Esterházy Family had donated the Péter and Gitta Esterházy Library to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary (ELCH)

Esterházy Family had donated the Péter and Gitta Esterházy Library to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary (ELCH)

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Text: Ádám Galambos, Pictures: András Szebeni, Krisztina Balogh, Marcell Esterházy, Martin Vukovits, András Szebeni, Péter Simonfi
Péter Esterházy (1950 – 2016), one of the most remarkable and widely known authors of contemporary Hungarian literature would have turned 70 last week. On this occasion, the Lutheran website in Hungary announced that the Esterházy Family had donated the Péter and Gitta Esterházy Library to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary (ELCH). In the following, Gabriella H. Hubert, Director of the ELCH Collections (Museum, Library and Archive), Tamás Fabiny, Presiding Bishop of the ELCH and Mr. Gergely Prőhle, Lay Leader of the ELCH, talk about the spiritual significance of this cultural treasure and about the theological dimension of the Esterházy texts.

The Administrative Office and the National Lutheran Collection of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hungary (ELCH) is located at Szentkirályi Street 51, Budapest. Among the many rarities stored in the library we can find an original copy of Martin Luther’s Last Will, a copy of the first printed Hungarian Bible from the 16th century, the so-called Vizsolyi Bible, and the original collection and furnishing of the aristocratic Podmaniczky-Degenfeld Library. This is the cultural context that will host the nearly 15.000-volume library of Péter Esterházy and his wife, Gitta Esterházy. 

The donation

Talking about the background of the library donation, Presiding Bishop Tamás Fabiny of the ELCH said that the first significant step was taken last May in the Benedictine Monastery of Pannonhalma, where he participated in a reception at the invitation of Cirill Hortobágyi, Archabbot of Pannonhalma, and his predecessor, Asztrik Várszegi. Gitta Esterházy was also among the guests. As Fabiny recalls: “In one of the intervals I was talking to her and she mentioned that she would like to keep her and Péter’s library together and she was thinking where she could deposit the collection. She asked whether the Lutheran Church would have something suitable. I did not hesitate much to say yes adding that before the final decision I would have to consult my companion in leadership, Mr Gergely Prőhle and the Director of the ELCH Collections, Ms Gabriella H. Hubert. Both of them were equally excited. We truly appreciate this donation and are proud of the chance to take care of Péter and Gitta Esterházy’s library.”

After the preparations, a Letter of Donation was signed by the family and the Lutheran Church on October 29th 2019. During the winter the books (approximately 400 linear metres) were boxed and temporarily relocated to the Bishop’s Office of the Northern Diocese of the ELCH, where cataloguing will also be taking place. The Esterházy Library will finally be deposited in the building of the ELCH Administrative Office. Bishop Fabiny said: “When Gitta Esterházy visited our headquarters, we proudly showed her Martin Luther’s bust in the courtyard. At the foot of the sculpture we planted a plaque, which is part of an installation project commemorating the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation. Each of the 95 plaques in the installation features a citation by a reformer on the one hand and by a Hungarian author on the other. We chose a stone with a sentence by Luther and one by Esterházy engraved. Luther’s words read: »We have no greater enemy than ourselves«, while the Esterházy quote is the following: »Luther asked whether he could find a merciful God. I am asking if I can find a merciful human being«. This aptly illustrates the connection between spirituality and culture in the Lutheran tradition. Over the past 500 years the Lutheran church has generally shown great confessional openness to science or culture, and this also implies that Luther and Esterházy can neatly stand side by side.” 

Lutheranism and culture

Gergely Prőhle explained that the ELCH Collections has earned a great reputation in the last few years. “Both our museum and our archive boast a wide range of users. The creative museological solutions and the precise philological work have been praised by experts in the field. At the same time, the building of the Administrative Office has also gone through complete reconstruction. The archive, where Martin Luther’s Last Will is stored, is situated in the ground floor, our library can be found one floor above, and our chapel at the top. The building symbolizes the unity of scientific approach and artistic openness, which is one of the main features of the Lutheran church. Yet, it is not a kind of cultural Protestantism we are after, because above all this we are defined by our spirituality, that is, the Word of God.”

Mr Prőhle also emphasized that “acquiring the library of such a significant writer clearly raises the reputation of Lutheran academic activity.” As the Lay Leader of the ELCH, Prőhle expressed his pride in the fact that the church is striving to achieve high artistic, literary and cultural standards. “Our Administrative Office is a natural context for science and culture. There is nothing new in this; rather, it is a return to earlier traditions. We should not forget that the outstanding historian, Elemér Mályusz also worked in these rooms, and one of my predecessors from the first half of the 20th century, Baron Albert Radvánszky also had close contacts with academics and artists of his time. What we are doing today is the 2.0 version of this noble tradition, since we do not only preserve our antique treasures but continue to collect contemporary artwork,” said Prőhle.  

As Ms Gabriella H. Hubert underlined, “We do not think it is our task to build a cult, in this case the cult of Esterházy, in the traditional sense. What we are trying to do instead is link the old (the Podmaniczky-Degenfeld Library) with the new (the Esterházy Library) and bring them into the bloodstream of Hungarian and, more specifically, Lutheran culture.” The Director of the ELCH Collections added that the Esterházy Library “is also in line with our strategic objectives to extend our contemporary visual art collection, which includes prominent works by Emese Benczúr, Gábor Karátson and Tamás Konok. These are in perfect harmony with the Esterházy Library.” Ms Hubert told us that the Lutheran collection also fulfils the mission of opening the church to the outside world. “This process of opening up can be made even more diverse if we can protect values less prominently represented in our collection. The library collection of Péter and Gitta Esterházy represents such a value both in its unique volumes and as a whole and we are truly proud of having the chance to act as guardians of it,” Ms Hubert said.

Photo: Martin Vukovits

What volumes does the Péter and Gitta Esterházy Library consist of?

As Gabriella Hubert described, “the collection is dominated by volumes of Hungarian and German literature. It also includes several books passed on from generation to generation in the family as well as a number of autographed books. The fine art albums in the collection mainly reflect Gitta Esterházy’s field of interest but obviously there are a lot of books on history, too.”

According to Tamás Fabiny, the Esterházy Family did not only donate their library to the ELCH but also offered to collect all the editions of Péter Esterházy’s works published so far, including books in foreign languages. The fact that they are willing to continue this contribution in the future is a further signal of the good cooperation between the ELCH and the family. The library section dedicated to the Esterházy Collection will also display some personal items of the author.

Concerning the autographed volumes of the collection, Gergely Prőhle mentioned that “autographed and dedicated books play a very important role in Network Research. As a former museum director, I find it very important that the legacy of our outstanding literary figures is kept in Hungary, because this ensures that they can be researched and assessed from the point of view of linguistic, literary and cultural tradition. This is why I am especially grateful to the family for their decision to make the collection a part of the network of Hungarian collections,” the ELCH Lay Leader added.

Besides the cataloguing and digitalisation of the Péter and Gitta Esterházy Library, the ELCH Collections is also planning to extend the circle and get in touch with the readers. As the Director said, “We are going to invite people to send digital copies of autographs or hand-written, proofread pages by Esterházy in their possession. Our aim is to collect instances of hand-written material in privately owned volumes as comprehensively as possible.” 

When will the library become available?

The staff of the ELCH Collections had planned to start the cataloguing process in April 2020; however, the launch of this work has been postponed due to COVID-19. Gabriella Hubert explained that they would like to display and open the library gradually. 

“Each unit of the ELCH Collections, including the library, has its own homepage. We have set aside a section of this homepage to report about the work carried out in the Esterházy Library. We are going to inform the public about the stages of the cataloguing process and about interesting developments during this process. This way the researchers and readers interested in Esterházy will not have to wait until the work has been finished but they can follow the steps as the process is unfolding,” the Director said. She also underlined that they have set it as an aim to connect the Esterházy Collection with the mainstream of academic and cultural flow. 

The ELCH Collections is also planning various events to introduce the Esterházy Library. Gabriella Hubert explained that they have “projects open to universities and other scholars and it is evident that these will also cover the Esterházy Library.” The final opening of the library is planned for Autumn 2022. By that time they will be able to create suitable conditions for the library and finish the process of digital cataloguing. “Until then, the Esterházy Library will continue to be present in the virtual space,” she added.

Péter Esterházy and theology

Solving the puzzles posed by guest texts in Esterházy’s works has always been a great delight for literary experts and literature fans alike. Now that the Library is in the possession of the Lutheran church, we can also expect an increase in the research of biblical and theological allusions that are frequently included in almost all writings by Péter Esterházy. “The book titled The Transporters is also full of such motifs, apocalyptic images and other theological references the analysis of which requires theological knowledge,” Bishop Tamás Fabiny said. Regarding the novel Revised Edition, he mentioned the issue of Communist informers, a controversial question widely discussed in both the society and the church and pointed out that the book is a theological treasure trove in other respects as well. “I was working on my habilitation thesis on Judas at that time and was astonished by the depth and extent of Esterházy’s treatment of sources dealing with Judas. The Revised Edition is more than a reception theory interpretation of a religious story; it demonstrates expert level familiarity with a theological topic. Esterházy was surprisingly skilful in theological analysis, yet he was able to weave the guest texts into his writings seamlessly.”

Esterházy’s book titled A Simple Story Comma a Hundred Pages – Mark’s Version (2013) also opens up exciting theological dimensions and demonstrates the meticulousness with which Esterházy researched theological topics, in this case on Mark, the Gospel Writer. Presiding Bishop Tamás Fabiny recalled Esterházy’s visit to the Lutheran Open University in the Buda Castle Congregation in January 2015, where the two of them discussed precisely this book. “He did not only bring his book along but also a volume of relevant theological literature so that he could quote precisely.” 


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