St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna: The Habsburg Catacombs and Crypt
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the main religious site in Vienna and has long been an undeniable symbol of the capital and Austria as a whole. The temple combines two architectural styles – Romanesque and Gothic – in its exterior and interior, making it one of the brightest achievements of medieval architecture. In addition to the forms and reliefs of the building itself, St. Stephen’s Cathedral attracts the tourist attention with its numerous valuable artifacts, among which are preserved both ancient church attributes and outstanding works of world art.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Austria is located in the Old Town on Stephansplatz, in the thickest of tourist activity. The sights, whose spire reaches 136 meters in height, are visible from most central points of the city. Inside, every visitor not only has the chance to appreciate the splendor of the decorations, but also to climb to the top of the observation deck and contemplate the charm of old Vienna from a bird’s eye view. But a quick glance at the architecture and decorations is not enough to grasp the full value of the cathedral: it is important to delve into its history and note the main events.
A brief history
The first mention of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna in documentary sources dates back to 1137: In them, it appears as a Romanesque church. In the middle of the 12th century there were only four temples in Vienna, and only one of them accepted parishioners. The capital urgently needed a new monastery, so the authorities decided to erect a cathedral outside the city walls. The church was already consecrated in 1147, but it is believed that by that time the building had not been fully rebuilt. At the beginning of the 13th century a large-scale expansion of the cathedral began: a part of the western wall, made in Romanesque style at that time, has survived to this day. In 1258, the church was damaged by a fire, apparently not very serious, but by 1263 it had been rebuilt and re-consecrated.
Presumably, in 1304, Duke Albert II managed to initiate the construction of the eastern part of the cathedral thanks to donations. The solemn opening of the famous Albert Choir took place in 1340. About a century later the South tower of the temple, which for a long time was considered the highest in Europe, was erected. But the North Tower, designed to be symmetrical with the South Tower, was never finished. In 1511 its construction was frozen because of the approaching Ottoman threat, so all efforts were directed at the fortification of the city walls. In 1711 the Pummerin, the heaviest in Austria cathedral bell, weighing more than 21 tons, was installed in the North Tower.
During World War II, the cathedral managed to survive without serious damage, but during the Soviet offensive in 1945, vandals set fire to the stores next to the temple. The flames spread to the church, resulting in the complete burning of its roof, the destruction of many valuable artifacts and works of art, and the fall of the bell from the North Tower. With the active financial support of the federal states, the structure was rebuilt in 7 years and was inaugurated in 1952, marked by the triumphant return of the newly cast bell.
The restoration of this cathedral in Austria continues to this day. The damage caused by the fire can clearly be seen today in its burned exterior walls. However, the reconstruction of the building is well underway, and the renovated organ, which was damaged in the fire, is due to return to the cathedral as early as this year. There are also plans to refurbish the north tower in the next few years.
Architecture and interior furnishings
Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria, is unique in its architecture, displaying a harmonious combination of styles, much of which has been facilitated by its centuries of construction and expansion. The church, built of limestone, covers an area of over 4200 square meters. Two towers, the South Tower (Steffi) and the North Tower (Eagle Tower), adorn the exterior. The Steffi Tower is built in Gothic style and is 136.4 m high, which is the highest part of the whole structure. Its spire is crowned by a sphere with a two-headed eagle.
Originally medieval architects planned to build the northern tower by analogy with the southern one. But in view of the Ottoman invasion, it was never completed. The last stone was laid in the Eagle Tower in 1511, and then, having decided not to complete the construction, it was simply topped with a dome. Today the height of this construction is a little more than 68 m, and its main decoration is a giant bell.
Of special interest is the unusual roof of the temple, built at a steep angle (in some parts the slope reaches 80°). The roof stretches for 111 m, and its height is 38 m. The uniqueness of the roof lies in its bright geometric designs, for the creation of which the architects used more than 230 thousand colored enamel tiles. On the southern side of the roof tiles are paved with a figure of a double-headed eagle – the symbol of the Habsburg Empire.
The front entrance to the church of St. Stephen in Vienna, called the Giant’s Portal, is decorated with busts of saints, geometric reliefs and animal figures. Its name is related to the huge bone found when the foundations of the North Tower were laid, which supposedly belonged to a dragon. In fact it was a mammoth bone, which did not prevent it from hanging over the main doors of the monastery for many years. Above the entrance are two Romanesque towers 65 meters high which, together with the Giant’s portal, are considered to be the oldest parts of the cathedral.
The inside of St Stephen’s is no less imposing than the outside. Upward facing arches divide the building into three sections with altars (18 in total) and pews for the congregation. The main altar, located in the choir, is made of black marble and decorated with biblical paintings. One of the main features of the cathedral is the abundance of sculptures and artistic paintings in the interior. The most valuable monument of the late Gothic style is the openwork pulpit, created in 1515, depicting the faces of the famous church teachers.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Austria is also famous for its artful stained glass windows, which shimmer with playful reflections in the sunlight. Most of the glass panels on display are only copies, while the original pieces are kept in the city’s museum. Nevertheless, five original 15th-century stained glass windows depicting stories from the Bible have been left in the cathedral. Speaking of the church’s decorations, it is impossible not to mention the three organs that appeared in the church in different periods. The largest of them has tens of thousands of pipes and is the largest organ in all Austria.
Until the mid-18th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Austria was surrounded by numerous cemeteries, which passed to the Austrians from the Romans. To be buried near the shrine was always considered a great honor, but not only aristocrats were buried in the local graveyards, but also ordinary citizens. In 1735, the bubonic plague broke out in Vienna, and as a result, the cemeteries around the cathedral were closed, while the remains from the tombs were moved to the catacombs, which were under the temple. Until a law was passed in Vienna (1783) forbidding the burial of people in the city, all burials were organized in the cathedral’s underground. Today, there are more than 11 thousand remains.
The main church of Austria is also the final resting place of many bishops, dukes and emperors. This is where the Habsburg crypt is located, where the carved tombs contain the remains of 72 members of the dynasty. Also in the church is the tomb of Frederick III, which took almost 45 years to build: the coffin is made of red marble with 240 figures carved on it. In addition, the tomb of Eugene of Savoy, Europe’s greatest military commander, who saved the Habsburgs from the conquerors from France and the Ottoman Empire, is installed in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Nowadays anyone can visit the catacombs as part of a guided tour for an extra fee.
- Opening hours: Mon. – Sat – from 10:00 to 11:30 and from 1:30 to 4:30 pm. Sun – from 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm.
- Cost of admission: 6 €, children’s ticket – 2,5 €.
- Duration: 30 minutes
Today every visitor to Austria has the opportunity to enjoy breathtaking views of Vienna from either the North or South Tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Both platforms offer unique panoramas of certain areas of the city. The observation platform at the southern end can be reached on foot by climbing 343 steps.
For those who are afraid of heights, as an alternative observation deck can act as the North Tower, where the famous bell is located. You can get to it with an elevator that will take you up to 50 m high.
- Opening hours: every day from 09:00 to 17:30
- Cost of admission: adults: 6 €, children: 2,5 €.
- Address and access: Stephansplatz 3, 1010 Vienna, Austria. The best way to reach the cathedral is by metro. A few steps from St. Stephen’s Church, the Stephansplatz station is reachable by line U1 and U3.
- Opening times: Mon. – Sat – from 09:00 to 11:30 and from 13:00 to 16:30. Fri – from 13:30 till 16:30.
- Cost of visiting: free of charge. Fee for a guided tour is paid on request. Price – 6 €, for children 2,5 €. Audioguide is available in 23 languages, including Russian.
It is also possible to buy an “All Inclusive” ticket which includes a guided tour of both observation decks, catacombs and the cathedral itself. The price of the pass for adults is 14.90 €, for children – 3.90 €. The price for the Vienna Pass is €9.90.
- The great composer of Austria, Wolfgang Mozart, was married in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna in 1782, but 9 years later his funeral was also held here.
- Since St. Stephen’s Church is the symbol of Vienna and Austria, its image was chosen for Austrian coins in denominations of 10 cents.
- It is noteworthy that the Habsburg crypt in St. Stephen’s Church does not hold the bodies of members of the dynasty at all. The way of burial at the imperial family was very eccentric: after all, they buried themselves in parts. The bodies of the deceased had their internal organs removed and placed in special urns, which were then sent to the crypt of St. Stephen’s cathedral. The hearts of the Habsburgs (54 urns) were buried in the Church of Augustine in the Crypt of Hearts. The bodies themselves, without organs, were buried on the grounds of the Capuchinerkirche.
- In all, there are 23 bells in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Austria. Each of them performs a different function. The new Pummerin, cast in the post-war period, is the second largest in Europe, second only to the bell of the Cologne Cathedral.
- To fully experience the atmosphere of Vienna’s Gothic cathedral in Austria, we recommend attending a concert of organ music.
- Taking pictures in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna is not forbidden, but the exception is the catacombs where taking pictures is strictly forbidden.
- Despite the fact that the south tower is higher, many tourists assure that the best views are from the northern platform. The southern platform is accessed by a narrow spiral staircase with over 300 steps, which can be a real challenge for many. In addition, the view from the southern platform is only possible from the windows, for which there are long lines. The north platform is set up in an open space and the views are much better.
- It is advisable to look at the church not only during the day but also in the evening, when the bright lights are on.
- St. Stephen’s Cathedral is one of the main sites in Vienna, so it is always full of tourists. If you would like to avoid the lines and crowds, it is best to arrive at the temple in time for the opening.
Author: Catherine Unal
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St. Stephen’s Cathedral / Vienna / Austria
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the main religious object of the Austrian capital and its symbol is considered one of the most outstanding achievements of medieval architecture. The cathedral was built according to the main features of Romanesque and Gothic styles, the interior is distinguished by the rich and majestic furnishings. Many valuable relics, ancient church attributes and works of art are kept within the walls of the church.
Photos of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna
The cathedral is located in the heart of Vienna – in the old city on the main square. The high spire of the church can be seen from almost any part of the capital, it is simply impossible to pass by the magnificent structure. The building is distinctive not only because of its architectural features, but also because of its enormous historical value. The famous composer Mozart and his wife were married here, and 9 years later his funeral took place there. There is also a crypt of the Habsburg dynasty, where some of the family members are buried.
The cathedral was first mentioned in the 12th century. At that time there were only 4 churches, only one of which was open to parishioners. It was decided to erect a new cathedral. It was consecrated in 1147, but according to the historical data at that time the building was not finished yet. In the next century several additions were added to the main part of the church. A part of the western wall survives to this day.
At the beginning of the 14th century, the eastern part of the church was erected. A few decades later, the south tower was added to the building, which for several decades was considered the highest in Europe. The second tower came much later. The construction of the second tower was stopped because of the outbreak of the war conflict. It was finished in the beginning of the XVIII century. At the same time the Pummerin bell with the weight of more than 20 tons was installed on the tower.
During the Second World War the church was virtually undamaged. But almost before its end, the neighboring buildings were set on fire. The fire spread to the cathedral as well. Many of the ancient valuables disappeared, and the bell fell. It took almost 10 years to restore. In the middle of XX century the restored church with the new bell on the North tower was opened.
Over the centuries the cathedral was repeatedly rebuilt and reconstructed. It now neatly combines several different styles, elements of which were constantly added to the original building. The South and North towers complement the outside of the church. The first of them is executed in strict Gothic style, on its top the figure of the two-headed eagle shimmers in the rays of the sun. The Eagle Tower, according to the original plan of the building, was not supposed to differ from the South Tower, but it was built much later than that.
One of the main architectural features of the cathedral is the roof, built under a slope. It consists of many colorful geometric figures, for which the masters used more than 2 hundred different kinds of enameled tiles. On the southern side of the roof, an image of a two-headed eagle is laid out of tiles.
The interior of the church is in no way inferior to its majestic exterior. Arches divide the hall into 3 parts, in which altars and benches for parishioners are installed. Everywhere you can notice a huge number of sculptures and paintings made by famous artists. The main altar is made of black marble and is decorated with paintings representing scenes from the Bible. The church has three organs, the largest of which is said to be the largest in the country.
Almost all the windows have amazingly beautiful stained-glass windows, the bright colors of which shimmer in the rays of the midday sun. Most of them are just copies of masterpieces by the best masters of their time, the original can be seen in the Vienna Museum. But among them still remain original works, made in the XV century.
In the depths of the cathedral to date, about 10 thousand remains. Until the middle of the XVIII century, the church was surrounded by many cemeteries, which were mostly buried in the aristocratic class. By the end of the century, the worst disease of the time reached the Austrian capital – the bubonic plague. The cemeteries had to be closed, and all the remains were placed in catacombs under the cathedral.
Over the centuries, emperors, historical figures, dukes and bishops have been buried in the catacombs beneath the cathedral. The remains of more than 70 members of the Habsburg family are preserved here. Here is the tomb of Frederick III, which was spent more than 40 years on its creation. The coffin is made entirely of genuine red marble, on top of which the masters skillfully carved various figures, 240 pcs. In the cathedral there is the tomb of the great commander E. Savoy, thanks to whom the Ottoman Empire was saved from the French conquerors.
Cost of visiting
The cathedral is open to free visits. For a guided tour you will have to pay 6 € for an adult and 3,5 € for a child.
Everyone who wants after a walk through the church can climb to the observation decks located on the South and North Towers. From here you have a stunning view of the city. To get to the top of one of them will have to walk up about 400 steps. The North Tower bell tower is accessible by elevator. The entrance fee is 5 € for an adult and 2 € for a child.
For tourists who intend to visit the cathedral, catacombs and climb the towers, it is recommended to buy a ticket that includes a full tour. Its cost will be 15 €.