St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) - Art

St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) - Art (18B)

Perhaps one of the most impressive elements of the exterior of the cathedral is the elaborately decorated roof covered by approximately 250,000 tiles. Today it can be seen in all its splendour, though these mosaics had to be restored, having suffered severe damage during World War II. The roof is 110 m long, 35 m wide and has a slope of 64o, which at the most extreme points reaches 80o. 

The reconstruction required 605 tons of steel from Pastorna (Czech Republic) to replace the 3000 trunks of the Gothic roof destroyed by fire in 1945. These 3000 logs would constitute a 1.5 square kilometre section of forest. Each glazed tile weighs 2.5 kilos. If we lined them up end to end they would measure 51 km. The tiles were arranged in a zigzag pattern of ten colours interrupted by bands of diamonds. On the south façade viewers will notice the Habsburg shield with the double-headed eagle, the date 1831, and the monogram F, of Francis I. The north façade, on the other hand, features the shields of the city of Vienna and the Second Republic, dating from 1950.

Highlights of the Romanesque façade include the two delimiting octagonal towers, known as the Pagan Towers, which were formerly used as lookouts. We should also point out the magnificent gates, the main one being the Romanesque Giant's Door, the lateral one the Singer Gate.

The cathedral consists of three 107-metre-long, 36-metre-wide naves. The floor consists of black and white chequered tiles.

The interior is richly decorated and contains countless works of art from throughout the centuries.  

Highlighted elements include the Gothic pulpit carved by the woodcarver Anton Pilgram in 1515. Using three blocks of sandstone, Pilgram sculpted busts of the four great Fathers of the Church, representing the four temperaments and the various stages of life. If you look from right to left you can see Saint Ambrose with mitre and book, representing assertiveness, Saint Jerome with the cardinal's hat and the book, representing the angry old man, Saint Gregory wearing the tiara and with a book and magnifying glass, representing impassive, sceptical middle-age, and Saint Augustine with mitre, book and inkwell, representing a melancholy youth deep in thought. Pilgram portrayed himself poking his head out of a window under a staircase and is nicknamed "The Window Peeper". This wonder of Gothic art is also known for its pulpit lined with toads, as the railings feature a series of toads and salamanders. The idea is that whosoever decides to step into the pulpit to preach must abandon all that is earthly and sinful and assume that which is divine in order to be able to correctly spread the word of God. Toads live in the swamps and avoid the sun, and are used to represent evil. Good is represented by lizards and snakes, which prefer sunlight. In this manner the eternal battle between Good and Evil is represented, as lizards and snakes are depicted devouring toads and other amphibians. At the top of the railing you will see a dog (symbol of good and guardian of the word of God) that frightens the other animals and prevents their advance towards the preacher. It is worth taking some time to observe the expressions on the faces and the amount of detail. 

To the left of the main altar you will see the altarpiece Wiener Neustädter, commissioned by Frederick II in 1447, with 72 polychrome images that narrate scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ. 

Another unmissable piece is the tomb of Frederick III, made of red marble between 1467 and 1513 by Niclas Gerhaert van Leyden, a spectacular Renaissance work featuring an expressive carved portrait of the emperor.

The tomb also bears an iconographic message, as the base features all kinds of grotesque figures and other beings symbolizing the sinful life of the emperor. His good works are represented in the reliefs on the walls. At the upper edge of the tomb monks, priests and bishops pray for the eternal rest of the soul of the monarch. You will also see the reclining figure of the Emperor, together with the vestments and jewellery of his coronation.

The high altar is a Baroque masterpiece in which Tobias Pock depicts the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, both Christianity's first martyr and the saint to whom the church is dedicated. Curiously, the first ray of sunlight that warms the interior of the church falls on the altar as a symbol of the "heavens opened" that, as stated in the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Stephen saw before his death. The altarpiece measures fifteen metres tall and is painted on tin plates as it was believed that fabric would not withstand the weight of the paint.

Beside the north tower is the entrance that leads to the catacombs located under the cathedral. An authentic mausoleum for bishops and royals, the catacombs house the tomb of Rudolf IV as well as fourteen other members of the Habsburg dynasty. You will also find fifty-six urns that hold the ashes of the Habsburgs buried between 1650 and the 19th century in the Imperial Crypt. The catacombs also house some original pieces from the cathedral, such as a series of gargoyles.

Very near the entrance to the catacombs, in the chapel of Santa Barbara, visitors can find "Christ with a toothache", a Gothic bust of Ecce Homo, in other words, a physical depiction of Jesus suffering after flogging or wearing the crown of thorns. This piece dates from 1420 and was previously exhibited outside the church but was replaced by a copy in 1960. The legend of the curious name began when drunks passing through the cemetery of Saint Stephen mocked the image of Christ. They said "God has a toothache" and placed a scarf around His face. At night they suffered intense toothaches that did not relent until they apologized to the image. And so it is said that whoever mocks the image will suffer toothache. The chapel is a place of prayer and meditation. On the 10th of September, 1983, an International Gothic cross from Schönkirchen Parish was incorporated and urns holding the remains of some victims cremated in Auschwitz were placed at the foot of Christ Crucified. The ceremony was attended by Pope John Paul II.

Also curious is the image of Christ Crucified on the altar located near the main entrance, which according to legend has a beard of human hair that continues to grow.

The north tower houses the largest bell in Austria, the Pummerin, which weighs in at 21,383 kilos. The bell was made in 1711 by melting the guns left behind by the Turkish troops following their withdrawal 1683. However, in 1945, when Russian troops entered Vienna the cathedral was ravaged by a fire and the bell fell to earth, shattering in to many pieces. Using the remains of this bell and others also damaged by the flames, the new bell was built in 1952. Despite its importance for the cathedral, it only rings on rare and carefully chosen occasions.

What we do hear, however, is music. Curiously, this is the cathedral where Mozart married Constanze in 1782 and also where his funeral was held in 1791.

Today, concerts are held here throughout the year, most notably Mozart's Requiem, which is performed in December in commemoration of the death of the great composer.

A word of advice, you should not leave Stephansdom without visiting the lookout at the top of the south tower. At the time when Vienna was threatened by foreign enemies such as the Turks, this lookout was used by watchmen to monitor the progress of the troops. The effort required to climb the 343 steps of the narrow spiral staircase is significant, but is rewarded by splendid views of the city.

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