12 November 2019
The Stephansdom is
the lasting image and
symbol of Vienna
The Stephansdom, or Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna is at the heart of the city and the most visited site in the Austrian capital.
For many, the cathedral in Stephansplatz is their lasting image of Vienna, with its spires, delightful multicoloured roof and bell towers. The most striking parts of the cathedral include the main tower, which rises over 136 metres, and the roof’s 230,000 multi-coloured tiles.
During my visit to Vienna last week [7 November 2019], I returned to visit the Stephansdom, which is the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. The Diocese of Vienna was founded 650 years ago in 1469. But the cathedral predates the diocese, and was first built in 1137, and the current cathedral dates from 1263.
The Stephansdom has seen many important events in Habsburg and Austrian history. Over the centuries, towers, doors and extensions have been added to give the city the present Gothic building with its sprinkling of baroque features.
Saint Rupert’s Church is considered the oldest church in Vienna – although that claim is contested by the Peterskirche or Saint Peter’s Church. The new church was built on the site of an ancient Roman cemetery.
By the mid-12th century, Vienna had become an important centre and the four existing churches, including only one parish church, no longer met the town’s needs. In 1137, Bishop Reginmar of Passau and Leopold IV, Duke of Bavaria, signed the Treaty of Mautern, which referred to Vienna as a civitas for the first time.
Under the treaty, Leopold IV received large stretches of land, except the site allocated for a new parish church that would eventually become Saint Stephen’s Cathedral.
The present Romanesque and Gothic form of the cathedral was largely initiated by Rudolf IV (1339-1365) and stands on the ruins of two earlier churches, the first a parish church consecrated in 1147.
The new Romanesque church was only partially built when it was solemnly dedicated in 1147, at the beginning of the Second Crusade. The first church was completed in 1160, but rebuilding and expansion lasted until 1511, and repairs and restoration projects have continued to the present day.
The first Romanesque structure was extended westward in 1230-1245, and the present west wall and Romanesque towers date from this period. A great fire in 1258 destroyed much of the original building, and a larger replacement, also Romanesque in style and reusing the two towers, was built over the ruins of the old church and consecrated in 1263.
King Albert I ordered a Gothic three-nave choir to be built at the east of the church in 1304, wide enough to meet the tips of the old transepts. His son, Duke Albert II, continued work on the Albertine choir, which was consecrated in 1340.
The middle nave is dedicated to Saint Stephen and All Saints, while the north and south nave are dedicated to Saint Mary and the Apostles.
Although Saint Stephen’s was still only a parish church and Vienna was not yet a diocese, Rudolf IV established a chapter of canons befitting a cathedral in 1365.
Emperor Frederick III persuaded Pope Paul II to give Vienna its own bishop in 1469, and the Diocese of Vienna dates from 18 January 1469. During the reign of Karl VI, Pope Innocent XIII made Vienna the see of an archbishop in 1722.
The Stephansdom survived the bombings of World War II, only to suffer from mindless vandalism when looters set fire to nearby buildings in April 1945. The fire spread and destroyed parts of the cathedral. But the city and the community came together all the damage was repaired within a few years, and the cathedral reopened on 23 April 1952.
The glory of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral is its ornately patterned, richly coloured roof, 111 metres long, and covered by 230,000 glazed tiles. Above the choir on the south side, the tiles form a mosaic of the double-headed eagle that is a symbol of the Habsburg dynasty.
The cathedral is oriented toward the sunrise on Saint Stephen’s Day, 26 December. It is built of limestone, is 107 metres long, 40 metres wide, and 136 metres tall at its highest point.
Over the centuries, soot and other forms of air pollution accumulating on the church have given it a black colour, but recent restoration projects have again returned some portions of the building to its original white.
The front of the nave and part of the north side are open to visitors, but everything else requires a ticket or is only open to people attending Mass. The accessible areas give views of the full length of the cathedral and some of the many small side altars.
The massive South Tower standing at at 136 meters is the highest point of the cathedral and a dominant feature on the skyline of Vienna. It is known affectionately to the people of Vienna as Steffl, a diminutive form of Stephen.
It took 65 years, from 1368 to 1433, to build the south tower. During the Siege of Vienna in 1529 and again during the Battle of Vienna in 1683, it served as the main observation and command post for the defence of the walled city. It is a 343-step climb with an observation chamber that offers views of Vienna.
The North Tower has a lift up to a viewing platform and the 21,283 kg Pummerin bell. The north tower was originally intended to mirror the south tower, but the plan was too ambitious and building stopped in 1511. The tower-stump was given a Renaissance cap, nicknamed the ‘water tower top,’ in 1578. The tower is now 68 metres tall, about half the height of the south tower.
The main entrance is known as the ‘Giant’s Door’ or Riesentor, referring to the thighbone of a mastodon that hung over it for decades. The tympanum above the Giant’s Door depicts Christ Pantocrator flanked by two winged angels. On the left and right of the door are two Roman Towers, or Heidentürme, each about 65 metres tall. They were built from the rubble of old Roman structures, and with the Giant’s Door they are the oldest parts of the cathedral.
Ludwig van Beethoven discovered the totality of his deafness when he saw birds flying out of the bell tower when the bells tolled but he could not hear them.
A memorial tablet recalls Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s relationship with the cathedral, where had been appointed an adjunct music director shortly before he death. This was his parish church when he lived at the ‘Figaro House,’ he was married here, two of his children were baptised here, and his funeral was held here.
The main part of the cathedral contains 18 altars, with more in the various chapels. The High Altar and the Wiener Neustadt Altar are the most famous.
The marble, baroque High Altar was built in 1641-1647. The Wiener Neustädter Altar at the head of the north nave was commissioned by Emperor Frederick III in 1447. On the predella is his famous AEIOU device. The Wiener Neustädter Altar is composed of two triptychs. Restoration began in 1985 and took 20 years to complete.
The Maria Pötsch Icon or Pötscher Madonna is a Byzantine-style icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child, commissioned in 1676 by László Csigri after his release as a prisoner of war from the Turks who were invading Hungary.
The stone pulpit is a masterwork of late Gothic sculpture. It was long attributed to Anton Pilgram, although it is now believed that Niclaes Gerhaert van Leyden was the carver.
The carvings include relief portraits of the four original Doctors of the Church: Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory the Great and Saint Jerome.
The handrail of the stairway curving its way around the pillar from ground level to the pulpit has fantastic decorations of toads and lizards biting each other, symbolising the struggle between good against evil. At the top of the steps, a stone puppy guards the preacher against intruders.
Beneath the stairs is one of the most beloved symbols of the cathedral: a stone self-portrait of the unknown sculptor gawking out of a window and known as the Fenstergucker. It may be a self-portrait of the sculptor.
There are several formal chapels in the cathedral, including Saint Katherine’s Chapel, the baptismal chapel, and Saint Barbara’s Chapel.
Saint Eligius’s Chapel is said to hold the body of Saint Valentine – but this is also said to be in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street, Dublin. The other relics claimed by the cathedral the beard on the crucified Christ and a piece of the tablecloth from the Last Supper. The remains of over 11,000 persons are buried in the catacombs.
The preservation and repair of the fabric of Saint Stephen’s has been a continuous task since the cathedral was first built in 1147.
The Stephansdom is open year-round, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (from 7 a.m. on Sundays and holidays). It remains a working cathedral, and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.
In winter, the square hosts the Stephansplatz Christmas market, although last Thursday the skies above the cathedral were bright, clear and blue.