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I don’t usually like taking pictures in churches. For as beautiful as they might be, I always like to think that there is at least one place where our eyes and our spirituality should be more important than the reporting activity. Of course, the same happens to me in mosques or temples.
St. Stephen’s Dome in Vienna was no exception, but I still captured a few images that will help me describe the experience I lived there.
Summer in Vienna can be particularly warm, and entering the Stephansdom, right in the middle of the most famous square in Vienna, Stephansplats, is a joy for your body. The building hugs you in its shadow, and refreshes your skin.
The big construction dates back in the middle of the 12th century. The unfinished building was consecrated already in 1147, almost 15 years before its completion in 1160.
The church was commissioned by the Margrave of Austria, Leopold IV, former Duke of Bavaria.
There are many different versions to the story that explains why the church was built right there.
Until 2000 historians believed that Stephansdom was built in an open field right outside of Vienna; said field was supposedly one of the territories given to the city after the Treaty of Mautern.
However, relatively recent archaeological discoveries were made: not even 3 meters below the surface of the Dome, there are graves that can be dated back to the 4th century. Revealing that Stephansdom was not built in an open land, but it was purposely built on an ancient cemetery of Ancient Roman times.
Unfortunately, neither the historians, nor the clerics can explain why Stephansdom was built on an Ancient Roman cemetery.
Stephansdom takes the name to the saint to who it is dedicated: St. Stephen. He was the patron of the bishop’s cathedral in Passau.
This explains why the geographic coordinates of the church are 48.2085°N, 16.373°E. In Catholic culture, St. Stephen is celebrated the day after Christmas, December 26th, and said coordinates indicate the orientation of the sunrise on December 26th, 1137.
The Dome is entirely realized with limestone, and it measures 107 metres in length, 136 metres in height at its tallest point, and it’s wide 40 metres.
Although what we see is this majestic construction in Gothic style, at first, before Duke Rudolf IV’s intervention in 1339-1365, the church was smaller and mainly Romanesque in style.
Now, 18 different altars ornate the interior of the Dome, and several chapels are dedicated to various saints or icons of the Catholic tradition.
I cannot say that it was an ugly church, but I cannot say it was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen either. It was a normal church, and the interior was average.
However, I liked the pulpit a lot. The stone pulpit is another Gothic element that makes the church a bit less average and more unique. It was realized by Anton Pilgram (or at least that’s what tradition says).
Pulpits are not too common in modern churches, but before any form of electronic amplification was invented, they were useful places from which the priests could do the sermon and be heard by the people.
The figures that are reproduced on the pulpit were explained by the audio-guide, and are said to be the Doctors of the Church: St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome. What the sculptor did was not only to reproduce the four different people, but to depict them in different stages of life, as to create a sort of religious-human syllogism sculpted in stone.
Beneath the stairs there is the symbol that I was most fascinated about: the portrait of a man out of a window. The tradition says that it is a self-portrait of the sculptor, and it famous in Vienna as the Fenstergucker (lit: the gawking man of the window).
If you buy the ticket to visit the interior of the church you will not only get an audio-guide, but the ticket includes a visit to the roof and to the South Tower, as well as to the Catacombs.
I have to say that the catacombs impressed me a lot.
A chubby Austrian guy with a very thick accent guided us through a series of underground rooms and corridors where people used to be buried.
Apparently the catacombs were not only for the members of the Church and for the Royals, but also common people got to get buried there.
When the plague hit Vienna in Medieval times, there were so many dead bodies to bury that there are some underground rooms where people were simply put without being buried. Nowadays you can walk right past those rooms, and the scenery is at the same time creepy and fascinating: millions of bones fill the air the way plastic balls fill the space in a kids inflatable pool.
They are not stones, they are not walls made out of cement. They are bones, and they are so many it seems surreal.
After some more walking I had the chance to visit the Ducal Crypt that holds almost 100 bronze containers with… the organs of several members of the Habsburg dynasty.
Yes. You’re allowed to feel a bit nauseous after this.
In a tiny chamber there are about 15 or 20 sarcophagi with the embalmed remains of some Royals.
I would like to share here the story of one of the embalmed bodies, since when the guide shared it with us I didn’t know whether to feel disgusted or laugh.
People at that time used to die quite young. Look at him for example [pointing at the main sarcophagus in the room]. He was 26 when he died.
Actually, the story of his remains is quite interesting: he died in Italy, and it was summer. As you know summer is Italy is hot, and the trip back to Austria would have taken some days, therefore they needed to preserve the body in some way.
So, they man in that sarcophagus [sorry, I don’t remember who he was] was boiled in red wine, and his body was then transported back to Austria, embalmed and buried here.
Yes. Now you’re definitely allowed to say “euhhh”.
Towers and Roof
The ticket gives you access to both towers. The North Tower has an elevator, and from there you can enjoy a wonderful view of Vienna skyline and admire the roof of the Dome.
The South Tower has no elevator, and the stairs are a lot, but the view is still worth the trouble, and there is an overpriced shop Japanese tourists seem to love.
…but honestly, no view will beat what I felt in the catacombs!
For further information about St. Stephan’s Dome, visit http://www.stephansdom.at.