The Holy Crown is not simply a work of art

Zsuzsa Lovag, archaeologist, former director of the Museum of Applied Arts

MúzeumCafé 49.

The return of the Holy Crown to Hungary from the US in early 1978 was one of the most important events of the Kádár era from the political, cultural and art historical perspectives alike. The media and the diplomats treated the event with due solemnity. What is not so well known is how the transfer occurred from the museological point of view, how the Hungarian National Museum, which would house the crown jewels for decades, resolved the task, what the approach of art historians and restorers was to the relics, how they ‘treated’ them and what concepts were applied. From the start, Zsuzsa Lovag, at the time head of the museum’s collection of medieval goldsmiths’ work, participated in the activities of the Crown Committee, which was immediately set up. Only she could handle the crown. Yet it would not be fair to talk about her career only in terms of this theme, since as a medieval archaeologist she also took part in major excavations, she headed work in the Danube Bend and spent years developing an up-to-date data base of art objects held by the Catholic Church. She also spent almost two periods as head of the Applied Arts Museum, where her most important work involved putting the Nagytétény Mansion Museum in order and preparing its furniture exhibition. Zsuzsa Lovag finished her studies in 1966 and began working at the National Museum. The collection of goldsmiths’ work was part of the medieval department. It was delineated by the year 1700 and didn’t include material from the time of the Hungarian Conquest. The new, permanent historical exhibition opened in 1967, without anyone in charge of the goldsmiths’ work collection, although with such an exhibition every cabinet should have some goldsmiths’ items. To start learning about the collection she selected a small Byzantine pectoral cross holding a relic. Eventually, Zsuzsa Lovag took over the goldsmiths’ work collection and worked there with Judit Kolba. She spent 26 years at the National Museum. No one knew anything about the crown. It was kept secret. The matter was assigned to Magda Bárányné Oberschall In Germany, who had worked with the collection of medieval goldsmiths’ work in the 1940s. 1966 saw the publication in Vienna of József Deér’s monograph in which he primarily wrote about the subject as a historian. The American art historian Patrick Kelleher also dealt with the theme. As a soldier, he had encountered the crown, and he had taken a number of black and white photos of it. Gyula László used to recall how in 1938, the Year of Saint Stephen, a selected group of art historians was able to inspect the coronation regalia in the Castle. Among the group was Magda Bárányné Oberschall, though they couldn’t get closer to the crown than half a metre, and they weren’t allowed to take notes, either. She tried to pre-serve the details in her memory and from that she later wrote her own study. The crown was exhibited in February 1978. The museum had prepared a place for it in the ceremonial hall. The display cabinets, the stands, the enlargements of glass negatives were all ready, but rumours have it that György Aczél wanted to have the coronation regalia taken to the Castle, to the recently opened Hungarian National Gallery. A committee of historians, including art historians, was formed to coordinate the research on the crown and the publication of results. Zsuzsa Lovag was one of its members. The group met right up to 1999, when the government decided to have the crown removed to the parliament building and the committee was disbanded. Since being taken to Parliament, no one has examined the crown. Its home is really the Hungarian National Museum, among the other historical relics. But no one was consulted. With thanks for their work, the committee was dispersed. In its place a Crown Council was formed of five state ‘dignitaries’. Publicly, in the press, two people Ernő Marosi and Zsuzsa Lovag protested. The Council, of course, did nothing. László Sólyom, who as president of the Constitutional Court was a member of the Council, had the idea of inviting several specialists to inspect the state of the regalia and suggest research themes, but nothing came of it. Planning for the Bős-Nagymaros hydroelectric power plant began in 1979. According to the original plans, the dam for the new channel would stretch the length of Esztergom Island, and would be built on a site with medieval remains. This was a Benedictine convent, the first mention of which dates from 1142, though according to some historians the Esztergom Island Peace Treaty of 1073 between King Salamon and Prince Béla was sealed in the convent. Zsuzsa Lovag was involved in summer excavations for ten years. The Catholic Collections Centre was established in 1967 and then began the cataloguing of ecclesiastical works of art. In 1992 Zsuzsa Lovag became director of the Museum of Applied Arts.