Why our churches have been awarded the European Heritage Label

Because different cultures met in the territory of Gemer and Malohont, and there was an exchange of knowledge in the field of technology, culture and art. In the Middle Ages, thanks to mining, our territory became home to different nations who respected and enriched each other.

The unprecedented development of mining took place as early as the 13th century, when King Béla IV settled the mining areas of Hungary with foreign 'guests', mostly of German nationality (Saxon Scholtisses from Spiš, Bavarians, Tyroleans and Austrians). These new settlers brought with them more advanced knowledge and methods of metal production, which were quickly adopted by the native population. The constant influx of immigrants resulted in a peculiar cultural phenomenon, in the varied colouring of which, in addition to the dominant Slovak and Hungarian culture, we can still find strong German, Wallachian and Italian influences.

The significant mining and later industrial orientation of the region, together with its strong craft and trade character, made Gemer one of the most developed territories of the Kingdom of Hungary. For the local population, interactive contacts with other nations and cultures were commonplace.

As a result of the constructive policy of King Charles Robert of Anjou and later his son Louis the Great, the mining towns developed significantly and gained almost complete self-government. With its wealth of precious metals, the territory of Slovakia at that time reached a leading position in Hungary. Iron production in the Spiš-Gemer Ore Mountains was already of international importance in the second half of the 14th century.

It was only natural that the economic boom of Gemer, which became a kind of penetration of various artistic currents thanks to the iron trade, also contributed to the flowering of cultural life and art, with a strong influence of Italian culture, with which the Anjou people maintained important contacts.

The lively commercial exchange was accompanied by an influx of artists well acquainted with the work of such centres of art as Florence, Siena and Venice.

What is the European Heritage Label?

The European Heritage Label has existed in its current form since 2013. It was awarded to a Slovak site in April 2022 for the first time, specifically to 12 sets of paintings in churches in the Gemer and Malohont region.

The medieval wall paintings in the churches of Gemer and Malohont joined the ancient heart of Athens, the Carnuntum archaeological park in Austria, the synagogue in Budapest, the Javorca church in Slovenia and other sites in Europe.

The European Heritage Label is awarded to sites or events that have played a significant role in shaping contemporary Europe and that reflect common European values - respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.

The Iron Heart of Hungary

In the past, the present-day region of Gemer and Malohont was called the Iron Heart of Hungary. During the time of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the region processed most of the iron ore mined in Hungary.

The prosperous mining industry and local noblemen  with significant influence at the royal court and contacts throughout Europe made a considerable impact on the history of Gemer and, through their influence at the royal court, on the history of the whole of Hungary. In addition to populating the vast territories of the then Gemer county and organising mining operations, they contributed to the influx of knowledge, expertise, experience and culture of various European nationalities and ethnic groups. In the Middle Ages, German miners, Wallachians, Hungarian aristocrats and also art from Italy came to the territory of Gemer and Malohont. 

Why art from Italy?  How did it get here? 

The medieval churches in the Gemer and Malohont region hide in their interiors exceptional wall paintings on an unprecedented scale. Such paintings, made using the Italian fresco technique and on such a scale and in such an accumulation in a relatively small area, are found nowhere else from the Alpine massif to the north but in Slovakia, in the Gemer and Malohont region. 

The Bubek family played an important role in this story. In 1347, the Hungarian army under the command of King Louis the Great is heading to the Apennine Peninsula. The aim is to restore the Kingdom of Naples and avenge the death of Andrew, the King's brother, who was murdered by his wife, Queen Joanna of Naples. The campaign goes off without a hitch, with many Hungarian nobles making their first foray into Western Europe. The royal army, led by George Bubek of Plešivec and later by Peter of Štítnik, gains a prominent position. After the victory over the Neapolitan army and the capture of Naples, the Black Death, a plague, strikes the city and the villages. The King cancels the campaign and withdraws back to Hungary, along with the nobles. The richest ones hire Italian painters, who, like them, take refuge with wealthy landowners in Gemer. The painters start with fresco decoration of the churches in Plešivec and Štítnik.  These then become a model for other masters, who decorated other churches as well, creating a unique collection of art. 

What does "fresco" mean? Or what does "alfresco" technique taken from Italian mean?

A fresco is a method of wall painting that is done in wet plaster. This fresco painting process is technically demanding. Mineral pigments, ground in water or lime water, are applied directly to the fresh plaster on the wall to allow the colours to absorb into the substrate. This means that the painter must work quickly to prevent the plaster from drying out, as only minor adjustments can be made with tempera once it has dried.

Because of this unique process, fresco is one of the most durable wall painting techniques. In our churches, individual painted scenes are usually arranged in horizontal bands placed one above the other, separated from each other by ornamental bordures made through stencils. It was the bordures that the medieval painters used to overlay the contact of two plaster fields - one painted and the other with freshly applied wet plaster.

Mining and frescoes in the churches of Gemer and Malohont

The paints that were used in the creation of the frescoes are based on mineral pigments. Gemer, rich in a variety of ores and coloured metals, provided painters with a wide range of natural pigments (vermilion, malachite, azurite) obtained as a by-product of local mining and metallurgical production. In addition, the area, with its abundant karst mountains, has always provided plenty of good quality lime for plaster and the basic colour - whitewash.

The frescoes were saved by the Reformation

The Reformation was launched by Martin Luther in 1517, when he nailed his 95 theses against the abuse of indulgences on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. In the same historical period, the Protestant parish priest Simon, another strong-willed man, appeared on the scene in Ochtiná and one day, in the spirit of Protestantism, decided that all the medieval paintings in the church should be painted over. Henceforth, no depictions of saints, only white walls, clean lines; nothing that could disturb worshippers in their prayers. And so the frescoes remained hidden beneath the white paint. As time passed, plagues and wars raged in the world, and the hourglass of the earth gradually spun for another 349 years.

Only then will the next historic event take place. Nobody knew anything about the Gothic frescoes until the Hungarian restorer István Groh came here in 1894. From behind the white paint, he suddenly brought the forgotten world of the Middle Ages in Gemer into the light of the 19th century. Sensation! Gothic paintings began to appear in other churches. Groh even enthusiastically set about restoring the frescoes and worked for six years (1901 -1907) on their renovation. In some places very unsparing, but nevertheless he restored the forgotten beauty and richness of the region.

The most common scenes on frescoes

The Christological and Passion cycle, the Marian cycle, figures of the Church Fathers, Apostles, saints and martyrs and scenes of the Last Judgement - these were the most common themes depicted in the churches of Gemer for the faithful, the vast majority of whom could neither read nor write. These people became acquainted with biblical texts, the lives of saints and church legends through their "biblia pauperum" (poor people's bible), depicted in evocative colourful paintings on the walls of the churches.

In addition to the usual biblical scenes, in three of these churches (Kraskovo, Rimavská Baňa and Rákoš) we also encounter a complete depiction of the old Hungarian legend of St Ladislaus. starouhorskej legendy o sv. Ladislavovi.

The Romanesque rotunda in Šivetice is particularly interesting in terms of the development of wall painting in the Gemer region, where we also find an older layer of paintings from the 13th century depicting the legend of St Margaret of Antioch, a particularly rare subject in Slovakia.

How to visit the churches?

The churches are open during the summer season on set days and times. A guide is also available at these times. Outside of the summer season, churches can be visited by making an appointment in advance by telephone.