‘Window to Eternity’: World’s First Greek Catholic Museum Brings Eastern Light to Western Christian Culture
Inaugurated in spring 2023, the Greek Catholic Museum aims to be a unique place to preserve the heritage treasures of Eastern Catholics.
NYIREGHAZA, Hungary — Pilgrims and Byzantine art lovers from all over the world, who come in large numbers every year to the famous shrine of the Weeping Icon in Máriapócs in eastern Hungary, will now be able to stop off at the new Greek Catholic Museum in Nyíregyháza, just a few miles away.
Spread over an area of more than 20,000 square feet, the cultural center — the first of its kind in the world — is designed to make the world aware of the centuries-old and relatively unknown artistic treasures.
Catholics of the Byzantine Rite who live in full communion with Rome currently number just over 150,000 baptized in Hungary. The history of the community, which has a strong presence in the east of the country, particularly around Nyíregyháza and Debrecen, where its metropolitan see is located, dates back to 1646, when part of the Ruthenian Orthodox clergy rallied to join the Catholic Church in the then-kingdom of Hungary.
After elevating the Greek Catholic Church of Hungary to a sui iuris (self-governing) metropolitan Church in 2015, Pope Francis graced the community with a special visit during his visit to Budapest last April.
Interactive Dive Into History
The museum project, which has been in the making since 2018 and was inaugurated last spring, aims to promote the heritage of this prolific Christian community in terms of iconography and to make the various aspects of its spirituality known to as wide an audience as possible. Many of its valuable works of art had long been neglected as a result of the Latinization of Central and Eastern European Churches in the 19th century and the lack of funding allocated by local ecclesiastical authorities for their preservation.
“For a long time, in this context of the Latinization of culture, the Greek Catholics themselves considered many historical works too ‘exotic’ to care about their preservation and to devote budgetary shares to them, giving priority to funding schools and other social works,” Irén Szabó, the museum’s director, told the Register.
In the 1980s, the local religious authorities had already begun collecting valuable objects, including icons, liturgy equipment, textiles, Gospel books and goldsmith materials, brought together in the Orthodox Catholic Ecclesiastic Collection, which has now been incorporated into the new museum.
Szabó, an anthropologist married to a Greek-Catholic priest (the Byzantine Rite allows the ordination of married men under certain conditions), has devoted a significant part of her research to this Eastern tradition, becoming over the years one of its leading experts in Hungary. She recounts how, in the years preceding the museum’s conception, she was contacted at least once a week by communities or priests wishing to have works of art appraised with a view to offering them to national museums. This is how the opportunity to bring them together in one place came about.
The four-floor building, located in the neighborhood of the Greek-Catholic Theological College in Nyíregyháza, is divided into thematic units, which include the historical period of wooden churches, the iconostasis (an unbroken screen made of icons), the mystery of the Eucharist and the great celebrations of the liturgical calendar.
The tour is punctuated by interactive and audio spaces that accompany the exhibition notes, allowing visitors to immerse themselves deeply in 400 years of Church history, the oldest object in the collection being an icon of St. Simeon Stylites, dating from the second half of the 17th century.
In order to ensure that this glorious past never ceases to nourish the faith of the present, a space has been set aside for a restoration workshop where professionals and artists can meet and work on the creation of new icons.
Eastern Light on the West
The influence of Greek Catholics has spread across several countries in today’s Central and Eastern Europe, from Romania to Poland via Ukraine, Slovakia or Hungary. Developing in harmony with local cultures, each of these local Churches cultivated its own artistic, cultural and ecclesiastical particularities.
According to Szabó, it was mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries that the so-called “Northern Carpathian” tradition (in reference to the Central European mountain range) took root in Hungary, between Western influences and the affirmation of Eastern Byzantine identity.
“It’s a great, solid tradition that unites Greek Catholics today, despite historical difficulties. They have preserved their rites and traditions and remained faithful to their spiritual, intellectual and material heritage,” commented Katalin Novák, president of Hungary, at the museum’s April 13 blessing ceremony, in the presence of several religious, political and cultural leaders. Among them were Hungarian Metropolitan Archishop Péter Fülöp Kocsis, Archbishop Giorgio Demetrio Gallaro, former secretary of the Dicastery of Eastern Churches, and other Greek-Catholic bishops.
Pointing out that the great Greek Catholic men of letters and artists understood better than anyone that East and West converged through the cultural creativity of Christianity, Novák said that, in line with the Latin locution Ex Oriente Lux, “Out of the East, Light,” Byzantine Rite Catholics brought “the light of the East to Western Christian culture.”
With the aim of bringing Christian peoples together through art, the museum’s curators are also looking for contemporary artists whose work is inspired by the faith (particularly in Romania, Ukraine and Poland, where there is a strong Greek-Catholic presence) to add to the collections on display.
Indeed, while the museum — managed by the metropolitan see — is intended for a universal public that is not limited to believers, it represents for its promoters a unique opportunity to make hearts sensitive to the great beauty of Revelation and the rich artistic tradition it has engendered. The special importance of icons for Greek Catholics and Orthodox alike lies in the fact that they are considered to be a direct reflection of the saints, rather than a mere representation of them, thus exalting their evangelizing significance and the missionary function of the artist.
“Our museum has a vocation of openness to the world, which must not obscure the fact that all these liturgical objects, which are treasures of the Christian faith, have been imbued with the prayers of generations that have gone before us for centuries,” Szabó said, expressing her hope that this will awaken in everyone the desire to contemplate the sacred mysteries and to participate in the Divine Liturgy.
“By contemplating these works,” she concluded, “we can see great witnesses to the faith, who continue to live on through the eyes of the visitor, and offer us a window to eternity.”