11 November 2019

A tuneful way to
count out the hours
in the centre of Vienna

The Ankeruhr is an ornate clock on a covered bridge in the centre of the old town in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Hoher Markt Square, half-way between the Peterskirche and the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, is one of the oldest squares in Vienna, dating back to a time when Vienna was part of the Roman army camp Vindobona – one of the streets beside the square is named after the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died near Vienna.

Today, the square is often seen as an ugly car park in the heart of Vienna. But it has its attractions, including the Vermählungsbrunnen (‘Marriage Fountain’), erected to celebrate the marriage of Empress Maria Theresia and Franz Stephan of Lorraine but depicting the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph at their wedding.

However, you have to look up to see the most attractive feature in this square. n Even more exciting is Ankeruhr or Anker Clock, commissioned by the Anker insurance company to bridge two office buildings owned by the company, now known as Helvetia. The covered bridge is known as the Uhrbrücke or ‘Clock Bridge.’

The Anker Clock was designed in the Jugendstil style, a style similar to Art Nouveau, by the Austrian painter and sculptor Franz von Matsch (1861-1942), who worked closely with Gustav Klimt.

Matsch made the clock in 1911-1917, at a creative but turbulent time in Austrian history, when modernism, imperial tradition, and the chaos of war clashed. The Anker Insurance Company was expanding its headquarters in Vienna and saw the clock as an artistic contribution to the city’s culture and a subliminal reminder of the importance of life insurance, with figures representing life and death flanking the sun motif above the centre.

The clock is 10 metres wide, 7.5 metres high, and has a diameter of 4 metres. The design includes 12 historic figures from Vienna’s past, each made of copper. On the hour, every hour, one figure or couple is visible and on the hour a tune is played matching this figure.

At noon, all the figures and their matching tunes can be seen and heard to the gasps and cheers of tourists on the street below. It is a spectacle that can be compared to the hourly sight at the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall in Prague.

The last figure is Joseph Haydn, who composed the Imperial Anthem, which also became the German national anthem.

A plaque next to the clock reveals the identities of these rotating figures, who represent a journey through Austrian history. The figures or couples and the hours to see them are:

1-2: The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is said to have died in Vienna, then the city of Vindobona, in the year 180 AD

2-3: Charlemagne, who first incorporated Austria into the Holy Roman Empire ca 800

3-4: Leopold VI, Duke of Austria, who granted Vienna its city charter in 1221, and his wife Theodora Leopold VI

4-5: Walther von der Vogelweide, a mediaeval minstrel singer during Leopold’s reign

5-6: King Rudolf, the first Habsburg ruler of Austria, and his wife Anna von Hohenberg

6-7: Hans Puchsbaum, a 15th-century architect and master builder closely associated with the Stephansdom (Saint Stephen’s Cathedral)

7-8: Emperor Maximilian I, a major figure in the expansion of the Habsburg empire in the 16th century and a patron of the arts

8-9: Johann Andreas von Liebenberg, mayor of Vienna during the second Turkish siege in 1683

9-10: Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg, who led the defence of the city in 1683

10-11: Prince Eugene of Savoy, who built the Belvedere and Hofburg Palace and the commander of the Imperial forces during the War of the Spanish Succession

11-12: Empress Maria Theresa, the 18th-century Habsburg monarch, and her husband Prince Franz Stephan of Lorraine

12-1: Joseph Haydn, the composer: when he appears, the clock plays his oratorio, The Creation

The tunes include works by Haydn, Mozart and Wagner, and they were originally played by a mechanical organ with 800 tubes. However, the organ was so damaged during World War II that it was beyond repair, and it was replaced by recorded music.

The Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall in Prague was installed in 1410 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Peterskirche is
‘a psychedelic Easter
egg’ in Vienna

The Peterskirche in the centre of Petersplatz … claims to be the oldest church in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

My visit to Vienna on Thursday [7 November 2019] was short and brief. I concentrated on visiting the Stephansdom or Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Jewish quarter with its museums and the only synagogue to survive after World War II.

But I also visited two churches in the heart of Vienna: the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Trinity; and the Peterskirche, or Saint Peter’s Church, is a Baroque parish church to be designed as a miniature replica of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

One writer has said, ‘Experiencing the Peterskirche is like opening a psychedelic Easter egg. It looks nice on the outside, with its domes, reliefs and statues. Then, when you go inside, you’re hit by a dizzying wave of colour and form that is really quite breath-taking.’

The Peterskirche stands in the centre of Petersplatz square, just off the busy Graben pedestrian area and is surrounded by 18th and 19th century buildings. The church is largely obscured by the surrounding buildings, and can only be seen clearly by standing directly in front of it.

Some writers claim that the Peterskirche stands on the site of the oldest church in Vienna. The oldest church building on this site was built in the Early Middle Ages, and there is some speculation that it could be the oldest church in Vienna, older than even the Ruprechtskirche. That Roman church was built on the site of a Roman encampment.

That Roman church was replaced with a Romanesque church with a nave and two aisles. It is said to have been established by Charlemagne ca 800, and a relief sculpture by R Weyr outside the church commemorates the founding of the church by Charlemagne. However, there is no evidence supporting this theory.

The first documented reference to a church on this site dates from 1137. Around the end of the 12th century, the church became part of the Schottenstift, a Benedictine abbey founded in Vienna by Irish (Scots) monks who came from Regensburg.

The mediaeval church had three altars, with the apse in the south instead of the traditional east end. This south-north rather than east-west orientation is unusual and has caused many discussions and debates.

The church may have been adapted from an earlier, secular building. It was surrounded by shops, and a nearby building housed the Stadtguardia, a forerunner of the modern police.

The old church burned down in 1661 and the repairs at the time were only makeshift repairs. A few decades passed before a decision was taken to build a new church, following the arrival of the Fraternity of the Holy Trinity. The Emperor Leopold I was a member of this fraternity, and he had vowed to rebuild this church when Vienna was ravaged by the plague in 1679-1680.

Work on building a new Baroque church was begun ca 1701 under Gabriele Montani, who was replaced by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt in 1703. The design was inspired by Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

Most of the building was finished by 1722, and the Peterskirche was consecrated to the Holy Trinity in 1733. The new church was the first domed structure in baroque Vienna. Due to the confined strictures of the site, the church was built in a very compact form, with its oval interior accommodating an astonishing amount of space and rectangular attachments.

Despite the initial visual impact, this is not a spacious basilica or cathedral. It essentially comprises an entrance foyer, the oval-shaped domed area with niches that form small side chapels, and the high altar area.

The turreted dome was designed by Matthias Steinl, who was also responsible for the richly-decorated interior filled with golden stucco work and the pews with their cherubic heads.

The frescoes were first painted by the Italian Andrea Pozzo. But they were removed after his death, and Johann Michael Rottmayr began working on a completely new set in 1713.

The fresco in the cupola represents the ‘Coronation of Our Lady.’ The triumphal arch displays the coat of arms of emperor Leopold I. The four Evangelists and four Fathers of the Church in the spandrels around the dome were painted by the Viennese artist JG Schmidt, who also painted the altarpiece in the side chapel of Saint Michael.

The Baroque high altar is the work of Antonio Galli Bibiena and his workshop in Bologna, and Martino Altomonte (1657-1745). The altarpiece portrays the ‘Healing of the Lame by Saint Peter and Saint John in Jerusalem.’

The shrines in the side chapels hold the relics of martyrs from Roman catacombs, donated by Cardinal Kollonitz in 1733. They were clothed in this period and placed in the glass coffins.

The gilded, ornate pulpit is the work of Matthias Steinl (1726). Opposite the pulpit is a dramatic gold-and-silver representation of the ‘Martyrdom of Saint John of Nepomuk’ by Lorenzo Mattielli. The Baroque organ was built in 1751.

The Peterskirche was transferred to Opus Dei in 1970 by the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Franz König.

Meanwhile, over the years, the paintings became darker, and the interior began to take on a grey appearance. The church underwent renovations and restorations in 1998-2004, when the paintings were returned to their original rich colouring and brightness.