High mass Stephansdom

Meandering along the narrow streets of Vienna’s Innere Stadt, crowded with four- and five-storey buildings, you don‘t get any idea what’s coming. Suddenly you’re there, in the presence of Stephansdom, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with its semidetached 136-metre/ 446-foot needle of a south tower.

Die Metropolitankirche zu St. Stephan in Wien.

Die Metropolitankirche zu St. Stephan in Wien by Franz Tschischka (1786-1855), frontispiece engraving, name indistinct (Wien, C. Gerold, 1843). Hathi Trust Digital Library.

In Stephansplatz thousands are milling about, tourists, buskers, touts, drivers, pedlars, pedallers, vendors, guides, doubtless even the odd local. What a crush — in places you can barely turn around.

Google Earth’s frontal view of Stephansdom and Stephansplatz:

GoogleEarth view

The compass at the top right corner shows north at about 8 o’clock. The front faces westerly.

The Gothic edifice Stephansdom is Vienna’s Numero Uno, “the heart of Vienna, its centre,” according to In Search of Vienna: Walking Tours in the City by Henriette Mandl (Verlag Christian Brandstätter, 1995; picked it up for €6 in an English-language bookstore in the neighbourhood).

Stephansdom stands out in several ways:

one of the most important high and late Gothic buildings in Central Europe; monumental example of a southern German/Austrian staggered church; landmark of Vienna. Characteristic are the lateral position of the towers, the integration of the Romanesque western façade, the high-Gothic hall choir and the impressive steeply pitched roof covered with a decorative pattern in glazed tiles.

Stephansdom” on AEIOU culture information system Encyclopedia

What a staggered church is I haven’t yet discovered. Maybe it’s the east end with its different shaped roof — the so-called Albertine Choir of 1340.

I guess the lateral position of the towers would refer to the Gothic structures flanking the church rather than the dainty little towers sprouting out of the west façade.

You can hardly get a good idea of the shape and character of Stephansdom from any single view. Found an 1880 photo on the remarkable online Image Archive at ETH-Bibliothek Zürich:

Wien, 1 Stefanskirche, W. Kral

Noticed the effect of distance and elevation in this postcard photo of 1961:

Wien, Stefansdom

Wien, Stefansdom. Record Fel_050654-RE. Copyright ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv. Postcard. Unknown photographer. Postmarked  22.4.1961. “HDH Verlag, Wien [5045] (Verleger); Pauli & Schwesterchen, Christine Waser (Absender); Familie A. Züst (Empfänger).”

In the earlier photo the spire and towers look diminished somehow — wide-angle lens distortion? In the second photo the towers appear taller, grander, more detached.

The postcard view captures the awesome expanse of the roof, its pitch so steep down to the level of neighbouring buildings, and the spatial continuum of the main roof and the Choir roof and the various towers.

Had we gone up the south or north tower we might have seen the roof closer-up and dug those crazy patterns and look, there are little windows:

St Stephen's roof and spire

St. Stephen’s Roof and Spire by Michael Hartigan. Posted with The Majesty of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral on his Wherever It Takes blog. That picture captures the magic of the building.

West Façade

The west façade is set off by those elegant octagonal towers. Don’t recall seeing the likes of them on a church …

west side showing towers

(Borrowed from Stephansplatz / April 4th 2005. Page 22 of 47. “Photos for Schneider & Schneider Rechtsanwälte OEG by Fotostudio Franz Pfluegl.”)

But I’ve never been to Italy. There’s that distortion again; bothersome. Here’s a similar image, undistorted:

St. Stephen's Cathedral, west façade, 1230/40-1263

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, west façade, 1230/40-1263. In Vienna: Art and Architecture (Potsdam, Germany: h. f. ullmann publishing GmbH, 2013), p. 22. Scanned, with auto-tone added in PhotoShop. (The book is a steal at $26 Cdn. hardcover, shipping included, here.)

Haven’t found anything, yet, about the derivation of that graceful octagonal shape or about the placement of the towers. A search for “octagonal church towers” in Google Images turned up tons of amazing churches — the octagon was a staple of Romanesque architecture — but none remotely as ethereal as those embellishments. They are sublime.

They’re known as the Roman Towers. Why? —

The name for the towers derives from the fact that they were constructed from the rubble of old structures built by the Romans.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna in Wikipedia

Fact? … or legend? Could it rather be they are of Roman design circa 13th-14th century?

They’re also known  as Heidentürme, Heathen Towers. Parts of them date from the 12th century: “lower floors of the eastern tower [to L in the photos above] and lower parts of the wall divisions” (Stephansdom on AEIOU website). Supposedly the name derives from a temple in the vicinity before the first constructions of Stephansdom. It’s not at all clear what wall divisions refers to.

Way below is Riesentor, Giant’s Door. The story goes that a mastodon bone was found in early excavations nearby. It long hung over the door. It obviously came from the antediluvian age, when giants roamed the earth, say eight or nine thousand years ago, not too long after God created the world, so the bone was added to the dom’s relics collection, apparently. Now these fossils over here, how old are they? …

0938 door

Statuary and other relics of the original building are attached to or embedded in the austere stonework.

Other leavings point to the church’s place in the life of the city. At street level just to the left of the main entrance we find these:

0937 measure

The circle etched in the stone was a baker’s measure.  Our guidebook says:

The popular belief is that it was the standard size of a loaf of bread. Anyone suspecting a baker of cheating could check the size of the loaf he had bought against the circle on the church wall. If the baker was found guilty of selling undersize bread, he was put in a wooden cage and ducked in the Danube.

Included is a jolly picture of people ducking a baker:

dunking the baker scan lo

I mean, sheesh, couldn’t they just switch bakers?

What should turn up in a Google search? a fun toy for the little sociopath in your family:

Medieval wooden construction set from Matadorbckerschupfen.jpg
“Baker’s ducking” as in the Middle Ages – available as wooden construction set from Matador, our cooperation partner. With this special theme construction set, enthusiastic little builders can experience the Middle Ages up close. Including building instructions for 13 fully functional models.

On the Stadtmauerstaedte [Austria] website.

About the two iron bars beneath the circle o’ bread:

These are “the little ell” and “the big ell” … They were regarded as standard measurements and both bricks and cloth were brought here in case of doubt. 

On the other side of the entrance is this:

0924 05

This was, the guidebook explains,

the symbol of the Austrian Resistance Movement or, to be more exact, the symbol of the Provisory Austrian National Committee which took up contact with the governments of the approaching armies in March 1945, at which time the sign appeared on the wall of St. Stephen’s.  

… a fascinating story that is still in play, witness recent history-writing discussed elsewhere.

Inside, awww …

0936 nave   0917 aisle

L: main aisle looking east towards the altar. R: north aisle looking west towards the entrance.

map no labels map bldg sequence

L: Plan of Stefansdom. R: Growth of the cathedral — Green: Roman towers and Giant’s Door from the burned-out first church of 1137; Orange: Romanesque second church of 1263; Pink: the Gothic Albertine Choir of 1340; Blue: the Duke Rudolf IV additions of 1359, which removed the second church.

L Courtesy fcg wiener lehrerlnnen, “Stephansdom” (link downloads 24-page pdf guide in German), p. 20. R courtesy StanZegel, StephansdomBauHistorie.png.

We noticed so many astonishing decoraments …

0923 votary   0922 votary

The statuary goes way up the columns … 0932 pillar

A decidedly secular figure on the north wall caught my eye:

0919 Pilgram

His worldly mien and scientific equipment make him “a reference to the dawning of the modern age” (Vienna: Art and Architecture, 2008). The story goes that he is holding up the organ bracket, also his work:

0918 Pilgram post

And who knows but he isn’t artfully hiding some protrusion that actually does hold up the organ bracket?

He is Master Anton Pilgram, carver most notably of the church’s sandstone pulpit, “one of the great marvels of Gothic art,” the guidebook gushes.

A pulpit is of course an eminence from which one preaches sermons or makes proclamations. Look where a staircase winds up a pillar well toward the entrance on the north side of the nave …


“Stephansdom in Wien,” 2008, © by Tim Brüning. On fotocommunity. Permission sought.

Breathsucking ornate decorations frame the four so-called Doctors of the Church — founders of Catholic orthodoxy, three in the 4th century CE and one in the 6th. They are depicted in a most realistic manner:

0933 lectern

The two Doctors pictured above are St. Gregory the Great at left and St. Jerome to the right. Close-up of St. Gregory:

0 Stefansdom pulpit GregThis photo and the fourth following are by Brian J. McMorrow. Borrowed from PBase. Permission sought.

St. Gregory the pope is easily recognized by his Papal crown. Turns out there was a lot of depiction of those gentlemen going on during the time Master Pilgram was making art …

docs painted pacher bef 1500 docs painted Sacchi 1516 doctors painted

Left: Pala dei Quattro Dottori della Chiesa con Sant’Agostino e il mistero della Trinità by Michael Pacher (1435-1498). Monaco di Baviera, Alte Pinakothek, dal monastero di Novacella. On Associazione Storico-Culturale S. Agostino website. ¶ Right: Four doctors of the Church represented with attributes of the Four Evangelists: St. Augustine with an eagle, St. Gregory the Great with a bull, St. Hieronymus with an angel, St. Ambrosius with a winged lion. By Pier Francesco Sacchi (c.), 1516. Color on poplar wood,  195.6 cm./77 in. x 167.6 cm./66 in. Louvre Museum. Inscription, signature and date: PETRI FRANCISCI / SACHI DE PAPIA / OPUS 1516. WikiMedia Commons. ¶ Bottom: I quattro dottori della Chiesa, Giovenone Girolamo, XVId. C. Tempera su tavola, 140  x  100  cm. Collocazione Musei Civici, Pavia. On Atlante dell ‘arte italiana website.

Fact check: Pope Gregory the Great lived 200 years later than the other three. Long before Gregory was even a twinkle in his daddy’s eye, the other three knew each other and hung out. Oh, they’re in heaven? Why depict them as being together on earth?

Back to the pulpit … Here’s St Jerome (at left) and his other neighbour St. Ambrose … or is it St. Augustine? …

0 Stefansdom pulpit Jer Amb

I’m not sure which saintly gentleman it is because I haven’t found one reliable indicator of the identity of the figures. Jerome was usually depicted wearing a broad-brimmed hat in the in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance.

St Jerome and St Augustine (detail)

St Jerome and St Augustine (detail) by Carlo Crivelli. Oil on canvas, circa 1490. On WikiGallery.org.

But I gather there were no such hats in the 4th century CE. It’s a puzzle.

At the other end of the wraparound pulpit is the fourth Doctor of the Church, chin in hand, eyes glazed over:

Wien, Stephansdom, Detail v.d. Kanzlei

Courtesy ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv. Unknown photographer.

St. Augustine … or St. Ambrose. This carving is so impressive — an ancient personage made modern. What body language! Did I water the plants? Will it rain tonight? Did I pack too much for the trip?

A fifth figure, apparently opening a window in the pillar to have a look at the visitors, is tucked away under the pulpit, lower right:

FlickrKaren Greenhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/klg19/2558534418/This photo and the following are by Karen Green, on Flickr. Permission sought.

He is known as The Gawker (die Fenstergucker) …

FlickrKaren Greenhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/klg19/2558534418/

This is also, it is written, a portrait of the maker, Anton Pilgram. As to the pedigree of the whimsical Master Pilgram, the encyclopedic Vienna: Art and Architecture has this:

In 1511 the city appointed Anton Pilgram as master builder for the cathedral [Stephandom]. Pilgram, who was both a sculptor and an architect, was born in Brno (Brünn) in 1465, and for many years worked in southwest Germany … Pilgram’s art was based on an intensive critical appraisal of  of the late medieval workshops of of the Upper Rhine Valley, and especially the work of Niclaes Gerhaert …

But was he a Gothic artist? Pilgram’s work brought variety and intense realism to the human form. It differs, the same article asserts, “from the Gothic style of representation, which tended to idealize and to ignore individual facial characteristics.”

We see the artist turning a corner to the modern.

Whoever he is. The website encyclopedia AEIOU, quoted near the top of this article, while affirming Pilgram as maker of the organ bracket, in 1513, casts doubt on Pilgram’s identity as the pulpit carver:

The remarkable pulpit of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (around 1500), which was long considered his work, may not in fact be his, but of older origin. (“Pilgram, Anton,” AEIOU)

Neither version of events offers sources. (I’m inclined to trust the recently-published Vienna: Art and Architecture.) Recent research reports on the art of Stephansdom are in German. Rats.

The very next day …

We balked at paying extra to enter the central nave and choked at the cost of regularly scheduled musical performances at Stefansdom. A handbill announced a sung mass the following morning. Free music; free entrance to the nave. Let’s go! Thanks to the U-Bahn stop in Stephansplatz we arrived at the church door with 15 minutes to spare and squeezed into two of the few remaining seats.

Then the first of several surprises. It was the Feast of Pentecost, which Anglicans call Whitsunday. Remember? Fifty days after Easter, following the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, the gathering of believers in a room in an undisclosed location, as narrated in Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2? The “rushing mighty wind?” … the “cloven tongues like as of fire” that “sat upon each?” … the speaking “with other tongues?”

Pentecost sch of Botticelli

Pentecost. Workshop of Botticelli, circa 1495-1500. 209 x 232 cm. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. History Link 101 website.

Big surprise: the Archbishop of Vienna was celebrating mass. That would be Christoph Cardinal Schönborn. He was resplendent in red and gold — Habsburg colours! — with his crozier and mitre. A host of acolytes attended Cardinal Schönborn’s every move. Incense billowed from the censers. He had a nice cultured voice and handled the sung Latin bits well. He was very patient when his mic. cut out.

Sharing in the celebration were an orchestra and conductor, four solists and a choir. They performed Franz Schubert‘s Mass in F Major. The sequence is familiar to every Catholic: Kyrie, Gloria and Credo before the sermon, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei after. The music of that most Viennese of composers filled the vastness. Related on this blog: Homage à Schubert.

Cardinal Schönborn delivered the sermon in German, but paused to say in impeccable English, “God does not speak only German.” As I recall, his aside in English expressed the hope that newcomers might enter the spirit of the proceedings through the beauty of music. 

After the Benediction — lapsed time nearly two hours — Cardinal Schönborn with his regalia and retinue recessioned the length of the nave, making the sign of the cross right and left.

0929 cardinal s

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, centre, celebrating the Feast of Pentecost at Stephansdom, Vienna, Sunday, June 8, 2014.

A crowd of tourists pressed against the ironwork as he showed the colours.

Even to a couple of confirmed atheists the gaudy ceremonial was quite moving.

Cardinal Schönborn is a pretty interesting fellow, I discovered — a mover and shaker at the Vatican; close confidant of Pope Benedict XVI; from an aristocratic Bohemian family; a polymath; a hard-line conservative.

Oh, THAT Stephen

St. Stephen was the original, the first Christian martyr, circa 34 CE. Rich, part of a team of disciples who fed the Hellenic (Greek-speaking) poor of Jerusalem, “full of faith and power,” Stephen “did great wonders and miracles among the people.”

Acts of the Apostles 6:8 in the King James Version. University of Michigan Library digital collections.

 St Shephen Demidoff lo

St. Stephen by Carlo Crivelli, one of nine painted panels in the polyptych Demidoff Altarpiece, 1476. In the National Gallery, London. Image “Polittico del 1476, s. stefano” on Wikimedia Commons.

Called out for blasphemy, he appeared before the Sanhedrin — the court that had recently condemned Jesus — and gave account, not of himself, but of the Hebraic tradition, from Abraham to Solomon, of conversing with God. Stephen concluded with a scathing rebuke:

Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

The judges were so put out they “gnashed on him with their teeth.” Then Stephen crossed the line into blasphemy:

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

Acts of the Apostles 7:51-53, 55-56.

Guess it was a capital crime to claim to perceive God with the senses. Stephen was summarily stoned to death … (which he welcomed) …

Martyrdom of St S

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen by Lorenzo Lotto, circa 1513-16. Oil on wood, 51 x 97 cm.
Accademia Carrara di Belle Arti Bergamo. On the Web Gallery of Art.

When Good King Wenceslas of the Christmas carol looked out,/on the Feast of Stephen that means it was December 26 in 10th century CE Bohemia. In venturing out when the snow lay all about,/ deep and crisp and even to feed a starving family, he was doing the work of the sainted martyr whose feast day it was.

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

In churches of English Christendom, St. Stephen’s Day was also called Boxing Day because, it has been suggested, alms from Advent collection boxes were distributed to the parish poor. Oh, you thought it was about the boxes you return your not-so-wanted Christmas presents in?

One thought on “High mass Stephansdom

  1. Signatures on the first graphic: Wilder del., J. Hyrtl sculp.

    Thanks to this image posted here I was able to recognize the original print that was used as a model for one of the supraportas of a Bishop Palace in Tarnów in Poland. Thank you!

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