07 November 2019

Saint Martin’s Cathedral
dominates the skyline in
the old town in Bratislava

Saint Martin’s Cathedral was built into the walled fortifications of the old town of Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava stands at the western edge of the old city centre, beneath the slopes of Bratislava Castle, and its 85 metre spire dominates the skyline of the old town.

Saint Martin’s Cathedral is the largest and one of the oldest churches in Bratislava, and it was used as the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1563 to 1830.

Saint Martin’s Cathedral replaced an earlier chapel or church in the grounds of Bratislava Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Long before the cathedral was built, the site had been the crossroads in the old town centre, with a market and perhaps also a chapel.

At the time, the main centre of worship was a chapel in Bratislava Castle that was used by the provost and chapter of Bratislava. An earlier Moravian church built in the eight century was replaced by a second church dedicated to the Saviour, whose site is still marked out on the castle hill.

King Emeric of Hungary received permission from Pope Innocent II in 1204 to relocate the chapel and the church was built in 1221 in the Romanesque style and dedicated to the Holy Saviour.

Saint Martin’s Cathedral was consecrated in 1452 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

As Bratislava grew, the church became insufficient for its needs, and the building of a new, three-nave, Gothic cathedral began in 1311 on the site of an earlier church and cemetery. The church was built as part of the city walls, and its tower served as a defensive bastion in the mediaeval city fortifications.

The building project was delayed due to the location of the site and a lack of funding in the early 15th century, and it came to a halt during the Hussite Wars. The cathedral was finally completed and consecrated in 1452, although work continued into the 15th century.

The cathedral nave has three aisles divided by two rows of eight columns (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cathedral is built in a traditional cruciform shape. The nave consists of three aisles divided by two rows of eight columns. The interior of the church is large – 69.37 metres long, 22.85 metres wide and 16.02 metres high.

The cathedral has four chapels: the canons’ chapel; the Gothic chapel of Queen Sophia of Bavaria, widow of the Czech King Wenceslas IV; the chapel of Saint Anne; and the baroque chapel of Saint John the Merciful, with the body of Saint John the Merciful, who died in Alexandria in the early seventh century.

Inside Saint Martin’s, once the coronation church for Hungarian kings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Saint Martin’s was the coronation church for Hungarian kings and their consorts from 1563 to 1830.

The cathedral became the coronation church in succession to the Church of the Virgin Mary in Székesfehérvár, after that city was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The Crown of Saint Stephen was placed on the head of Maximilian II, son of Emperor Ferdinand I of Habsburg, on 8 September 1563.

In all, 11 kings and queens and eight of their consorts from the Habsburg dynasty were crowned here between 1563 and 1830, including Maria Theresa of Austria. This role is marked to this day by the 300 kg gilded replica of the Hungarian royal crown perched on top of the 85-metre-tall neo-Gothic tower.

Georg Rafael Donner’s sculpture shows Saint Martin as a Hungarian hussar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The first monumental work of central-European sculpture made from lead can be found inside the cathedral. It depicts Saint Martin as a typical Hungarian hussar mounted on his horse, bending to a beggar and cutting his coat to share it with a poor beggar to protect him from the cold. It was created by Georg Rafael Donner for the main altar in 1734, but this now stands in a side nave as a free-standing statue.

Donner also designed the Baroque Chapel of Saint John the Merciful, built at the price of 2,000 pieces of gold and at the expense of Cardinal Péter Pázmány.

The top of the Gothic tower was struck by lightning in 1760 and later replaced by a Baroque tower. This was later destroyed by fire in 1835 and rebuilt, with some modifications, in 1847 and topped with a gold-plated replica of the crown of Saint Stephen. It weighs 150 kg, is over 1 m in diameter, and rests on a 1.2 m × 1.2 m gold-plated pillow and stands 1.64 m high. The pillow and crown contain a total of 8 kg of gold.

The cathedral was given its present-day appearance in 1869-1877, when it was re-Gothicised after suffering damage by fire, war, earthquake and other disasters.

The Archbishops’ crypt beneath the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Since the cathedral was built over a cemetery, it contains catacombs of unknown length and crypts holding the sepulchres of many significant historical figures, up to 6 metres below the church.

Over the centuries, many significant church and political figures have been buried in the cathedral sepulchres, including Jozef Ignác Bajza, author of the first Slovak novel, as well as dozens of bishops, canons, and French priests fleeing the French revolution.

There are least three crypts under the cathedral: the archbishops’ crypt, the Jesuit crypt and the Pálffy family crypt.

The Archbishops’ crypt is accessible from the Saint Anna Chapel and is the only crypt open to the public. It branches into four hallways under the nave in the direction of Kapitulská Street and contains over 90 graves.

The Jesuit crypt is accessible from the Saint Anna Chapel and is located under the road between the cathedral and the adjacent seminary.

The Pálffy crypt under the main altar is accessed from the north side of the cathedral. The Pálffy family were the hereditary owners of the Bratislava Castle.

The altar of the Holy Cross is the work of the Prinoth workshop in St Ulrich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The cathedral serves the Archdiocese of Bratislava, first formed as the Apostolic Administration of Trnava in 1922, when it was subordinate to the Archdiocese of Esztergom, the primatial see of Hungary. Pope Paul VI made it a diocese and renamed it the Archdiocese of Trnava in 1977, and it was renamed the Archdiocese of Bratislava-Trnava in 1995. The Archdiocese of Bratislava was formed in 2008, and its seat was moved from Trnava to Bratislava, which became the seat of the Slovak church.

The cathedral and the neighbouring diocesan seminary are surrounded by cobbled side-streets, courtyards and steep steps. But the structure is threatened by the vibrations caused by heavy traffic on the access ramp to the nearby Nový Most bridge.

The altar of Our Lady of Sorrows is the work of the Prinoth workshop in St Ulrich (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Restoration work began in 1997 and the cathedral was declared a national cultural monument since in 2002.

Since 2003, the cathedral’s former role as the coronation church of Hungarian monarchs has been celebrated in style and with fun at the beginning of September each year, when the pomp and circumstance of the coronation procession returns to Bratislava in a reconstruction of the ceremony.

The spire of Saint Martin’s Cathedral (right) seen from Bratislava Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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