Pannonhalma Abbey library and basilica(Photo: Solène Tadié photos)

“Although we can’t know for certain, historical recounts suggest that the builders came from France and had worked on the cathedral of Reims before that,” Father Szita said. 

The ties between this place and France don’t end there, as the city of Tours, where St. Martin is buried, also donated his relics, which are placed in the crypt, the oldest part of the current building. This is also where the heart of Otto von Habsburg, the last crown prince of Austria-Hungary, has been resting since his death in 2011.


1,000 Years of (Almost) Uninterrupted Presence 

While the interior of the basilica was renovated in 2012, with modern furnishings designed to blend in harmoniously with the medieval architecture, the crypt aisles still bear the mark of a centuries-old history, as rich as it was turbulent. 

On the right-hand side of the red marble steps leading up to the emblematic Porta Speciosa passing from the cloister to the church (above which is a 19th-century fresco depicting St. Martin cutting off a piece of his cloak to give to a poor man;  the following night, the poor man clothed in half the cloak appeared to him in a dream, in the guise of Christ, to illustrate that what is done to the least of his brothers, is done to him) is a curious engraving, which could be mistaken for the graffiti of an ignorant tourist. “This is the signature of one of the Polish soldiers sent to defend the monastery against the Turkish invaders occupying Hungary in the 16th century, a certain Iacobus Uniesovski, who also indicated the year, 1578,” said the Benedictine monk, adding with a smile that the anecdote amused Pope St. John Paul II when he visited the monastery for its 1,000th anniversary.

More recently, some 30 years ago, archaeological findings uncovered walls and frescoes in the south aisle dating back to the early 11th century (the time of St. Stephen), which survived the fire but were covered over when the Gothic cloister was built 200 years later. 

“Our community has continuously lived here, except for two interruptions — that of the Ottoman occupation, during which the monks had to flee for 30 years, and that of the ruling of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who dissolved the Benedictine order in his domain in 1786,” Father Szita continued. The order was reestablished by Emperor Francis II 16 later, in 1802.

In the 20th century, after the hardships of the two World Wars, the Communist regime dissolved the monastic orders again, but allowed the monks to remain in place and their secondary school to continue operating, despite regular intimidation. 

This succession of decisive events in the history of the country and the Old Continent, from the Mongol invasion in 1241 to the Turkish invasions and the fall of the Soviet Union, has been skillfully reconstructed in a temporary exhibition at the abbey, which will run until the end of the jubilee year on Nov. 11, the feast of St. Martin. The exhibition includes precious archival documents, including the letters that abbots and bishops from western Hungary had sent to the Pope to warn him of the Mongol invasion, which had already devastated the eastern part of the country. The hastily written letters, sent unfinished, were blocked in Siena,Tuscany, and never reached the Pontiff. 

“Our tradition is made even more alive by the fact that we could stand the test of centuries of upheaval and wars, maintaining the beautiful buildings from the past while also evolving with the times,” Father Szita said. 


‘Teach and Preach’

But if there’s one field in which the abbey has stood out throughout its history, beyond the fashions and crises of the times, it is that of education and intellectual life. It was within its walls that the country’s first school was founded, in 996. King St. Stephen himself sent his son, St. Emeric of Hungary, to study there. 

This aspect took on a new dimension in the 19th century with the reestablishment of the Benedictine order in the region, on condition that the monks focus their activities on education. Praedicate et docete — “preach and teach” — became a kind of motto integrated into the rule of life of the community, whose main activity today is still teaching. As a territorial abbey, Pannonhalma has a jurisdictional autonomy similar to that of a diocese and therefore oversees various establishments in its 15 parishes, as well as the Sapientia monastic theological university located in Budapest. The abbey itself is where 28 monks live permanently, and its secondary school with 340 boarding students is still among the best in Hungary.

The prestige associated with these establishments is further enhanced by the presence of the world’s largest Benedictine library, another jewel of Hungarian heritage, housing over 400,000 books, including manuscripts and incunabula (pamphlets from the early days of printing) of great historical value. Built in the 19th century in a classical style, it features frescoes and paintings inspired by Greek and Roman mythology. “It may come as a surprise not to find any Christian figures in it, saints and hermits for example, but there was a desire to set this place apart from the rest of the complex by making it exclusively focused on science,” Father Szita commented.

Pannonhalma Abbey
The abbey includes the world’s largest Benedictine library, along with statues and ancient doors.(Photo: Solène Tadié photos)


Between Earth and Heaven

This special intellectual vocation has not prevented the monks, whose first motto as Benedictines is ora et labora (“pray and work”), from returning fully to the work of the land in recent decades. This has been done not only through the production of local delicacies, but also through the resumption, in 2000, of their wine-making activity, initiated when the abbey was founded in the Middle Ages but abandoned after the Second World War. Thanks to an association with the Hungarian Foreign Trade Bank, the monks were able to bring their 52 hectares of land back to fruition, combining their ancestral knowledge with modern methods to produce white and red wines of a quality rarely matched in the country. 

This skillful blend of rootedness in tradition and openness to novelties coming out of the surrounding world seems to be a particularly powerful recipe for appealing to the younger generation who make up a large proportion of visitors to the abbey, whose motto is “contemporary for 1,000 years.” 

“All eras, artistic and architectural styles converge in a single place whose sole purpose is to raise souls to God: It’s a place both ancient and modern, where all ages have left their mark. ... That’s what makes our tradition still so vibrant,” Father Szita said.

“We’re witnessing an epochal change that is prompting many young people to question their lifestyle, to drop their cellphones for a while and get back to the land, to rediscover a love of hard work and embrace the spiritual life more fully,” he concluded. “We, monks of the community, are here to accompany them on this path.”

This story was updated after posting.