In the centre of Vienna, on Stephen’s Platz lies what once was considered the most important Gothic cathedral in the southeast of Central Europe during the 15th century. Vienna’s Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, also known as Stephansdom or Steffl, still is the most important religious building in Austria’s capital and is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna. It has survived through many wars and now is considered a symbol of Vienna’s freedom.
Saint Stephen’s Cathedral has a history dating back to c. 1130 AD and sits on top of cemeteries from the Ancient Roman period. By the 12th century, Vienna became an important node and the churches at the time did not satisfy the growing population’s demands, requiring that Vienna was in need of more and bigger churches. In 1137, following the Treaty of Mautern, Leopold IV, the Margrave of Austria acquired vast stretches of land outside the city with the exception of a small piece of land within the city where the new parish church would be built. This piece of land is now the site of St.Stephen’s Cathedral.
The first church to be built on this site in the year of 1137 was a Romanesque church. The church featured a Latin Cross plan. The transepts did not extend far out as usually seen in English cathedrals such as that of Ely, but were very short. The plan also featured a long chancel leading to the apse. In 1147, it was dedicated to Saint Stephen, the patron of the bishop’s cathedral in Passau. From 1230 to 1245, extensions were made on the Romanesque church. However, in 1258 a great fire destroyed the majority of the structure. The present western wall and both of the Heathen Towers withstood this tragedy. A new basilica in the Romanesque style was built on the ruins of the first church, reusing what survived from the fire.
In c. 1300, King Albert I commanded the construction of a Gothic three-naved choir in the east side of the church, where its width meets the tips of the old transepts. The middle nave is dedicated to St. Stephen and All Saints, the north nave to St.Mary whilst the south nave features the Apostles. The Austrian Habsburgs wanted to establish their sovereign status and planned to do this by making Vienna the capital city with St Stephen’s church as the court church of the Austrian sovereign princes known as the Capella regia Austriaca). In 1365, Rudolf IV managed to elevate the status of the parish church by obtaining papal affirmation for founding a chapter of canons, making St. Stephen’s a cathedral. He ordered the building of further Gothic extensions of the Albertine Choir.
The exterior of the cathedral is built out of limestone and is an amalgamation of the Romanesque and Gothic styles. The construction of south tower commenced three years after St.Stephen’s became a cathedral and became the highest point of the cathedral – reaching a height of 137 metres. This took 65 years to complete and made it the 3rd highest church in the world at that time . The north tower which has remained unfinished up to this day, was started in 1450. It was originally planned to be identical to the south tower, but this plan was cast aside after the Gothic era was coming to an end. After Gothic was replaced by Renaissance as the most popular style of the time, the north tower was finished with a height of 68 meters, half of its intended height and finalised with a Renaissance onion-shaped cupola in 1578.
The western facade of the cathedral is still Romanesque in its style, featuring two hexagonal towers known as the Heidentürme, each stand at a height of 65m at each side of the facade. This name originated from the fact that these towers were constructed from the rubble of ancient Roman structures. The towers feature small windows typical of the Romanesque style. The Heathen Towers are the oldest part of the church together with the Giant’s Door. The Giant’s Door is the main entrance to the church and obtained its name from the giant mammoth thighbone that was excavated in 1443 and was hung over the doorway. The tympanum, presenting Christ Pantrocrator with two winged angles situated on either side, is partially covered by a porch. The archivolts feature carved geometric motifs instead of ornate sculptures of angels or saints as seen in French Gothic cathedrals such as in Amien. Furthermore, the doorway does not feature a lintel or jamb figures.
Behind the Heathen Towers is the Bishop’s Gate, once used by women, and the Singer Gate by men, located to the north and to the south respectively. They were both constructed in a High Gothic style and feature a decorative tympanum. The northern gate is decorated with the Dormition and Coronation of the Virgin whilst the southern gate depicts the life and conversion of Saint Paul. Both north and south towers have a doorway leading to the church.
The exterior of the cathedral features slender and refined buttresses unlike the flying buttresses seen in Amien, Reims, Beauvais and Cologne Cathedrals. Between the buttresses, the exterior walls consist of tall traceried pointed-arched windows with vertical mullions. St. Stephen’s does not feature a rose window above the main portal, but instead a large traceried window with a pointed arch. This is suggestive of English Gothic cathedrals. Typical gothic gargoyles are seen around the exterior facades of Stephansdom.
What makes the Viennese cathedral so distinctive from other Gothic cathedrals is its multi-coloured tiled roof consisting of around 230,000 glazed tiles in an interlaced diamond pattern, creating an artwork on its own. The mosaics of the roof above the choir (on the south side of the cathedral), depicts the double-headed eagle, a symbol of the Austrian empire under the rule of Habsburg family. The north side features another two single-headed eagles which carry the coats of arms of the City of Vienna and the Republic of Austria respectively. In 1945, a great fire ruined the original roof. This was restored and completed in 1950. The roof being very steep, is self-cleaning with rain and is rarely covered with snow. After the fire, the wood frames were replaced by six hundred metric tons of steel bracing. It is 111m high and rises to 60 meters in height over the nave.
Just as it is astonishing from the outside, so is Stephansdoms on the inside. The Gothic architectural style is evident in the interiors, however, it does not strictly follow the same construction and techniques found in typical French Gothic cathedrals. Moreover, Baroque style decorations have been added throughout the 17th century. The aisles are almost the same height as the 100m long and 27m high nave. The three-story elevation of the nave seen in the French cathedrals is not featured here. Light filters through the larger, traceried stained-glass windows of the arcade. The interior is decorated with carvings of sculptures and decorative elements, paintings and depictions of biblical scenes. The thick clustered columns lead the eyes upwards to the vaulting of the nave. The nave is constructed of complex web vaulting, reflecting the High Gothic style similar to that found in another German Gothic churches; that of Heilig-Hreuz-Münster at Schwäbisch Gmünd. There is a change in the vaulting in the choir, where it is constructed of a quadripartite ribbed vault.
The floors are simple, consisting of a maroon and white checkerboard patter, with no decorative elements as seen in Amiens. The floors disrupt the central axis of the church, diverting one’s eyes to the aisles, giving the illusion of a wider nave. The cathedral houses six-separate chapels: Saint Bartholomew’s, and Saint Valentine’s (which holds the sepulchre of Saint Valentine), Saint Barbara’s under the North Tower, Saint Catherine’s under the South Tower, the Chapel of the Cross in the northeast corner and Saint Eligius’s in the southeast corner.
Stephansdom’s key feature is the Gothic pulpit lies against a pillar in the middle of the nave so that the local language sermon could be better heard by the worshipers instead of in the chancel at the front of the church. Its balustrade exhibits the Four Latin Fathers of the Church: Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory and Augustine. The busts are full of emotion and personality, with their physical expressions being easy to read in order to grasp their thoughts. Each of them feature a different temperament and are in one of four different stages of life. A self-portrait of the artist Niclaes Gerhaert van Leyden. is found under the stairs, looking out of the window with his compass in hand. It was rare for the artist not to remain anonymous, marking the end of the Gothic era and transition into Renaissance, the time when artists started becoming famous. The pulpit’s railing is covered with symbolism such the lizards; animals of light, toads; animals of darkness and the “Dog of the Lord” who safeguards the sermon from their influence. Wheels with three petals representing the Trinity roll up, and wheels with four petals, represent the four seasons and life, roll down.
Another feature is the Late Gothic Organ Case made by the same artist of the puplit. Early Gothic stone figures of the Angle of the Annunciation and that of Our Lady the Protectress are found in the Women’s Choir.
The altars are a principal focus of any church. St. Stepen’s has eighteen in the nave and the central apse. In addition, there is on in each of the six chapels. Only two survived out of the three popular altars after World War II; the Wiener Neustädter Altar and the High Altar. The Wiener Neustädter Altar is located at the head of the northern apse. Frederick III, whose tomb lies in the opposite side of the cathedral, instructed it in 1447. The altar holds two triptychs, the one on top being four times taller than the one below it. The Gothic grate of the shrine above the altar is disclosed when the lower panels are opened. The High Altar was created in the Baroque style in the 1640s and features figures of Saints such that of St. Sebastian and St. Leopard with a statue of St. Mary looking over them.
The construction of this cathedral took centuries to complete, and is still being renovated up to this day. It features an amalgamation of styles; Romanesque , majority of it in the Gothic style, and Baroque decoration in the interiors. This shows how much architecture evolves with time. The Habsburgs successfully managed to create a legacy out of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral as it was a renowned gothic cathedral in Central Europe at that time due to it’s uniqueness and is one of the most famous attractions in Austria today.