According to an enduring legend, in 1686 while conquering Turks were praying in the Budapest mosque they had converted from a Catholic church, suddenly—in a great explosion—a figure of the Holy Virgin Mary appeared! The credulous soldiers were fear-stricken and fled, and the Christians began to reclaim their church and city, beginning a joyous procession on the streets. But did the figure, a statue, really appear as claimed? And if so, was the event—still recalled as the “Mary-wonder”—something less than divine intervention?
To seek the answer to these questions, I visited the Matthias Church—that is, the Church of the Assumption of the Buda Castle—in 2010, during the fourteenth European Skeptics Congress (held in Budapest, September 17–19). With me was noted Italian skeptic Massimo Polidoro, the two of us fresh from exploring the great labyrinth beneath Buda Castle. Now, at the church, we went in search of the fabled statue. Alas, however, the appearing figure would not reappear for us—but I am getting ahead of a story I have waited a decade to write.
Throughout Catholic Christianity, portraits and statues of the Virgin Mary abound, and tales of their wonderworkings are commonplace. Of the one hundred catalogued in Joan Carroll Cruz’s Miraculous Images of Our Lady (1993), the effigies reportedly weep or bleed, become animated, appear under mysterious circumstances, and perform numerous other feats, including the working of miracle cures. Statues of Jesus and the saints are often said to do likewise.
I have investigated and explained many of these. The “glowing” of a pair of statues on a church bell tower proved to be their gilded portions simply reflecting daytime sunlight and nighttime exterior lights. People who reported feeling heartbeats in statues at a Marian apparition site were (as I determined with a stethoscope) mistaken, instead probably feeling the pulse in their own thumbs or experiencing the effects of suggestion. And a statue of the Virgin that seemed to stroll about a church at night, being each time found away from its usual location, was determined by a bishop’s investigation to have been a probable hoax.
As to miraculous healings, the frequently expected benevolences of allegedly supernatural effigies, they may be attributable to misdiagnosis, psychosomatic conditions, prior medical treatment, the body’s own inherent healing power, and other effects, including spontaneous remission (in certain illnesses such as multiple sclerosis).
And yet, how do we explain the “Mary-wonder” of seventeenth-century Budapest? If we start at the beginning, we will soon see that it is something more than just legend; it was an appearance much more solid than any apparition. Was it even an apparition that materialized into a statue?
The stage was set during earlier centuries. Church tradition holds that the earliest Matthias Church was built in the Romanesque style in 1015, but after its destruction by the Mongols in 1241, it began to be replaced between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries—ultimately being transformed in phases into a mature work of classical Gothic architecture.
In 1526 came the first Turkish invasion, and in time, following a series of sieges, Buda (the western part of today’s Budapest) became part of the Ottoman Empire. Most of its churches were destroyed. The Matthias Church survived by being converted into a mosque, but it lost its north tower, royal oratory, and side chapels in providing stones for use elsewhere. Then in 1686 came the Battle of Buda—the great siege in which the occupied city would be retaken, this time by allied Christian forces consisting of more than 65,000 Hungarians, Germans, Dutch, Spanish, French, English, and many others, ranged against only 7,000 Turkish defenders.
On September 2, 1686, as the battle raged, no one could have foreseen what was about to occur. If hindsight seems too purposeful in its legend-making, almost as if the event must have been staged, nevertheless it was no illusionist’s trick, no work of theatrics set to perform on cue with mirrors or wires. Yet the holy figure had long been waiting, it seems, for this precise and impossible moment.
And then it happened. As the Turkish soldiers prayed in the mosque they had converted from a captured church, there was suddenly an overwhelming … something—as if the sun had burst, and light, heat, force, and sound were all released at once. And then they saw through swirling dust a figure that—as they thought—was the goddess of the Christians, having just miraculously appeared before their eyes.
After the Madonna’s miraculous appearance, we are told, the Turkish soldiers regarded it as a sign predicting their defeat. They fled, yielding Buda to the allied Christian forces. According to another source, “The victory of the desperate struggle for Buda was attributed by contemporaries to the miracle of the church’s statue of Mary,” which had “appeared in front of the Turks praying in the main mosque”—that is, the Matthias Church. (These and other quotes come from Wikipedia’s article on the church.) But just how true is this miracle tale of victory?
What Actually Happened
The central event of the statue’s sudden appearance, apparently from nowhere, is fundamentally true and has always been known to Catholic legend-makers. (I have simply withheld the secret up to this point for its dramatic effect.) However, other story elements need to be interpreted separately and together, and the whole presented as the non-miracle it is ultimately revealed to be. (In making my interpretations, I will propose those that require the fewest assumptions—according to the rule of Occam’s razor.)
First the statue. When the invading Turks took over Buda and turned Matthias Church into a mosque, they discarded the Christian effigies. However, one old votive statue (one given as an offering, as in fulfillment of a vow) was “simply bricklayed” from sight. Further details are not given, but I would suggest that if the statue had been in a niche, it would seem the simplest solution to have bricked over it, thus eliminating an unwanted niche and statue together. (The hidden scene was thus prepared, unintentionally, for the later “miracle.”)
As to how the statue was revealed, that simply occurred as a consequence of the Battle of Buda on the fatal day, either “due to cannon fire” or from “a major explosion.” The greatest explosion of that battle occurred when the Ottoman gunpowder store in Stephen’s Tower was hit by a single cannon shot. According to contemporary accounts, as many as 1,500 Turkish soldiers were killed by the blast. I suspect that, far more than the surprise appearance of the statue, it was the effects of that utter military disaster that caused “the morale of the Moslem garrison” to collapse and those soldiers to bolt.
It seems likely to me that the Turks may not even have paused to see the statue’s sudden liberation from its hiding place behind the brickwork. I picture the soldiers overwhelmed by the blast and, recovering, fleeing for their lives—at least those who could. Surely no one was able to interview the routed soldiers to obtain from them their testimony regarding the sudden appearance of the Madonna.
My hunch is that the pious tale of how the statue spooked the troops awaited the discovery of the figure standing exposed in the rubble. Soon, then, the legend-makers brought forth a tale of how the Holy Virgin Mary had wrought a miracle, verily to save the faithful—as, they believed, so many supernaturally empowered statues had done in the past, and were yet to do, over the following centuries. As the tale is told in the tourist guidebook that had brought me to the steps of Matthias Church in 2010:
According to legend, the original statue was set into a wall of the church during the Turkish occupation. When the church was virtually destroyed in 1686, the Madonna miraculously appeared. The Turks took this as an omen of defeat.
Note the words “original statue” in the preceding account. The whereabouts of that sculpture is invariably referred to in the past tense. Possibly it suffered damage in the battle and explosion. Now, the church’s Chapel of Loreto (see figure 1) “preserves a Madonna statue from the end of the seventeenth century … created to replace the original medieval sculpture of the Madonna, which was walled in during the Turkish occupation in the church.”
So, it was the replacement statue that my friend and I unknowingly came to see in 2010. But on visiting Matthias Church, we learned that it was in an area undergoing renovation, and we two investigators could neither beg nor buy our way there. But original or replica, I am confident that, well, one is just as miraculously endowed as the other.
- Buda Castle. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buda_Castle; accessed January 9, 2020.
- Cruz, Joan Carroll. Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Portraits and Statues. Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 1993.
- Matthias Church. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthias_Church; accessed January 9, 2020.
- Nickell, Joe. Psychic Connections: Investigating in Hungary. Skeptical Inquirer 35:6 (November/December 2011), 23–25.
- ———. The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
- Olszanska, Barbara, et al. Eyewitness Travel: Hungary. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2010.