Small Potatoes: Hungary’s Serbian Orthodox

Generations of Serbians have called Hungary – a land positioned at the crossroads of Europe – home.

by Jacqueline Ruyak

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It was May Day and in the main square of Szentendre, Hungary, a local brass band was entertaining an early morning scattering of residents and tourists. The many shops, restaurants, galleries and museums of this small town on the Danube bend, about 13 miles north of Budapest, were just opening up for the busy weekend.

With a population of about 20,000, Szentendre (pronounced Sen-ten-dreh, which means St. Andrew) – long famed as an artists’ colony – is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Hungary. It is easy today to see why artists were charmed by this undeniably picturesque town, with its branching cobblestoned streets, pastel plastered houses and tiled rooftops. Many of these artists were also attracted and inspired by the spiritual and artistic richness of Szentendre’s Serbian Orthodox heritage.

Some of that remarkable culture may be seen at the Serbian Orthodox Museum, located a few minutes north of the main square, on the grounds of the house of the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Buda. I was hurrying there that May morning to meet Bishop Danílo Krístíc, the first bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Buda to be installed officially since 1951. His installation, in 1990, was made possible because of the democratic changes that swept across Hungary that year.

As early as the 15th century, after the last Serbian king was killed by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbian emigrants fleeing Turkish expansion had settled in Szentendre, though dynastic ties forged between Hungarian and Serbian families predated even that seminal moment in modern Serbian history. Many Serbian leaders, including generals and bishops, came to Szentendre in the main wave of Serbian emigration of the late 17th century, when tens of thousands of Serbians settled all over Hungary. In 1557, when the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Buda was established, Szentendre became the northernmost Serbian center in the Danube region of Hungary. All bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Buda have lived in Szentendre.

The Serbian Orthodox Museum has a fine collection of ecclesiastical art, including icons from the 16th to 19th centuries.

“Byzantine Orthodox iconography is called theology in color,” Bishop Danílo, a slight man of joyful mien in his early 70’s, reminded me. Discoursing with passion on the icons around us, he proceeded to give a radiant lesson in that theology.

Whether it was his soft-spoken English, his apparent lack of pretension, or simply his black garb, the Bishop attracted the curiosity of schoolboys touring the museum in groups that morning. He invariably spoke with each who approached, then gave the child a card with an icon printed on it.

Tourists were less hesitant to cluster around, first at the museum, then at the nearby Church of the Dormition with its blazing iconostasis, a wall of icons separating the sanctuary from the nave. Switching from English to German to Italian to Hungarian as needed, the Bishop answered questions and pointed out items of interest, then bade the visitors farewell with a warm “until we meet again in Paradise.”

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Tags: Emigration Hungary Serbian Orthodox Church Serbia