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)

Walking though Jewish
Bratislava, with its
memories and graves

The Holocaust Memorial in the centre of Bratislava on the site of the former Neolog Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Bratislava has been an important centre of Jewish life and education for centuries. But the story of Jews in the city is a tragic one, with forced exiles, the horrors of the Holocaust, and, in the decades immediately after World War II, the destruction of Jewish heritage during the Communist era.

Today, however, many former Jewish buildings, streets and memorials are showing signs of the efforts being made in Bratislava today to recover and remember the stories of the Jewish community and their culture.

Jews moved through this part of central Europe from the 1st century AD, but there are no records of them settling here. However, Bratislava had its own mediaeval Jewish ghetto by the 13th and 14th centuries, when Jews could live in the fortified free city. The original part of the mediaeval fortification is still found between the monastery of Ursulínok and the entrance to the former department store Dunaj and the Ministry of Culture.

These early Jews in mediaeval Bratislava were employed in finance, as merchants, craftsmen, artisans and even winemakers and they lived in the areas of today’s Nedbalova Street, Františkánska Street, Zámočnícka Street and Baštová Street. King Andrew II of Hungary issued a decree in 1229 granting the Jewish minority equal rights as the citizens of Bratislava.

The earliest synagogue in Bratislava stood by the site of the present Ursuline Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The synagogue in mediaeval Bratislava was first mentioned in 1335, when Pope Benedict XII reported to the Archbishop of Esztergom that the Cistercian monks had complained about the disturbing noise coming from this synagogue.

The Cistercian cloister stood near the today’s cloister on Uršulínska Street with the synagogue beside it. The Pope had the Archbishop investigate the situation and the synagogue was demolished soon afterwards. The Arcadia Hotel where I am staying is immediately west of this street corner.

The synagogue was rebuilt in 1339, and in the 14th century there were several hundred Jews living in Bratislava and the city. They had a synagogue, a Jewish cemetery, a mikveh and other public Jewish institutions.

Jews were expelled from Bratislava for the first time in 1360, and the synagogue was destroyed. Several Jewish families had returned to the city by 1368, and they were given permission in 1399 to build a synagogue, probably on the site of the earlier one. By the end of the 14th century, about 800 Jews were living in the city, which had a total population of 5,000 by 1435.

The Jewish Museum stands on Židovská Street or Jewish Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

During the first half of the 15th century, Jews were forced to live in a Jewish ghetto on Židovská Street (Jewish Street), known as Judengasse. The street was on the slopes beneath the castle and was not considered to be in the city itself.

The Jews were expelled and accepted back several times, and from 1599 Jews were encouraged by the Pálffy family to settle once again in Židovská Street and the area beneath the slopes of the castle. The street had two gates that were closed by the city guards at night.

To the south-west, beside the tunnel that runs under the castle and close to the banks of the Danube, the Chatam Sofer Memorial, commemorates the city’s most famous Jewish scholar, Moses Sefer (1762-1839), also known as Chatam Sofer.

A portrait of Chatam Sofer in the Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The city was part of the Kingdom of Hungary in 1806 when Rabbi Moses Sofer set up the Pressburg Yeshiva. The city became the centre of intellectual life of Central European Jewry and a leading force in opposition to the Reform movement in European Judaism.

Chatam Sofer and three generations of his descendants headed the Pressburg Yeshiva or Bratislava Yeshiva. This yeshiva produced hundreds of future leaders of Austro-Hungarian Jewry who were a major influence on the general orthodox tradition and future Charedi Judaism.

A new law in 1840 gave Jews freedom of residence, and wealthy Jewish families moved to other parts of the city. A fire in 1913 caused the old Jewish district to fall into disrepair. Following the formation of Czechoslovakia 100 years ago in 1919, many Bratislava Jews owned businesses, and many worked as doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers or artists.

The last surviving synagogue in the city is at Heydukova ulica 11 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

By the early 1920s there were about 11,000 Jews in Bratislava: 3,000 Neolog and 8,000 Orthodox. The last surviving synagogue in the city, at Heydukova ulica 11, was built in 1923-1926, and was designed by the architect Artur Szalatnai-Slatinsky.
In the late 1930s, antisemitic riots threatened the Jewish population of Bratislava, and Imi Lichtenfeld helped to defend his Jewish neighbourhood against racist gangs. Violent attacks were carried out against Bratislava’s synagogues and the Pressburg Yeshiva on 11 November 1938, and sporadic pogroms continued during World War II.

After the formation of the Slovak State in March 1939, the regime imposed discriminatory measures against the Jewish population. The deportation of Jews from Slovakia began on 25 March 1942. German forces occupied Bratislava in September 1944 and most of the remaining 2,000 Jews in the city were sent to Auschwitz.

More than 15,000 Jews were living in Bratislava in 1940; about 3,500 survived World War II. On April 15, 1945, Max Weiss became the chairman of the revived Jewish community and prayer services were renewed in the Heydukova Street Synagogue.

A reminder of the Holocaust in a photograph in the Jewish Museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Of the 30,000 Jews who remained in Slovakia at the end of World War II, 90% emigrated in the following months and years, and the former Jewish district came to a final end came when the SNP bridge was built in the 1960s.

The Heydukova Street Synagogue is the last surviving synagogue in the city. Outside, it has monumental columns with seven pillars in the front. Inside, the synagogue combines an innovative reinforced concrete structure and contemporary Cubist details with historical elements. This remains a living synagogue, and there are plans for several memorial tablets devoted to victims of the Holocaust victims are planned for this building.

The Bratislava yeshiva had moved to Israel in 1950, the building was demolished in the 1960s and a residential house now stands on the site. The Jewish quarter in Podhradie was demolished in the 1960s by the communist authorities of the city, and the former Neolog Synagogue, which had been taken over by the state, was demolished 50 years ago in 1969.

The Holocaust Memorial on Rybné Square, beneath the shadow of Saint Martin’s Cathedral, was erected in 1996 to commemorate 105,000 Slovak Holocaust victims and the ‘Neolog’ synagogue that once stood in this square. The memorial features a statue with a Star of David and a black silhouette of the destroyed synagogue.

The gothic entrance portal from the mediaeval synagogue was uncovered in the 1990s in the courtyard of a building on Panská Street No. 11.

An exhibition in the Museum of Jewish Culture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Museum of Jewish Culture at Židovská 17 presents displays of Jewish spiritual and social life in Slovakia, with special displays devoted to the memory of the Holocaust.

Today, a modern memorial, containing the graves of Chatam Sofer and many of his associates and family, is underground below Bratislava Castle, on the left bank of the Danube.

The preservation of these graves has a curious history. The Jewish cemetery in Bratislava was confiscated by the regime in 1943 to build a roadway. Negotiations with the regime enabled the community to preserve the section of the cemetery including Sofer’s grave, enclosed in concrete, below the surface of the new road and tram tracks.

Following the declaration of independence by Slovakia in 1992, negotiations began to restore public access to the preserved graves. An international committee was formed in the mid-1990s to relocate the tram tracks and build a mausoleum.

Beside his tomb are another 22 tombs of other important members of the city’s Jewish community. The new mausoleum opened on 8 July 2002, and I was able to arrange a private visit on Tuesday afternoon [6 November 2019].

The tomb of Chatam Moser in the mausoleum that opened in 2002 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)