The role of the church has been decisive in the life of the city from the very beginning. The foundations of the bishopric were laid by King Stephen I, yet it is considered to be the foundation of Géza. As the bishop of Vác was also the landlord of the settlement, this title gave him a strong influence on the affairs of the city. The medieval core of the town was the castle, a fortress built in the southern part of the city centre. In addition to the castle, the church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, built here by King Géza, was also significant, and according to previous sources, the ruler was also buried here. The flourishing settlement was reached by the Tartar army in the spring of 1241. The attackers destroyed not only the castle church, but also the buildings of the surrounding episcopal centre and killed the people who fled there.
After the Tartar invasion, the bishop invited Germans to the depopulated city, who settled in its centre. The church of St. Michael stood in the centre of the established Vác-Németváros, while the inhabitants of Vác-Magyarváros still lived around the castle. The two cities operated with a common judge but a separate council.
After the Mongolian armies, the Ottomans occupied the city. The castle of Vác played an important role until 1552, as it was the northernmost border fortress of the Ottoman Empire. In these times, everyone who could, escaped from the city. The Ottomans occupied the church buildings in the castle and the houses around it. Hungarian residents moved to the city centre, into the German city, and the majority of German-speaking residents left the settlement. After the occupiers converted the cathedral into a mosque, Christian residents began to use the church of St. Michael on the main square. Meanwhile, the population was touched by the idea of Protestantism, and by the end of the era the whole settlement became Calvinist.
The final liberation from the Ottoman occupation took place in June 1686, but the residents could barely breathe again, when the Rákóczi Independence War and later a firestorm hindered the reconstruction. The contractors of the restoration were the famous bishop-landlords of the period: besides Mihály Frigyes Althann and Károly Althann, the rebirth of the settlement is connected to Kristóf Antal Migazzi as well. No wonder that the current image of the city also developed during the constructions that took place in the 18th century. Migazzi was appointed bishop of Vác in 1756, he was already archbishop of Vienna in 1757, but he also retained the bishopric of Vác. He did a lot for the bishopric of Vác and the city. With the demolition of the city wall and the filling of the former moats, new areas were created. Only the Hegyes Tower survived from the city ramparts in the corner of a residential building. The former marketplace kept its central role. However, the ruined church of St. Michael that stood here was demolished, as its expansion into a cathedral would have been very difficult. Today's Konstantin Square was designated as a new church centre. The new cathedral was also built here according to the plans of architect Isidore Canevale.
In the 18th century, the idea of counter-reformation prevailed. First the Dominicans, then the Piarists, in 1719 the Franciscans settled down to help spread the old religion. The inhabitants who had previously converted to Protestantism were settled outside the city by Bishop Zsigmond Kollonits. The new part of the town, Kisvác, was independent until the end of 1769 - the two parts of the town merged later - but the triumphal arch erected on the occasion of Maria Theresa's visit in 1764, and the Stone Gate, indicated this division. The only triumphal arch of Hungary stands on the border between the two parts of the city. According to a legend, when the Empress learned that the gate had been completed in just five months, she did not dare to drive her carriage under it for fear that the edifice would collapse. When she was leaving the city and saw that it was still standing, she passed under it calmly. The prison, adjacent to the triumphal arch, initially functioned as an educational institution for noble youth (Theresianum). The establishment of the legal predecessor of the penitentiary that still exists today was decided by the Austrian Ministry of Justice after the fall of the War of Independence in 1848-49. According to its founding document, it was established in 1855. One hundred years later, after the 1956 revolution, it was one of the largest institutions for those convicted for political reasons, and many famous personalities served their sentences here: Árpád Szakasits, Mátyás Rákosi, János Kádár, István Bibó and Árpád Göncz.
Going back to the period of reconstruction, another major construction of the era was the first neoclassic late-Baroque cathedral of Hungary, designed by Isidor Canavale – just like the Stone Gate – at the request of Bishop Migazzi. Construction of the church began in 1761, was consecrated in 1772, but the internal work was not completed until 1777. The cathedral of Vác is the third largest cathedral in Hungary after the ones in Esztergom and Eger. An interesting story related to the cathedral is that the image on its high altar depicting the visit of the Virgin Mary to St. Elizabeth - praising the work of the famous artist of the period, Franz Anton Maulbertsch - did not gain the commissioning bishop’s favour, because in his opinion the female figure was not awe-inspiring enough. So he walled up most of the picture and covered it with a huge oil canvas painting. The mural, which was hidden for 170 years, was finally restored at Bishop József Pétery’s request in the 1940s, when the cathedral was redecorated as well.
Going back to the time of the Counter-Reformation, the Dominicans’ church was completed in 1755 – they were among the monastic orders that worked again. It was called the Whites’ Church by the inhabitants of Vác, referring to the white reverend of the Dominican order. The church is connected to one of the greatest Hungarian discoveries of the 20th century. In 1994, during the restoration work of the church, the builders discovered a stairway and a crypt that had been walled up more than 150 years ago. In the crypt, 262 bodies, which had mummified spontaneously, were found in decorated coffins in good condition due to the special climate. According to the year of death painted on the coffins, they were buried here between 1731 and 1838. Although Joseph II forbade burials in crypts, the citizens of Vác seem to have insisted on their traditions. The stairway down was only walled in 1838 and its existence was slowly forgotten. The “mummies of Vác” were taken to the Natural History Museum, where they were examined with X-rays, during which signs of tuberculosis were found in the bones. The significance of mummies is that they have provided researchers with invaluable information about the bacterium that causes tuberculosis and the natural defence against it.
Finally, we cannot forget about the most important events of the industrializing Vác. By the end of the 19th century, the developed Vác guild industry underwent a great transformation, and workshops developed into factories. The most important milestone of 1846 was the opening of the first Hungarian railway line from Pest to Vác. At the beginning of the 20th century, in 1912, the officials of Kodak Ltd. and the Hungarian government began negotiations on establishing a Hungarian factory. Eventually, construction of the factory began in 1913, but in the meantime World War I broke out, causing work to be suspended for seven years, until in 1921, when the director of Kodak ordered to continue constructions. The factory began production finally in 1922. The plant exported its products to many countries around the world since the mid-1930s. It was hit hard during World War II; almost everything was ruined. After the nationalization, the city became an industrial city; a whole series of factories and plants were installed here. There was also a spinning factory and a cement factory here.
The former Kodak photochemical plant was also revived under the name Forte Photochemical Industry Ltd.; the ceremonial opening was on 16 July, 1947. Due to later developments, the small plant became a medium-sized plant, with 1,250 employees producing 4 million 700,000 square meters of photo paper and 700,000 square meters of film here. After the change of regime, it was partly taken over by foreigners; the number of people working here also decreased, until it closed permanently in February 2007. However, its name lives on in the archives of Fortepan. Ákos Szepessy and Miklós Tamási, founders of the archives, borrowed the name of the collection from the Forte photo articles manufacturer of Vác. It was the name of the most widespread and popular negative film.
Translated by Zita Aknai