Souvenirs of Sasvár

Pietás flat and in the round 21/Sep/2013 - 24/Feb/2014
The Museum of Ethnography's extensive collection of sacred objects, which sits on the uncomfortable disciplinary boundary between art history and folklore studies, has received relatively little attention over its history. Many of these objects have never been exhibited to the museum going public. This temporary exhibition, which coincides with Sacred Art Week, presents the genre of pieta images from the Catholic pilgrimage site of Sasvár (Šaštin, Slovakia) and its environs. The cult there centres on a 16th-century relief sculpture of the virgin mourning the dead Christ. The objects displayed, which include statuettes, pictures, ceramics, various objects sold at the annual parish feast, books, and archive and contemporary photographs drawn from the Museum's collections, present different aspects of the folklore associated with the cult at this famous pilgrimage centre.


According to the legend, the statue was carved at the wish of Angéla Bakics, the wife of Count Imre Czobor, later Palatinal Governor of Hungary, in 1564, as a thanks offering for her husband's renewed affection. The Mater Dolorosa relief, originally placed in an open roadside shrine, quickly acquired a miraculous reputation. Crowds of pilgrims looking for healing began to make the journey to Sasvár. In the 18th century, the Order of the Hermits of St. Paul, with the support of the Vienna court, built a lavish church and monastery at the cult site. The miraculous limewood relief was incorporated into the main altar.

The relief's iconography, with Christ lying flat across his grieving mother's lap and his right arm dangling rigid to the ground, is easily recognised in folk-art images as well. These 'Sasvár Pietas', whether as polychrome wooden statuettes (sometimes incorporated in 'Mary houses') or as painted images on mirrors or glass, became highly esteemed ornaments of Catholic peasant 'clean rooms' across the Slovakian 'highlands' (Felvidék) of the old Kingdom of Hungary, as well as the Transdanubian and Palóc regions to the south. Brought back by the householder or given by someone else as souvenirs of the pilgrimage, they were treated as family heirlooms and passed down from generation to generation. With the end of the traditional culture of the peasantry, these objects lost their sacred meaning and became antiques destined for sale or for museum collections. Photographs from the Ethnological Archive show how the statues and 'Mary houses' were originally used. The Sasvár Pieta, as an easily recognisable iconographic symbol, also appears on the textile, the carved holy-water stoup, and the jar. Images of the shrine and the sacred statue were published in chapbooks, incorporated in the pages of prayerbooks, and sold as cheap devotional pictures. The valuable material on loan from the National Széchenyi Library and the University Library gives an idea of these popular images.

Šaštin today is the most popular pilgrimage-centre for Catholic Slovaks, and is visited by thousands every year on September 15th, the Feast of the Virgin of the Seven Agonies. The photographs displayed at the entrance to the exhibition were made in 2013 at the site by Hanga Gebauer, a folklorist employed at the Museum of Ethnography. Older artistic representations of the church, the Pauline monastery, and the miraculous cult image can be compared with this contemporary photographic record. Today, too, the pilgrims arrive at the sanctuary hoping for spiritual enlightenment and help. They are as fond of collecting the locally produced devotional souvenirs as their ancestors were. Several objects on display here, purchased at this year's parish feast with the support of the MaDok museum collections program, attest the continued importance of the cult and its images.

Curator: Krisztina Sedlmayr