The Church of Arts - The building of the Museum of Fine Arts is 115 years old

Hungarian version of the article: A művészet temploma – 115 éves a Szépművészeti Múzeum épülete

Written by: Péter Bodó

December 5, 2021 at 11:00 AM

The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the most famous buildings in the country, without which the Heroes' Square is unimaginable. Yet this was erected the latest, it is ten years younger than the Kunsthalle opposite. However, its size and seriousness make this fact forgettable - and of course it is no longer young, it was opened to the public 115 years ago. In this context, Pestbuda presents its history and beautiful interiors, which house one of the richest art collections in Central Europe.

In Article 8 of the 1896 Act - the so-called Millennium Act - the National Assembly decided to establish the Museum of Fine Arts and to erect a building on a suitable site in Budapest. The choice fell on the western half of the City Park, as the Andrássy Road, which had been built by then, required a worthy closure. On the one hand, the Rotunda, which used to stand there to present the Feszty Panorama, was not monumental enough, and on the other hand, it was empty at that time, as the Arrival of the Hungarians was so successful that it was taken to Western Europe on a multi-year tour. The area was handed over to the state by the capital, and the hexadecagonal building was demolished.

Rotunda for the presentation of the Feszty Panorama (Source: Fortepan/Budapest Archives/Photographs by György Klösz. Reference No.: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.07.112.)

Prime Minister Sándor Wekerle appointed lawyer-historian Ernő Kammerer as the government commissioner for the affairs of the Museum of Fine Arts, and on 14 September 1898, the commission he headed announced a tender for the design of the new building. By the deadline of 1 March 1899, nine entries had been received, and Samu Pecz's work had been awarded first prize in the announcement of results ten days later. The second place went to the joint work of Albert Schickedanz and Fülöp Herzog, and the third to Aladár Árkay.

Portrait of Albert Schickedanz in the late 1880s (Source: Vasárnapi Ujság, 27 May 1888)

Nevertheless, Schickedanz and his partner were entrusted with the elaboration of the detailed plans, because their idea was better suited to the environment they had otherwise created themselves. They also designed the Kunsthalle, already standing in the square and the Millennium Monument under construction. Similarly, the museum’s outbuilding was kept in a classicising style, mainly obscuring the larger, Neo-Renaissance block when viewed from the square. In addition, Schickedanz had been involved in the preparation of the design competition since 1894: together with Kammerer, they assessed the necessary requirements for the competition to be announced at all.

The Kunsthalle has been standing in the Heroes' Square since 1896 (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)

The building permit was obtained from the Budapest City Council on 1 March 1900, and the contractors marched to the site on 17 July. Construction took place in two parts: first, the rear, larger wing was built by the end of 1902, and only then did they started the outbuilding, which was completed by the fall of 1906. The solemn handover was held in the presence of the king on 1 December, and was opened to the public four days later.

The Museum of Fine Arts shortly after its handover, in 1906 (Source: Fortepan/Budapest Archives/Photographs by György Klösz. Reference No.: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.08.113)

The building has truly become the church of art, as the outbuilding facing Heroes' Square consists of three Greek churches connected by shorter, colonnade wings. The central church offers the best-known view, as it is the main entrance, which can be reached by a 24-degree, wide staircase. The Corinthian columns with a notched trunk hold a triangular tympanum with a replica of a group of statues from the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Schickedanz dreamed of a much richer sculptural decoration: he planned a series of sculptures in the false windows of the facade and on the top of the facade, and a two-horse triumphal chariot on each of the two lower towers in the rear building which, however, could not be realised in the absence of material resources.

The rich sculptural decoration can be seen in Albert Schickedanz 's painting (Source: Albert Schickedanz 1846-1915. Exhibition catalog, 1996)

The Neo-Renaissance style of the rear, two-storey block is characterised by symmetry: the centre and two edges of the side facing the Zoo move forward slightly - forming so-called risalits. The middle is both wider and taller, but its decoration is basically the same as the corner risalits: there are pairs of columns on the edges of the floor, with ornate framed windows between them. However, while the central risalit boasts real windows, at the corners, only false windows fill the wall surface.

Central risalit of the rear facade facing the Zoo (Photo: Péter Bodó/pestbuda.hu)

The window openings are closed in a semicircle on both the ground floor and the first floor, and they are separated by wall pillars (pilasters) on the first floor. The horizontal articulation is even stronger than the vertical one: between the two levels there is a belt course, below it, the plasterwork imitating ashlar stones is much more sculptural, but upstairs it is more playful, as in the line of the pilasters the eye can admire the frieze decorated with puttos and garlands.

The facade of Dózsa György Road (Photo: Péter Bodó/pestbuda.hu)

The two side facades of the block also have a largely identical design: straight windows on the ground floor and semicircular windows on the first floor. The difference, however, is that the upstairs windows on the western side (Dózsa György Road) are actually only false windows, i.e. wall niches, the arch of which is filled with shells. There is also a side entrance in the middle of the facade, paired with a short balcony on the east side.

Ground floor and first floor plan of the building (Source: Albert Schickedanz 1846-1915. Exhibition catalogue, 1996)

It is the church of art also because its interior is defined by the huge halls with high ceilings. The main entrance leads through a smaller foyer to the rectangular Marble Hall, from where we can go straight to the Renaissance Hall. It is part of the back block and is actually a covered courtyard with a rectangular floor plan, surrounded by a row of arcades on the ground floor and a columned corridor on the first floor. To the left is the Romanian Hall, beautifully renovated a few years ago, and to the right is the Baroque Hall. They are also rectangular in plan, but their longitudinal direction is perpendicular to the Renaissance hall.

The Marble Hall (Photo: Péter Bodó/pestbuda.hu)

The two outermost churches of the outbuilding also have a larger room: the left side is called the Ionic room and the right side is called the Doric room after the columns. Behind the Renaissance Hall, at the end of the central axis of the building, is the significant Michelangelo Hall. The latter is already part of a series of smaller office rooms and warehouses - more precisely, it breaks the line of those - which run on the outside of the back block and surround the Romanian and Baroque halls, respectively. These two halls, along with the Renaissance, can actually be considered covered courtyards, as they have their own roof structure. However, the large museum also has open courtyards, which are still closed to today's visitors: they are located between the three churches of the outbuilding and were originally intended as a lapidarium.

The Renaissance Hall was also imagined to be decorated with murals by the designer (Source: Albert Schickedanz 1846-1915. Exhibition catalogue, 1996)

115 years ago, the first visitors were able to admire plaster copies of famous statues in large halls, and sculptures were also exhibited in the smaller halls of the outbuilding for them to see. The paintings hung on the walls of the skylight exhibition halls on the first floor of the back block (the lights were subsequently darkened for art protection reasons). If they went up the stairs on the left side of the Marble Hall, visitors could enter the row of halls showing 19th century (then modern) works from the corridor, while the stairs on the right took them closer to medieval, renaissance and baroque images. In addition, the exhibition continued in smaller cabinets, above which a second, lower floor was built in the west wing. The end of the central axis is the highest section of the building, as it had two floors above the Michelangelo Hall: the first is the Schickedanz Hall, named after the designer, and the exhibition space on the second floor was dedicated to works of art from the historic gallery.

The (originally) skylight exhibition halls (Photo: Bodó Péter/pestbuda.hu)

Albert Schickedanz planned that visitors could enjoy not only the artwork but also the interior wall painting. Being a painter, he also made a number of colourful sketches on how to paint the interiors, but they were only realised in the Ionian and Doric Halls, as well as in the Baroque hall. He asked Károly Lotz to paint the Renaissance hall, but due to the artist's death in 1904, eventually, drawing teacher József Kovács made the portraits of the artists and patrons, and Schickedanz himself he painted the arches of the vault. Unfortunately, these are no longer visible today because they were destroyed during World War II.

Painting plan of the exhibition halls (Source: Albert Schickedanz 1846-1915. Exhibition catalogue, 1996)

The most beautiful space of the building is the Romanian Hall, which was restored by 2018 as a result of several years of work. Visitors were able to enter here through a plaster copy of the Golden Entrance of Freiburg Minster, and the whole hall evoked the style of Romanesque basilicas: a row of columns and pillars divides it into three naves, and its walls are decorated with rich plant and figural elements. Following Schickedanz's plans, Károly Miksa Reissmann and János Glaser also painted trees of life, griffin and dragon figures, peacocks representing immortality, zodiac signs and coats of arms on the walls and vaults. This sacred space is truly worthy of the rich collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, and at the same time it perfectly expresses that the building is the church of art.

The beautiful Romanian Hall (Photo: Péter Bodó/pestbuda.hu)

Cover photo: The Museum of Fine Arts as seen from the Heroes' Square (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)


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