St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the great church of the city of Vienna. For many centuries it was also the home church of the Hapsburg dynasty, which ruled over much of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, making its clergy among the most influential in the world. Many of the city’s bishops are buried within, as are a few members of the Hapsburg royal family, though most are buried in the nearby Capuchin Crypt. As the defacto Imperial Cathedral, St. Stephen’s hosted many state events. It also enjoys a proud musical history; the Vienna Boys Choir frequently performs here, and the funerals of many of the city’s great musicians, including that of Mozart, have been held here. Today it is a popular music venue, and the plaza in front is ground zero for street performers and promoters wooing tourists to the city’s plethora of nightly concerts.
Christianity arrived in Austria sometime around the 7th century, and in Vienna perhaps a century or so later. For most of the Middle Ages, the Church in Vienna took a back seat to the Church in Salzburg. To this day the Archbishop of Salzburg still retains the ancient title of Primate of Germany. However, by the 12th century Vienna was the largest and most important city in Austria, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral was built to accommodate the city’s growing Catholic population.
In 1440 Vienna became the seat of the Hapsburg family, and the city’s religious importance skyrocketed. Throughout the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Vienna was the most important city in the Holy Roman Empire, and as such was a bastion of Catholicism in the face of expanding Protestant power in Northern Germany. It was a critical center of the Counter-Reformation, and its church leaders became central figures in upholding the influence and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany.
Throughout the centuries of Hapsburg rule, St. Stephen’s Cathedral was the defacto church of the royal family. Royal, and later imperial, coronations were held here, as were other major state functions. Over the years the cathedral was expanded and embellished many times in order to reflect its national importance. Although not the official site of the royal tombs, a number of important figures are buried here, including Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. The partial remains of many other royals, as well as 11,000 other skeletons, are kept in the crypts below the church.
St. Stephen’s enjoyed a number of interesting roles in its long history. During the two sieges of the city by the Ottomans in 1529 and 1683, the cathedral was used as a military command center and observation post by the city’s defenders. The towers were also used by a resident team of watchmen who kept a regular vigilance in order to spot fires. In 1791 it held the funeral of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which was followed up by his burial in a pauper’s grave. The cathedral narrowly survived destruction in World War II, although repairs and renovations are still ongoing.
The Cathedral of St. Stephen is a hulking, classical Romanesque-Gothic cathedral with just a hint of something Oriental in its architecture. Although the most important church in Austria, it is relatively small compared to the other great cathedrals of Europe, and its aesthetics are somewhat lacking. However, the exterior does boast some excellent, and very unique, features. Most notably is the outstanding roof, which absolutely commands the attention of visitors. Rebuilt after the war using steel supports, it is the steepest pitched cathedral roof in the world. This was done to better show off the tile mosaics which feature Austria’s coat-of-arms. Also of note is the fabled ‘Giant’s Door’, the immense arched window that dominates the cathedral’s façade.
The interior is well lit, and has a surprisingly light and airy feel for a cathedral so old. The brightly checked floor, and the baroque-era embellishments, especially in the chapels, offset the more stern medieval features. There are a number of chapels here, including St. Valentine’s Chapel, where the supposed corpse of the famous saint is kept, along with a piece of the tablecloth used at the Last Supper. Beneath the cathedral are the Bishop’s Crypt, where many local clergymen are buried; and the Ducal Crypt, where 78 urns contain the hearts and other body parts of many members of the Hapsburg family.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is located at the very center of Vienna, a few blocks east of the royal palace. It is open daily from 6:00am-10:00pm (hours for access to the crypt and the towers vary). There is no charge for admission. Web: www.stephansdom.at (official website)
As capital of the Catholic Hapsburg Empire for many years, Vienna boasts some of Austria’s top churches. Historically the most important is the Capuchin Crypt, where many members of the Hapsburg family is buried. The 8th century St. Rupert’s Church is the oldes in the city. St. Charles’ Church is considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of baroque architecture. Also in Vienna is the Church of St. Elisabeth of Hungary, which currently serves as the mother church of the Order of Teutonic Knights.