Collection of art treasures

19 August 2021
Pope Francis is to meet with Church and secular leaders during his stay in Budapest within the more than hundred-years-old walls of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Following a long preparatory procedure, the foundation and construction of a new Museum of Fine Arts on Heroes’ Square was stipulated by the Millennium Act of 1986. An overall amount of 4.2 then Hungarian forints was spent in the form of partial instalments on the establishment of the institution and the expansion of the already existing collection. The territory necessary for the construction was provided for free by the capital city.

The tender winner was not commissioned

In 1898 an open tender was called for the architectural planning of the new museum, for which all together 9 designs were submitted. Although architect Samu Petz was declared winner with his renaissance and antique style structure, ironically the duo of the second prized designers – Albert Schickedanz, architect, painter, craftartist, and Fülöp Herzog, architect - was commissioned to execute the project. The architect duo had been working together since 1984, their common oeuvres included the Exhibition Hall –just opposite to the Museum of Fine Arts-, and the Millennium Monument in the centre of Heroes’ Square.

Moreover, as for museum functionalities the second prize winners’ design better fitted the jury’s concept, thus following some slight plan modifications, construction works began in 1900.

One of the most prominent museums in Europe

The first phase of the construction covered the neo-renaissance style gallery wing, then the neo-classical part was completed. Works went on in at accelerated speed, so the new museum building could have been inaugurated on 1 December 1906 in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph. By integrating the works of art collected over the centuries under one roof, the magnificent material developed the museum into one of the most significant public institutions in Europe. Besides the basic collections of the National Museum and the National Picture Gallery, some private collections – Jankovich, Pyrker, Esterházy, Ipolyi – enriched it further, while artwork donations and purchases over the past century broadened the magnificent material.

Art works locked into rail wagons

The 20th century left painful traces in the history of the Museum. World War II seriously threatened even its existence, the building was heavily damaged by bomb attacks during the fights. In order to save the collection, many pieces were loaded hurriedly and carelessly into rail wagons and rescued to the West during the last months of the war. Most of the art works have been returned to Hungary after the war in 1946-47, though many of them in very poor condition.

Rupture and merger

Many items went missing even from the very pieces left in Budapest. After 1957 the Hungarian related pieces were separated and transferred to the National Picture Gallery of Hungary. The two institutions were merged in 2012, and the works from the period before the 1800 have been physically returned to the freshly renovated premises of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2018.

Night in the museum

In the fall of 1983 seven pieces of prestigious paintings were stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts. The preceding year building renovation works had started. On the night of 5th November the thieves climbed up the scaffolding on the outer wall of the rear side of the building and broke into the Museum. The burglar alert system had broken down a few days earlier, and due to the renovation works only a temporary alarm and guards served as security.

Art connoisseur thieves

Amongst the stolen art pieces there were two Raphael’s paintings, one of them the famous Esterhazy Madonna canvas. It is an unfinished Raphael’s work, created in 1508. In 1720 the painting was given to Charles III. King of Hungary as a gift from the Pope. Years later the painting was taken to the Chancellor of Maria Theresa, finally Miklós József Esterházy bought the masterpiece. At the time of the robbery its estimated value amounted upto 20 million dollars. Along with the Raphael’s paintings the thieves also stole two Tintoretto portraits, and two works of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, namely the Madonna with Six Saints and the Holy Family in the Flight to Egypt.

Moral responsibility

Upon an extensive investigation the burglar team members were arrested with Interpol assistance. Thieves were of Hungarian and Italian nationalities, and committed the crime presumably upon the order of a Greek millionaire art collector. The stolen masterpieces have been found in various locations. The Esterhazy Madonna was buried in Törökbálint (Hungarian small city), while the remaining 6 paintings were hidden in a suitcase and left in an abandoned convent in Greece. Following the robbery, the Director General of the museum considered himself morally responsible and resigned.

Artworks exceeding 120 thousand pieces

By 2018 the museum has gone through a comprehensive reconstruction, which has won the Europa Nostra Award, the European Union’s Cultural Heritage Award in the Conservation category. Renovation works were carried out under the guidance of István Mányi, an Ybl Prize laureate architect. More than 120 thousand art works have been handled by the institution over the past century. Due to its remarkably rich collection, the Museum of Fine Arts is reputed amongst Europe’s most prominent museums.

Pope Francis is to arrive in Budapest for the Closing Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress, and prior to it he will have a meeting with Church and secular leaders of Hungary in the Museum of Fine Arts.