Zagreb Cathedral
© travelcultureguide

Save your tears for the cathedral, its promise is a greater symbol of Zagreb than its towers

60% of the city hasn't seen it without scaffolds

Written by
Marc Rowlands

On Friday 17 April 2020, residents watched from around the city centre as military personnel conducted a controlled explosion on a tower belonging to Zagreb cathedral. Damaged in the recent earthquake, the upper section of the spire had stood precariously off-kilter and was judged to be a public health hazard. As dust from the explosion dispersed, so did the people, their spirits lowered just like the tower top of this pre-eminent city symbol.

But, such sorrow is misplaced. For it is not only in the tallest part of this building where believers find faith. Nor is it simply the height and adornments of the cathedral which make it an emblem for all who live here. Zagreb is a resilient city, steadfast and strong. To inextricably link this city's spirit and its great symbol to such irrelevant ornamentation does both a disservice. Zagreb is greater than that. And, its greatest landmark means so much more.

Zagreb cathedral or, to give it its full title, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saints Stephen and Ladislav, has become such an icon for its city partially because it can be seen from so many Zagreb neighbourhoods. These days it presides reassuringly over the cityscape, but it does so in a manner that would be most unfamiliar to past residents.

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Artist's impression of Zagreb's cathedral© State Archives in Zagreb

The cathedral's history can be traced back to 1093, when King Ladislav founded the Diocese of Zagreb, promoting an existing church to the status of a cathedral. After his death, work on a new larger cathedral began at the site where today's exists, the current bell tower comprised of materials from this period and the buildings overlapping from this point to the shrine. It was completed in 1217 but destroyed by invading Mongols in 1242. Bishop Timotej (1263-1287) began its reconstruction after the Mongol departure and only at this point did the cathedral begin to display the Gothic style for which it is today known.

A new threat of invasion arrived at the end of the 15th century with the encroaching Ottoman Empire, triggering Bishop Thomas Bakač Erdödy to begin construction of fortification walls around the cathedral. Completed in 1517 under Archbishop Thomas Bakač Erdödy, some of these walls are still intact.

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Enrico Nardi's 1877 painting of Zagreb cathedral© Enrico Nardi / Zagreb City Museum

In 1624, a lightning strike caused a fire that burned the cathedral's roof and destroyed the vault, subsequent rebuilding work taking place at the same time as master stonemason Ivan Albertal was overseeing completion of the southern bell tower. Yet again, in 1646, a fire burned the cathedral's roof, the heat so intense that it melted the cathedral's bells and cracked the walls of the vault. Further destruction again occurred in 1646, when Albertal was forced to return in order to repair damage caused by the collapse of an interior pillar, Then, in 1665, the cathedral's appearance was once again changed by being covered with tiles.

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Zagreb cathedral prior to the 1880 earthquake© State archives in Zagreb

From the beginning of the 19th century, the cathedral was in such a state of disrepair that it warranted restoration, yet it wasn't until 1878 that Viennese architect Friedrich Schmidt was dispatched to Zagreb for that purpose. He took with him a collaborator, Herman Bollé, their work beginning in 1879.

'I have never seen more horrible images, nor deeper sorrow in my life,' wrote pre-eminent Zagreb novelist August Šenoa of the destruction visited upon the city in the earthquake of 1880. In its aftermath, he would sadly contract an illness that would kill him within a year. The earthquake so badly damaged the cathedral that the main nave collapsed and the cathedral tower was damaged beyond repair. Herman Bollé was promoted to oversee the operation of its reconstruction. In a move which, at the time, caused no small amount of controversy, he opted to take inspiration from earlier versions of the cathedral and rebuild it in a Neo-Gothic style. It was only at this relatively recent juncture in the life of Zagreb cathedral that the two now partially blunted spires appeared.

Herman Bollé's redesign radically altered the visual impact the cathedral had on the city. Against some contemporary objection, he managed to push through much of his vision, although his proposal to demolish the Renaissance wall and, with it, the Bakač tower was dismissed.

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Photo of restoration, the Bakac tower and defensive walls 1892© Hubert Vaffier / Croatian Ministry of Culture

The facade of the main entrance had changed dramatically throughout the cathedral's ever-evolving lifespan. Visible decay prompted restoration work to be started in 1938 but, interrupted by World War II, this was only resumed in 1968 when additionally the tower roofs were replaced by copper plates.

Since the 15th century, the area which is now Ribnjak park had existed within the walls of the city fortifications adjoined to the cathedral. It was fashioned into the park we recognise today in 1830 by bishop Aleksandar Alagović and architect Leopold Klingspogle. Until 1946, the park was the private property of the Zagreb archdiocese, its pathways, lawns and fish ponds for the sole benefit of the ecclesiastical elite. That changed following World War II when the Communists seized the park for the state and opened it for the enjoyment of the entire city's population.

Restoration work on the cathedral continued in the 1970s and in 1987 a special committee was formed to oversee further work. It commissioned the installation of central heating, a new sound system and more electricity access plus the rebuilding of walls and the church organ. Renovation to the cathedral's two towers began in 1990. It was at this time that scaffolding was first erected around the towers. The restoration they required was a painstakingly slow process, hampered by the brittle, porous stone with which Herman Bollé had chosen to build them and by restoration funds relying solely on contemporary donations. The towers have not been completely free of this scaffolding for three decades.

Approximately one-third of Zagreb's population is under 30 years of age. If you add to that number those who were under ten years when the scaffolding went up, and may barely remember glimpsing the towers standing alone, you reach 50%. An estimated further 10%, accounting for those who moved to the city after the Homeland War and subsequently from Bosnia and Herzegovina, places the percentage of Zagreb's population who have never seen the cathedral towers without scaffolding at a very modestly estimated 60%. To most who live in the city, the evidence of restoration is as much a symbol of Zagreb as the building which lies beneath.

This is the same as it ever was. For one thousand years, the city of Zagreb has watched as the form of its cathedral has undergone a neverending transformation. We can say with certainty that the cathedral of today would be unrecognisable to city residents who held it dear throughout much of its life. However, it is now far from unrecognisable to those who remember it being slightly taller just a few weeks ago.

Just like the liberated Ribnjak park, the surrounding city of Zagreb has changed beyond past recognition throughout the cathedral's lifespan. Suburbs have sprouted around it like mushrooms from spores, modern transportation and infrastructure have arrived and the city's demographics have changed, all resulting in making Zagreb the multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith capital city we have today. Zagreb now can compete with many other European capitals with its cultural, artistic, architectural and recreational offer. Such fast-paced and beneficial progress has taken place largely beneath the view of a scaffolded cathedral, its work unfinished.

But what is this scaffolding and restoration if not a direct symbol for an ever-improving city? The loss of a few feet of tower is incomparable to the destruction visited upon this building by invading armies, lightning, fire and past earthquakes. The acceptance of the challenges required to keep the cathedral as an icon of the city is a credit to Zagreb. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Nobody ever said when it would finally be finished. It is within the visible undertakings of the cathedral restoration that we see the building in its truest light, as a symbol of Zagreb itself. Beloved, yet incomplete, its promise is an optimistic signpost to a better future, one which greatly outweighs any self-indulgent sorrow brought on by its brief and temporary state of damage.

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