Magyar Treasures: The Illuminated Chronicle

Erika Papp Faber

Magyar Treasures:  The Illuminated Chronicle

Whoever the author of the Illuminated Chronicle was, he relied on earlier Hungarian chronicles which were still extant at the time, to record and thus rescue from oblivion many facts, episodes and legends no longer found elsewhere.  The author states that he began writing it ”on the Tuesday within the octave of Ascension Thursday, in the year of Our Lord 1358.”  In 12 chapters, he tells the story of the Hungarians, in correct Latin, beginning with the history of the Huns, and continues until Charles I’s  1330 Wallachian campaign. There the story breaks off abruptly in the middle of a sentence.

It is believed that the author of the Chronicle is a different person from the artist who did the illumination or illustration.  Scholars have determined that the two-column text was written on parchment folios by the same hand, most likely by a Hungarian scribe. There are 147 miniatures, 10 larger paintings, 24 the width of each column, four smaller ones on the bottom of pages in the form of medallions, 99 miniatures inside initials, and 5 initials without miniatures.  In addition, there are decorative motifs on the margins of 82 pages.

The Chronicle places emphasis on the life of King St. László (born in 1040, reigned 1077-1095), whom King Lajos the Great considered his model. Among the most magnificent illustrations in the Chronicle are the  representations of the Conquest, the battle of Prince Géza and Szt. István against the pagan Koppány, and the coronation of Szt. László. 

Great care was shown in depicting details of the characters’ costumes.  Only with a microscope can it be seen that even the eyeballs were painted.  An interesting sidelight is that, for whatever reason,  all miniatures depicting Attila the Hun have been ”disrupted” or even rubbed out.

Not only the text, but the illustration too is incomplete, as evidenced by some blank spaces obviously meant to be filled in later.

There has been scholarly conjecture about the purpose of the Chronicle. Some thought it might have been intended as an engagement present to the French King Charles V, when  the daughter of King Louis was engaged to Charles’ son.  Louis became King of Poland the year his daughter was born (1370), but there is no pictorial reference to the fact that Lajos was also King of Poland, i.e.,  the Polish coat of arms does not appear on the cover page. 

The Chronicle had to be in Hungary by the second half of the 15th century, because there are personal notes in the margins by Vitéz János (c. 1408-1472), Archbishop of Esztergom who was a humanist scientist. There are further marginal notes in Hungarian and Latin, dating to the 15th and 16th centuries, and three notations in Hungarian but written in Turkish script. It is first mentioned in the Viennese Court Library in the first third of the 17th century, for which reason it was sometimes called the Viennese Illuminated Chronicle.

Interestingly enough, the Illustrated Chronicle was returned to Hungary in 1934, as a result of the 1932 Austro-Hungarian Agreement, based on Article 177 of the Treaty of Trianon, which stated that

”With regard to all objects or documents of an artistic, archaeological, scientific or historic character forming part  of collections which formerly belonged to the Government or the Crown of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and are not otherwise provided for in the present Treaty... Hungary will be entitled to apply to the said States, particularly to Austria, in order to negotiate... the necessary arrangements for the return to Hungary of the collections, documents and objects referred to above...”

Returned were the work of Anonymous, the Gesta Hungarorum, 16 authentic Corvinas, and the Illuminated Chronicle. They are now housed in the Országos Széchenyi Könyvtár in Budapest.