The Cult of Empress Elisabeth
Public monument sculpture played a significant role in the image of 19th century settlements. However, the sculptures are not only about the changes that have taken place in the fabric of the city; they can also be used to trace the development of the cult of a given person, including the memory of Empress and Queen Elisabeth. Nowadays, the statue of Elisabeth looks at the Buda side calmly in the park next to the bridge named after her, even though it used to be an ornament of the Pest side. Most of the Queen’s monuments were made in the years after her death. Still, this monument in Budapest followed a series of statues more than 30 years later, when Sisi's memory had quite faded. What conditions hindered the completion of the work, and what was the cult of Elisabeth like at the beginning of the 20th century, will be revealed in our selection.
The idea of erecting statues of Elisabeth was usually brought up by some local authority in response to a public wish, but as fundraisings lasted several years, we can conclude that this idea may not have been so important. Efforts to preserve her memory intensified after the shock of the assassination of the Queen (1898). In fact, her cult had a serious influence even before her death. While in her homeland she was seen as a pioneer of the modern ideal of women, in Hungary the myths woven around her figure were attempts to make a balance, ultimately the goal was to accept Franz Joseph.
The Queen was endowed with morally unquestionable elements that made her figure a kind of counterpoint to the Monarch. Especially as the theory that she played a major role in the formation of the compromise became widespread. At the same time, according to historians, the Queen was little involved in political affairs; nevertheless the figure of the Hungarian-friendly Elisabeth already shone in the public consciousness as the saviour of the homeland. In addition to such attributes, it is no wonder that her memory was to be cherished with a similar large-scale work of art.
"If she has a grave in Vienna, she must have a statue in Budapest"
On 12 October, Franz Joseph of Austria consecrated the law article 1898. XXX., which sought to perpetuate the memory of Queen and Empress Elisabeth. At the same time, the law article also clarified that the erection of the monument was to be supervised by a sculpture committee, which had an obligation to report to the National Assembly. Proposals were made for the erection of the statue at several locations: Erzsébet Square, Szent György Square in Buda and Gizella Square. György Ráth was elected Chairman of the 8-member executive committee.
In his January 1900 report, Kálmán Széll outlined the committee's proposal that the Queen's monument would be erected on Szent György Square after the demolition of the Prime Minister's Palace. The fundraising, launched from a public donation, ran into a huge amount in a few months, with more than a million crowns raised.
Despite enough money, the issue of the metropolitan statue was dragging on, while other settlements could already proudly display their own monuments. What was the reason for this? At first, the identity of the sculptor was in question, the announced applications were invalidated one after the other, because the committee did not find any of the works suitable, and then there were problems with the location. However, no matter how incredible, too much money may have been the main reason.
During the prime ministership of István Tisza, the plan was to place the statue at the wall of the Castle Hill. Several of the competition works received by the December 1909 deadline were very appealing, but the location remained in question. The most important objection was that the statue at the wall of the Castle Hill would be lost simply. More and more deadlines followed one another until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and although this did not prevent the committee from setting another deadline, in the meantime, the whole world changed. The Monarchy disintegrated, Elisabeth's figure obscured, but they still could not decide on the statue.
Location selection dispute
Finally, in 1920, the winning applicant was introduced; György Zala was commissioned to make the sculpture. Why did the members of the committee decide to act? Presumably, because of post-war inflation, there were fears that the collected huge amount of money would be completely devalued. The work was completed by 1924, but it took another 8 years to inaugurate it.
After the Castle Hill location was discarded, City Park and Margaret Island also emerged as possible venues. The government did not like the latter option, saying the island was out of the circulation of the city and would have attracted fewer visitors. István Bethlen proposed the Március 15. Square, which was then called Eskü Square. The sculpture was finally erected here on 25 September 1932 in a gloriette designed by architect Rezső Hikisch. Its designer probably did not expect that the gloriette would evoke such a negative echo from the contemporaries. Some said it did not fit the statue at all, there were those, who objected to its church-like appearance, but there were also people, who said it simply distracted attention from the Parish Church.
At the inauguration of the monument, the entire political elite showed up, and participants thought they could even see members of the former ruling dynasty. After 1945, Sisi, as a member of the Habsburg family, became an undesirable person. The statue was removed, but the gloriette could remain until 1956, although there was another statue in it, Alajos Strobl’s Fisher Girl. At the same time, it is strange that the statue of Elisabeth was not destroyed, but was first taken to the Kiscelli Museum and then to a warehouse in Sülysáp. The idea of its replacement first arose in the 1980s and, as there was no political objection, it was re-erected after restoration in 1986, where it still stands today, on Döbrentei Square. According to many people, this place is still not an ideal place for it; Zala's artwork cannot prevail on the hidden, slightly noisy square. It seems that Sisi’s sculptures can be admired in such slightly distant locations, with the exception of the full-length sculpture on Madách Square. One of her oldest busts created by Ferenc Raáb has been standing on Vasút Lane on Csillaghegy since 1903.
Elisabeth's memory was preserved in the capital for a long time by a museum dedicated to her, established in the Buda Castle. The rescript of Franz Joseph to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Sándor Wekerle, dated 14 November 1907, can be considered the charter of the museum. The idea of setting up a museum dedicated to the Queen's memory was suggested by Marquise Etelka Pallavicini. The Queen's ladies in attendance played a significant role in creating the collection. Owing to the donations of Ida Ferenczy, the collection to be exhibited was enriched with nearly a hundred portraits, sculptures, manuscripts and other objects used by the Queen. Undoubtedly, the most particular piece of the collection is the attire worn during the assassination, which was given to the museum by Countess Irma Sztáray. The memorial museum was opened on 15 January 1908, with the participation of several members of the Habsburg family. The exhibition was installed in three rooms in the wing of the palace facing Krisztinaváros, next to the hall guarding the Holy Crown.
In one of the halls, a copy of the Queen's former study was furnished, while in the other halls her memorabilia related to Hungary were placed. The memorial site welcomed visitors until the end of the World War II. In 1945, during the siege of Budapest, it suffered serious damage, and a significant part of the exhibited objects was destroyed. Later, the remaining objects were returned to the Hungarian National Museum.
Even today, countless public spaces, institutions and works of art commemorate her personality. The 7th district of Budapest has been called Erzsébetváros (Elisabeth City) since 7 February 1882, Pesterzsébet was also named in honour of the Queen, and the lookout tower on János Hill also pays tribute to her memory. In addition, the Erzsébet University (now the University of Pécs), founded in Bratislava in 1912 and operating in Pécs as of 1923, bore its name until 1948. However, the flourishing of her cult is largely due to the three-part film series starring Romy Schneider and Karlheinz Böhm.
Translated by Zita Aknai
Vasarnapi Ujság 1898 szeptember 18.
Erzsébet-kultusz. 1. Erzsébet királyné magyarországi kultusza emlékezethelyei tükrében 1898-1914 között - Budapesti Negyed52. (2006. nyár)