The Vienna of God and the Emperors

After visiting universities in Holland, I took a short flight to Austria for a conference. If the Netherlands is cozy, Vienna is stately — it’s clear that the Austrian Habsburgs had a much more regal worldview than that of the commercially-oriented Dutch. (The Austrians had the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Dutch had a republic led by a man nicknamed William the Taciturn, which should tell you everything you need to know about these two European powers).

If there’s one thing most monarchies do well, it’s build palaces. Generations of Viennese monarchs built the Hofburg, a grandiose residence that keeps going …

… and going …
… and going, so far that it’s impossible to capture the whole thing in one picture…
The Habsburgs even had several of their own churches, including St. Michael’s (called Zum heiligen Michael when it was the parish church of the Imperial Court):
This Catholic church is one of the oldest in Vienna, and it boasts frescoes from the early 15th century (I’m a big fan of the devil’s hooves).
They are still doing restoration work inside the church, which is fascinating to watch:
While the Habsburgs were busy running the entirety of their far-flung Empire, someone needed to run the city of Vienna. So they built the Rathaus, or City Hall, in the 1870s. My conference had its reception in the main festivities hall, or festhaal.


The building’s interior is all about Neo-Gothic pointed archways and intricate stone carving …


… including this rendition of the double-headed eagle of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, which Austria has adopted as its coat of arms. (Side note: I always think the eagles look rather anemic.)


The Habsburgs viewed themselves as the protectors of Catholicism on a continent disrupted by the Protestant Reformation, and they kept Austria in line on the religious front. This has been and continues to be a Catholic nation. When you’re in the center city of Vienna, you bump into churches everywhere you go. The grandest of them all is St. Stephen’s cathedral, the mother church of all the Catholic churches in the region.
Most of this massive edifice was built in the late 1300s and early 1400s, when cathedral building was a serious enterprise (though one tall tower was added in the Renaissance for added flair).
This particular cathedral has a nave that’s longer than a football field.
The pulpit, built right around 1500, is the highlight of the interior. It features spectacular carving, including the four fathers of the Christian church. Here we have Gregory (the explainer) …
… and Jerome (the skeptic):
The stairway of the pulpit is filled with unexpected meaning. Wheels with three spokes — the Trinity — roll upwards, while wheels with four spokes — the seasons or directions — roll down towards life on earth:
There are even symbols on top of the stair railing: lizards (animals of light) attack toads (animals of darkness), and the Dog of God (who knew that God had a dog?) stands at the top to keep any errant toads out of heaven. The toads are well-worn by the hands of many priests from days gone by:
There’s also a guy peeking out under the stairs! 
Art historians have speculated that this may be a carving of the sculptor himself. That would be an unusual addition to a Gothic church, when all of the art in a cathedral was supposed to be for the glory of God rather than for the glory of self — but this pulpit was built just as humanism was entering onto the theological scene, and individual artists began to gain fame in their own right. One of the main sculptors is definitely featured on the wall of the church nearby (if you squint, you can see that he’s holding the tools of his trade):


St. Stephen’s has at least eighteen altars. This one features a late-15th century triptych with golden wooden figures …IMG_6086

… while this altar sits in the chapel where Mozart was married!


This was Mozart’s parish church — his children were baptized at the font on the left, and he was given a post as one of the music directors here before his death. 

The high altar is especially impressive. It features the best stained glass in the cathedral and a 17th-century painting of St. Stephen being stoned by pagans (but just before he dies, he looks up and sees Christ and the angels, so presumably that makes it all ok).


St. Stephen’s boasts several other notable works of art. The most elegant of these (rendered here in black and white, because I liked her better that way) is Madonna of the Servants, carved in the early 1300s:


The most disturbing statue at St. Stephen’s is an 18th-century Baroque extravaganza that celebrates one of the crusades. Note the very Austrian, very glitzy starburst beaming above St. Francis, who stands triumphantly (in a very non-St. Francis-like way) on a defeated Turk.


The oddest work here is the Maria Pocs Icon, a picture from Hungary that was said to have wept real tears in 1697. I think that this is the first time I’ve ever seen a painting that could cry.


It’s just amazing to walk through this space (though to get into the nave, you have to pay a small fee).


For another small price, you can smash into a tiny elevator with seven of your new closest tourist friends to visit the roof of St. Stephen’s. This will give you a narrow view of one of the church towers…

… and a view down to part of St. Stephen’s square…

… and all the way across Vienna to the city’s Ferris wheel:

The roof of St. Stephen’s is made up of 230,000 ceramic tiles.

Most are in this pattern …

… but we also see a return of the double-headed eagle (it looks like two eagles, I know — just trust me on this):

I also paid a visit to the Peterskirche (St. Peter’s), a Catholic church built in the early 1700s.


It’s a very shiny church, all Italian Baroque enthusiasm.


I was lucky enough to catch a brief afternoon organ concert here:

The Hapsburgs cracked down on the Protestants for well over two centuries, but Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II finally signed a Patent of Toleration in 1781. This allowed non-Catholic Christians to practice in their own churches (though they had to do so pretty much in secret, and they weren’t allowed to hold wedding ceremonies). The first Austrian Greek Orthodox church was founded in Vienna in 1787, and they built the Holy Trinity Church in 1858:


It’s all shiny and Baroque inside — this may be a Greek Orthodox church, but it feels very Austrian in style.

I was out early on a Saturday morning, so I got to see the priests on their way to work:


It’s fun to walk around Vienna — the buildings are tall, but not too tall (generally between six and eight stories) …


… and there are many touches — from organ concerts to horse-drawn carriages — that make you feel like you could be in the Vienna of two hundred years ago.


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