Skyline of Belgrade in 1456, a reconstruction by Marko Radosavljević, and the fortress on the first Austrian military survey of 1769-1772
…years ago, on 22 July 1456 the Hungarian and Croatian defenders of the fortress of Belgrade led by the Hungarian governor János Hunyadi and his brother in law, Mihály Szilágyi, lord-lieutenant of Temes county, after three weeks of siege fought off the Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed II, outnumbering them ten-fold. The heavy defeat broke the impulse of the Ottoman conquest three years after the fall of Constantinople (1453) and stopped its European advance for seventy years.
The round anniversary of 2006 was remembered by a large number of publications, events and exhibitions, while this one by much less. One of the few is the 2010/12 issue of the journal Várak, kastélyok, templomok (Fortresses, castles, churches), entirely dedicated to the anniversary.
The “heritage tourism journal” Várak, the youngest (2005) but also the most beautiful among the Hungarian journals of cultural heritage and art history, fills a serious gap. It consciously intends to match a popular interest in its field, where only professional journals have been hitherto published, but its articles are always written by the best representatives of the respective topics. Its theme, the military fortresses of Hungary has been almost entirely absent from the education of local art history. And as – due to the troubled centuries of the region in the late middle ages and early modern age – the various systems of defense often changed within the country, by reconstructing these blurred lines it often calls attention to forgotten historical relationships which lends a new importance to some modest ruins and their neighborhood, mainly known by locals and tourists.
What new can be said about Belgrade, five years after 2006? This thematic issue meets the question, rather than by describing the siege and the fortress once more, by offering a series of articles on fortresses and churches that are somehow linked to it, and in whose web the place and historical role of Belgrade is more clearly defined.
The fortresses and churches reviewed in this issue on the map of 15th-century Hungary
Valentin Cseh, the author of the most recent book and a detailed web summary on the late medieval fortress of Belgrade shows its importance within the 15th-century fortress system. The establishment of this defense line was begun by Emperor Sigismund against the Ottomans after the defeat of Nicopolis (1396), and it was completed by King Matthias Corvinus by reconquering Northern Bosnia from the Turks. This system of fortresses ran along 800 kilometers from the Adriatic through Syrmia and Northern Bosnia to the Southern Carpathians, and its key was just Belgrade at the meeting of the waterways along the Danube and the Sava with the ancient commercial and military road running from the Balkans to the north. „This fortress is the key of the country, a gate of Hungary, the easiest entrance into this land,” wrote the Franciscan Giovanni da Tagliacozzo. And when in 1521, after a two-month siege it finally fell in Turkish hand, Louis II, King of Hungary wrote: „Our country is now open to the Turks both on water and in land, and it cannot be happy and peaceful as long as Szabács and Belgrade are in the hands of the enemy.” He did not know yet how much he was right. Five years later, in 1526 the Ottoman army launched a definitive offensive, and the king also fell in the battle of Mohács, which marks the end of the medieval Hungarian kingdom.
Some more key fortresses around Belgrade are visited by Csaba Csorba. The most important was the adjacent castle of Zimony/Zemun, which also had a significant role during the siege of 1456. Below Belgrade, along the Danube still stand two other important fortresses, Smederevo and Golubac, while Keve Castle, built on the opposite side of the river, does not exist any more, and Lászlóvár, built by Emperor Sigismund after the loss of Golubac to the Turks in 1427, is in ruins. It is at this point that the Danube becomes the largest river of Europe, so it is not surprising that during the siege of Belgrade the Turkish and Hungarian navy also played an important role.
Besides Mihály Szilágyi and János Hunyadi, a prominent role was played in the siege by the Franciscan St. John of Capistrano, who had arrived to Hungary in May 1455 on behalf of Pope Calixtus III to organize a crusade against the Turks. István Zombori’s article reconstructs the routes of Capistrano during this year in Hungary, from his first encounter with the king and the nobility in Győr to his meeting with Hunyadi in Transylvania and his campaigns in the southern counties, by highlighting the role of Szeged which, as an important center of Observant Franciscans, had been known to him from the letters of his co-religionist San Giovanni di Marche, who from around 1430 led from here the missions among the Bogumils in the Balkans.
Just some days after the victory of Belgrade both Hunyadi and Capistrano fell victim to the plague (Mihály Szilágyi Mihály would fell into Turkish captivity four years later, and then beheaded in Istanbul as he was not willing to betray the weak points of the castle), and the journal dedicates an article to each church where they were placed to eternal sleep, even when this meant only a few decades in reality. St. John of Capistrano, writes Tamás Fedeles, wanted to be buried in the Observant Franciscan church of Újlak (today Ilok, Croatia), since his popularity could thus give a new impetus to the Franciscan mission in the Balkans. This coincided with the aspirations of the landlord of Syrmia Miklós Újlaki to build out an autonomous territory over the Drava river, also seizing Northern Bosnia and even obtaining the title of King of Bosnia from Matthias Corvinus. The presence of such a revered relics greatly increased the importance of the center of his lands and his prestige as a landlord. Soon after the death of Capistrano he initiated his canonization which, however, was realized only in 1690. Nevertheless, Újlak even so became the most important pilgrimage site of late medieval Hungary, which also brought a major economic boom, and the town was elevated to the rank of a free royal city in 1525. One year later, in the days after the battle of Mohács, the Turks set the city to fire, and the body of St. John of Capistrano disappeared.
A drawing on Turkish Belgrade in the book of poems by Ferenc Wathay, written during his Turkish captivity between 1602 and 1606
János Hunyadi was buried in the Cathedral of Gyulafehérvár (now Alba Iulia, Romania) as he had ordered already in 1442 when he made a major foundation for the restoration of the church. The precedents of this donation are reviewed by Nándor Udvarhelyi. In the spring of 1442 a 15 thousands strong Turkish army broke into Transylvania. Hunyadi and the bishop of Transylvania György Lépes encountered them at Marosszentimre (Sântimbru), but they were defeated, and the bishop also fell. Nevertheless, Hunyadi soon organized a new army and, reinforced by the troops of the above mentioned Miklós Újlaki, at Nagyszeben (Sibiu) he destroyed the enemy just as the much larger Turkish army sent as a retaliatory campaign some months later. The rich spoils were partly used to restore several churches – Gyulafehérvár, Marosszentimre, Alsóorbó (Gârbova de Jos) – damaged in the Maros (Mureş) valley along the path of the Turkish offensive, as well as to build a new Franciscan church in Tövis (Teiuş). Besides the stylistic similarities of the churches, the article also refers to the similarity of their fate, which also threatens hundreds of other Transylvanian monuments today. With the gradual disappearance of the Hungarian population in the Mureş valley, the Gothic churches remain unattended, and the Romanian national bureau of historic buildings does not provide for their protection. Of the church of Gârbova de Jos only the foundation walls can be seen, Sântimbru is threatening with collapse, and the church of Teiuş also has only a few faithful left around, without a priest.
The Gothic church of Sântimbru (Marosszentimre, Emrichsdorf, Romania), from here
On the tombstone of János Hunyadi in the Cathedral of Alba Iulia a summary is given by Árpád Mikó, one of the best experts of the history of Hungarian Renaissance art. The three sarcophagi standing in the southern nave of the cathedral are traditionally attributed to János Hunyadi, his younger brother, the “younger János” died in 1440, and his son László. However, the graves were ransacked on several occasions, and they were recomposed only in the 18th century. The original inscription of Hunyadi’s tomb, recently discovered by Ágnes Szalay Ritoók among the writings of the Renaissance bishop Antal Verancsics, attests it’s having been erected by King John Szapolyai in 1533, not by Hunyadi’s son King Matthias Corvinus around 1460 as it was previously supposed. It was Szapolyai who in 1529, just three years after the battle of Mohács offered an oath of loyalty to Sultan Suleiman, so he had all reason to improve his image by erecting a tombstone for the great conqueror of the Turks. The two side reliefs of Hunyadi’s tomb, representing a battle and the conduct of prisoners and made on the model of early 16th-century woodcuts, also fit the later date. Its original cover, however, is the one now attributed to László Hunyadi, on which the coats of arms of the Hunyadi and Szapolyai families, each held by an angel, appear together.
The international aspects of the victory of Belgrade are addressed by the articles of József Török and Géza Érszegi. Pope Calixtus III, a great international diplomat came to the papal throne in 1455, and he immediately took the oath to recover Constantinople which fell two years earlier. The Borja pope’s native Valencia and Gandia still had an important and recently conquered Moorish population at that time, so unlike most Western European countries, he had a first-hand impression of the seriousness of the threat of Islam. He immediately ordered a general collection for a future crusade, and the amount received was used to mount a navy which successfully occupied the Ottoman forces on the Aegean sea just at the time of the siege of Belgrade. On 29 June 1456 he issued a papal bull ordering a general daily prayer for the victory of Belgrade, for which the bells had to be rang every day between three o’clock – the death of Christ – and the vespers as a reminder. His nephew and successor Alexander VI also renewed his order in the year of jubilee of 1501 – whose income he also ordered to the future crusade –, fixing at noon the time of bell-ringing which has thus since then reminded every day all over the Christian world of the siege of Belgrade.
The probably earliest (1468) representation of the victory of Belgrade in a fresco in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Olomouc (Bohemia), with St. John Capistrano in the center (detail)
According to the liturgical historian József Török, the original call by Calixtus – three Ave on the bell before vespers – survive in the prayer of Angelus (whose best known “representation” was painted by Millet just four hundred years after the victory of Belgrade), although others dispute it. However, one more important liturgical moment is surely connected with the victory: the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount Tabor on 6 August. This feast which, on Eastern influence, was sporadically celebrated in Western Europe from the eleventh century, was made a general feast on the memory that he received notice of the victory of Belgrade on that day. As the article of the ethnographer Gábor Barna points it out, one of the earliest Hungarian churches with this patrocine is the Salvator Chapel on the hill of Csíksomlyó (Şumuleu, Romania) which in the local tradition was founded by Hunyadi himself to commemorate the victory. Even if he probably had no time for that in his last days, it is highly possible that the chapel was built by the local households ordered by Hunyadi himself to the service of the Franciscan convent of Csíksomlyó, even if the present building dates of 1678. And as the pilgrimage to this place with the participation of several hundreds of thousands at every Pentecost ends with the visit of this chapel, therefore even if Capistrano’s tomb in Újlak/Ilok was lost, the most important modern Hungarian site of pilgrimage is nevertheless connected with the victory of Belgrade.
Much more could be added to this mosaic, but even this much revives the historical context of the events of 1456. It would be particularly interesting how the Turkish tradition has preserved the memory of this day. We know that a janissary of Croatian origin, Konstantin Mihailović wrote a detailed story of the siege, and also 16th and 17th-century Turkish historians refer to it several times. But what? We hope that our Turkish readers would share it with us.