06 June 2020

The Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg: The City of Budapest Opal Suite

Photo generously shared by reader Lisa

Our virtual visit to the Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna wraps up today with a look at an intriguing royal wedding gift: the City of Budapest Opal Suite.

Stephanie and Rudolf, ca. 1881

In March 1880, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, the only son of the Austro-Hungarian emperor, made a visit the court of King Leopold II of Belgium. The 21-year-old prince, under pressure from his parents, was on the hunt for a royal bride. In Brussels, he met Princess Stephanie, Leopold's 15-year-old daughter. Rudolf impulsively decided that Stephanie was his perfect future empress and proposed to her within two days of his arrival. Because of her age, though, the wedding was ultimately postponed until May 1881, only a few weeks before her seventeenth birthday.

Photo generously shared by reader Lisa

Wedding gifts from all over the Austro-Hungarian empire poured in for the new crown princess. The City of Budapest offered Stephanie a unique suite of jewels set with rubies, diamonds, and Hungarian opals. Lisa, the reader who visited the Hofburg and has generously shared her photos with all of us, told me, "Personally, I thought the opals to be extremely luminous." In recognition of Stephanie's family, the suite incorporates the golden lion of Belgium, as well as the coat of arms of the City of Budapest. Overall the set's design owed much to traditional Hungarian jewels; it was reportedly inspired specifically by a set owned by a sixteenth-century Queen of Hungary, Isabella Jagiellon. The new set of jewels was placed on public display in Budapest on April 25, 1881.

Detail of the central medallions of the necklace (left) and the girdle/belt (right) (Photo generously shared by reader Lisa)

The press took note of the grand wedding gift on display. A British newspaper, The Graphic, included a description of the suite in their April 1881 article about Stephanie's wedding presents: "The wedding presents for the Princess Stephanie, future Empress of Austria, will be exceptionally splendid. One of the most valuable gifts is the suite of jewels presented by Buda Pesth, and including a silver [sic] waist-belt in chainwork, formed of small diamond scales, each of which contains a fine opal in the centre, with diamonds sparkling in the corner. The opal and diamond necklet reaches to the waist, and from it hangs the Belgian lion in jewels, while fourteen buckles for the dress and six hair-pins are added to the usual earrings, bracelets, etc."

Close-up view of the belt (or "girdle") from the suite (Photo generously shared by reader Lisa)

The Telegraph's correspondent in Budapest also described the suite in detail: "The wedding present which has been subscribed for by the City of Pesth for presentation to the Princess Stephanie has been publicly exhibited here since yesterday. It consists of a garniture or complete set of jewel ornaments on the old Hungarian pattern. The various articles are imitations of the wonderful workmanship of the girdle once worn by Queen Isabella Zapolyi, and now in the National Museum. The girdle for the Princess Stephanie consists of four exquisite gold chains held together by a set of medallions; a gorgeous necklace studded with precious stones; six buckles, a pair of ear pendants, and five hair pins. The precious stones in the whole garniture amount altogether to four large rubies, eleven thousand diamonds, and three hundred and three opals of unrivalled beauty. This latter class of precious stones, I may mention, is nowhere found in such perfection as in Hungary. There are several opals in the girdle and necklace of extraordinary value and beauty."

Hans Canon's portrait of Stephanie, ca. 1881 (Wikimedia Commons)

The newly-married couple visited Budapest in May 1881. Shortly after her wedding, Stephanie also posed for noted Austrian painter Hans Canon (born Johann Baptist Straschiripka). The portrait shows young Stephanie wearing a black gown and several pieces from the Budapest Opal Suite, including the necklace, the belt, and one of the brooches.

Stephanie wears the suite with traditional Hungarian dress (Wikimedia Commons)

In a later series of portraits, Stephanie posed in traditional Hungarian dress with the opal suite. You'll spot the necklace and earrings here, as well as the dress buckles and the earrings.

Another image of Stephanie wearing the jewels with traditional Hungarian dress (Wikimedia Commons)

Here's another angle from the same portrait session. This image shows the detail of the belt more clearly, as well as the earrings.

Photo generously shared by reader Lisa

Stephanie's affection for Hungary grew throughout and after her short and tragic royal marriage. A decade after she was famously widowed in 1889, she married a Hungarian nobleman, Count Elemér Lónyay. The couple settled in a Hungarian castle, and in 1917, Emperor Karl I of Austria elevated Lónyay to the title of Furst. Stephanie died in Hungary in 1945, and she's buried there in Pannonhalma Archabbey. Her Hungarian opals, however, live on in public display at the Imperial Treasury in Vienna.

Huge thanks once more to Lisa, the generous reader who has shared her photographs and allowed us all to join her on this virtual visit!