Tradition had it that the rectangular Romanesque hall with a central column in the royal and later archiepiscopal palace on Castle Hill in Esztergom was the birthplace of King Saint Stephen, although it was already clear in the 19th century that this part of the building dated from after the 11th century. Nevertheless, in view of the salient role of the castle in the cult of Saint Stephen, the prince primate and archbishop of Esztergom (1867–1891) János Simor (1813–1891) had the Romanesque room converted into a chapel in 1873–74, a thousand years after the birth of the state and church founder king. The reconstruction was planned by József Lippert, the chief architect of the prince primate who planned in this capacity, among other things, the transformation of the interior of the cathedral and the construction of its vestibule, the primate’s palace, and the purist reconstruction of Pozsony cathedral. The transformation of the hall with the central column included a new aperture, walling up of a niche, erection of an altar, and embellishing of the walls and vault with neo-Romanesque frescoes imitating the Byzantine style painted by the brothers Karl and Franz Xaver Jobst (fig. 3). The completed chapel became a neo-Romanesque Gesamtkunswerk down to the smallest detail, a venue of cult and memory.
The decisive part of the painted decoration was the cycle of the salient episodes in St Stephen’s life on the vault arches: 1. Apparition of St Stephen protomartyr to Sarolt, wife of prince Géza (fig. 7). 2. The baptism of Vajk (fig. 11). 3. Bishop Astrick shows the crown brought from Rome to St Stephen (fig. 15). 6. Offering of the country to God (fig. 23). The paper reviews the iconographic antecedents of the scenes and the respective source texts, mentioning so-far unpublished works (figs. 13, 22). In addition to several other findings, it could be concluded that unlike in the period from the 17th to the mid-19th century when the depictions of King St Stephen were imbued with currently topical political implications, the images of the Esztergom cycle are free from such readings. The painters of the frescoes ordered by archbishop Simor mainly used recognized schemes and panels aligning themselves with the iconographic tradition, and therefore the novelty of the decoration which contemporary accounts emphasized must have been their neo-Byzantine style. A few decades later, however, this style must have appeared obsolete, nor did it have followers in its time, either. Apart from the demonstration of iconographic motifs, the direct models of the scenes cannot be determined even for such an extremely rare theme as Sarolt’s dream. That is at the same time proof of the invention of the painters and that is what ranges their work among the important achievements of post-Compromise painting: the ingenious use of motifs of mostly familiar scenes (identified by captions as well) and their arrangement in a new composition in the chosen or required style, with the prudent use of the semi-circular shape of the picture field when need be. It is important to note that no other picture cycle was created of St Stephen’s life in the second half of the 19th century. Moreover, some of the scenes have demonstrable linkage to stations in the life path of archbishop Simor, which must have influenced the finalization of the programme.
During the archaeological excavations and reconstruction on Castle Hill in 1934–1938 the historicist elements of the hall with a central column were removed (fig. 4). Until how, research thought the painted decoration by the Jobst brothers had perished and were only known in reproduction. However, it must have been removed by Mauro Pellicioli or an assistant of his who had been invited to Hungary from Milan by Tibor Gerevich. I chanced upon the removed frescoes in a remote storeroom of Esztergom cathedral in 2011 with Veronika Nagy.