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Located among a maze of narrow streets, the outstanding beauty of Maria am Gestade will surprise the visitor as soon as they turn the corner.
The first documentation citing a temple on this site dates back to 1158, though the current church was built during the 14th century, making St. Mary's on the Bank one of the oldest buildings in the city in addition one of its unique examples of Gothic architecture.
As the name, St. Mary's on the Bank, suggests, the church is located near the Donaukanal, and it would appear that it was built in order to substitute an earlier wooden temple which, being much closer to the riverfront, was a place of worship used by the sailors on the Danube.
Although the church was used as an arsenal during Napoleon's occupation of Vienna in 1809, it retains many of its original treasures, such as the windows located behind the main altar, where visitors can see fragments of stained glass from the Middle Ages, more specifically the 14th and 15th centuries.
The church was returned to worship in 1820 by Emperor Francis I, who entrusted it to the Order of the Redemptorists. In fact, since 1862 a chapel on the right side of the nave preserves the relics of one of the leading figures of the order, Saint Clement Hofbauer.
The peculiar topography and small dimensions of the plot available for the temple forced the chief architect, Michael Knab, to arrive at an ingenious vertical solution. Hence, though the nave rises to 33 metres' high, the width of the façade is only 10 metres. Curiously, the nave does not follow the same axis as the choir.
Also noteworthy is the spectacular hexagonal bell tower, which stands as one of the most beautiful examples of Flamboyant Gothic architecture in all of Austria. It is almost 60 metres high and is topped by a spire. Damaged during the Turkish siege of the 17th century, it was restored after 1683.
Highlights of the main façade include the large window, the two pinnacles, and the canopy covering the portico, which is decorated with bas-reliefs representing Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist.
The steps of the temple are known for their bold inclination and are the reason for the church's nickname, Maria-Stiegen-Kirche, Our Lady of the Steps.
In the interior, where you will normally find more devotees than tourists, two Gothic choir altarpieces depicting the Annunciation and the Coronation of the Virgin are preserved. These alone make the visit worthwhile, though they are anonymous works dating from the 14th or 15th centuries. There is also a beautiful polychrome stone altar from the early 16th century located in one of the chapels.
The magnificent stained glass windows retain many of the original fragments.
Used by the francophone community to celebrate Mass since 1995, St. Mary's on the Bank has been traditionally linked with the city's Czech community, and Sunday Mass at 8.30 am is offered in their language.
This is a haven of peace that is a far cry from Vienna's more touristy churches, so in order to take an extensive tour of all the areas you have to arrange a visit. The trouble is worth it, however, as it will give you an opportunity to enjoy one of the jewels of Gothic architecture in Austria.
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