A Martyr for Magyar Christendom
Nestling in the side of Gellért Hill, the city's major landmark, and protected by a colonnade, stands a saintly figure holding up a cross in his right hand as if to convert non-believers to the Christian faith. Less noticeable is the figure at the foot of the statue, a rough, morose warrior symbolizing the pagan Magyars. Unusually for statues, the choice of location is accurate since this was the place where on September 24, 1046 the rebellious pagan hordes of Chief Vata pushed Bishop Gellért tied up with rope in a two-wheeled cart down to the river. The martyrdom of Gellért was one of the emblematic acts of the Magyars vacillating between their Eastern heritage and their Western adaptation.
The seven-metre high monument was erected in 1904. It was commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph together with nine other statues representing the most significant figures of Hungarian history. The choice of the long-ruling Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary to include Gellért was understandable. Like himself, Gellért was a foreigner with a civilizing mission during the reign of the first Hungarian king, Stephen (István), who – with German support – led his half-nomadic pagan nation to adopt Christianity and thus become part of the European mainstream. But all other similarities stop there.
Gellért was born as Giorgio di Sagredo in Venice in 980 and he adopted his late father's name, Gerardo, as a young man. He was destined to become a great scholar and champion of Christianity. After recovering from a childhood disease his parents put him into a Benedictine monastery at the age of five. Owing to his bright talent, ambition and strengths of character his fellow monks elected him their abbot at the age of 32. However, his ambition to be a missionary led him to resign and he decided to go to Jerusalem. Due to a shipwreck in the Adriatic and his meeting with a Hungarian monk the course of his life was changed for good. Accepting the Magyar monk's invitation he arrived in Hungary in 1015 and thanks to his erudite knowledge and charismatic character he was soon in King Stephen's favour. So much so, that the king entrusted him to be the private tutor to his 7-year-old son Imre (Emeric). Eight years later he decided to retreat to a monastery in Bakonybél and lived the life of a hermit for seven years, during which he produced a plethora of theological works.
The conversion of the Magyar population from their ancient religion based on shamanism took several generations. King Stephen managed to bring the whole country under his control only after 30 years in power when he defeated Ajtony, the chief of the so-called "black Magyars" in the south-east. After conquering this last "pagan" stronghold King Stephen delegated Gellért to organize the Csanád Bishopric, which he carried out with a missionary zeal. His episcopal seat soon developed into the centre of religious education, attracting young people from the region.
Gellért's indisputable role as a defender of Christianity on Hungarian soil came after King Stephen's death in 1038. Since his former pupil, Prince Emeric, had died in a hunting accident seven years earlier an interregnum followed in which Gellért played a crucial role as a protector of King Stephen's legacy. He opposed the foreign influence of the Venetian-trained Peter Orseolo as well as Sámuel Aba's flirting with pagan forces. He was instrumental in finding the right solution to preserving the integrity of the kingdom by inviting Prince András back from exile in Kiev to continue the Árpád line. András was the son of Vazul, whom Stephen had blinded and made deaf by pouring hot lead into his ears (a practice done to incapacitate someone from being a ruler) after Prince Emeric's death, since following the ancient Magyar law of seniority Vazul had a claim to being King Stephen's successor. Gellért's unduly cruel death was prompted by Prince András's return to Hungary to take the throne. Together with three fellow-bishops he set off to welcome the Prince when near the Pest ferry his entourage was attacked by the rebel pagan forces of Vata who hoped to make use of an imminent change of power in order to persecute the foreigners and their Christian allies. At the bottom of the hill is where he and the other bishops were stoned to death, and he tried to defend himself by holding up the Cross to deter his attackers, taking his own teaching literally: "if we bless our pursuers, we are following Christ's example".
Gellért, a martyr for the Christian faith versus the pagan traditions of a tribal society, was canonized as early as 1083, joining the ranks of Hungarian saints together with King Stephen and his son Emeric. The day of his death, September 24, is still remembered in the Hungarian calendar of name days.
Contributed by Miklós M. Molnár, founder of Fungarian, a company offering crash courses in Hungarian combined with interesting local tours for visitors to Budapest. You can read more of the series and learn more about Hungarian culture and language at the author’s website – www.fungarian.com in the FunBox Hungarian Histories section. First published in Time Out Budapest.