Episode 309 – The Two Towers

No, all you fellow Lord of the Rings nerds out there, not those two towers. I’m talking about the south and north towers of St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church in Vienna, and our outing today going up each of them.

Looking up at the soaring South Tower from Stephansplatz (the cathedral square)
On the North Tower side looking up at its copper dome. The South Tower is clearly visible on the opposite side of the cathedral.

After its ‘crowning’ with a domed cap and the imperial double eagle, the “unfinished” North Tower, at 68.3 metres (224 ft) tall also became known as the Eagle Tower. Of course there is a legend about the master builder Hans Puchsbaum explaining why the tower was never completed, and of course it involves the devil, but the reality is that when construction stopped around 1511 AD building materials were more urgently needed for city fortifications against attacks by the Ottoman Turks. The finished South Tower is 136.4 metres (447.5 ft) tall, twice as tall as the North.

Those towers – and 343 winding stone steps with NO RAILINGS – looked quite daunting from ground level, so “I” decided that “we” couldn’t tackle them without sustenance. Off to Zanoni & Zanoni, a wonderful dessert café not far from Stephansdom, where the ice cream menu proved almost as daunting as the towers!

10 pages of desserts, and I couldn’t even show the full page widths. There was another entire page (text only, no photos) of coffees and teas.
The final choices: Ted’s Viennese coffee (whipped cream mandatory) and Krokant Becher (“Brittle Mug” consisting of hazelnut, vanilla, cookie and nougat ice creams – that’s 4 scoops, albeit small ones – plus brittle, caramel sauce and whipped cream). My Heildelbeercoup (“Blueberry Cup” with it’s own 4 scoops of ice cream: lemon, blueberry, strawberry, and chocolate flake, plus fresh blueberries, blueberry compote, and … yes… whipped cream.) Those dishes on the right are not really the same size as the coffee – they’re at least 6 times as big.

After a lovely time eating and people watching we waddled over to the cathedral to buy our all-inclusive tickets, which include the use of a handset for a self-guided audio tour of the main floor, an elevator ride to the top of the North Tower, access to the 343 stairs leading to the Watchmen’s Chamber just over half way up the South Tower, and a guided tour of the catacombs (which we missed because we ran out of time).

We started with the cathedral tour, which explained much of the building’s history as well as its architectural highlights. Stephansdom History. Ted took lots of pictures of the Stephansdom exterior on our previous visits to Vienna, so today’s photos are more about interior features that caught our eye.

Entering on the south side of the narthex, the vast size of the cathedral was emphasized by the normal sized chairs set up in readiness for an evening concert.
In the baptismal chapel, we were wowed by the marble font dating to 1481 that weighs several tons. The base has carvings of the 4 evangelists, the font itself has 14 statues (the apostles, St. Stephen, and Christ), and the wooden canopy above the font depicts John baptizing Jesus.
Emperor Friedrich III was buried in an impressive marble sarcophagus that takes up as much space as a normal chapel. Because it is on such a high pedestal, there is a picture of the lid (left) on which the Emperor lies in repose – there is no way to actually see it.
In the octagonal Friedrich chapel, the stained glass windows included the Tirolean crest. The hand-done lacework on the left is a new addition until the end of 2022: a Corona Rose created by Slovenian artist Eva Petriç and craftswomen in her Idrina workshop. The thousands of hand-tied knots represent the permanent connection of all people in times of suffering; the rose is a symbol of life’s enduring beauty despite thorns.

Moving toward the centre (west wall) of the cathedral, the next thing we saw was the high altar, flanked by incredible stained glass windows.

Zooming in, Ted captured the unique Austrian stained glass work which uses small pieces of glass within each larger shape.

Having just seen the exhibits of Mediaeval religious art, including magnificent winged altars, at the Belvedere, I was immediately drawn to the incredible Wiener Neustädter Altar at the northeast of the cathedral. This 15th century altar didn’t start out here – it was moved around to several monasteries and churches after being commissioned by Emperor Friedrich III, and was eventually bought by St. Stephens in 1885. It seems somehow fitting that it ended up in the same place where the emperor rests.

When the lower portion is open, as it was today, the side panels show scenes related to Jesus’ birth. Closed, they depict the Passion. The 8 “doors” in the centre are only opened on high holy days.

Despite all the ornate trappings in the church, sometimes the simpler ones are just as eye-catching.

The inscription below these 3 figures (the Virgin, the Kaiser Leopold I and Pope Innocent XI) explains that all the cathedral’s proud figures in stone protected the church through the Ottoman wars and all others, until only these three survived the most terrible war of all. As a result, the inscription continues, people should continue to pray to the Virgin, who endured.
Left top & bottom: a 14th century sculpture of Mary & Child. You can almost see the stain left behind by its original colours. Apparently it is one of the most visited icons in the cathedral, despite being one of the plainest. Right top two: one of several vertical marble tombs in the walls of the cathedral. Second from bottom right: Saint Sebastian. Bottom right: detail from the base of the “Pilgrim’s Pulpit” showing Hieronymus.
In the base of the pulpit, the stonemason who created it added himself, looking out a “window” while holding a chisel, with his guild mark on the shield above him, and sporting the long hair that identified him as a freemason.
There’s something about Mediaeval artists literally inserting themselves into their work. Anton Pilgram was the craftsman who created the gorgeous tulip-shaped gallery for one of the church’s early organs (he also became the chief architect during his time working on the cathedral). He carved himself into the gallery’s base looking as if he is supporting its weight on his shoulders.

We’re always fascinated by the huge pipe organs in European churches. The Stephansdom has had several since the first one was installed in the 14th century. The most recent one was built in 1960, after its predecessor was destroyed in 1945’s fire, and refurbished in 1991. We were able to see the smaller organ up close – the other is in a high gallery.

The Stephansdom is impressive, but it hasn’t knocked Passau’s St. Stephen’s off the top of my list of favourite churches. While they’re completely different (Passau’s is a baroque Dom, and relatively new at 1688 AD), it’s Passau’s cathedral that continues to inspire me.

Having done our ground floor walkabout, it was time to turn in our audio guide and head for the easy tower ascension: the one with the little cylindrical elevator.

On the platform of the North Tower, we could admire the largest bell in Austria, the ‘Pummerin’. This is not the original, though, which was cast by Johann Achammer in 1711 from melted down Turkish cannons. That bell was raised in the South Tower and rung for the first time on 26 January 1712. It was destroyed in the fire of April 1945 that resulted when flying sparks from burning (bombed) houses in the vicinity caused a fire in the Gothic wooden roof truss. The new ‘Pummerin’ weighing 21,100 kg (46,517 lbs) was cast in 1951 in St. Florian Austria and has hung in the north tower since October 1957.

That 23 U.S. ton (think about it!) bell has a diameter of 3.14 m (10 ft 4 in) and strikes a “C” note. The inscription on the bell (in Latin) reads: RESTORED TO THEODORE CARDINAL PIZZE HENRICO GLEISSNER CAROLO, OFFICIALLY DEDICATED TO THE QUEEN OF AUSTRIA AS HER MIGHTY PRAYER FOR PEACE IN FREEDOM. “Queen of Austria” in this case refers to the Virgin Mary.

From the outdoor gallery at the level of the Pummerin, we got a close-up look at the cathedral’s tile roof. The pattern (exclusive of the Imperial eagle) is apparently based on a Saracen carpet design, and reminded me of the roof of the Matthias Church at Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest. There are 230,000 tiles in all.

To get to the South Tower, we had to exit the church and re-enter by a door on the south side.

There was a poster near the entrance featuring a red flag that shows the level to which tourists are allowed to climb.

We’d ascended several church towers in the past weeks, so 343 stairs were definitely do-able, but the Stephansdom could have benefited from the one-way-only traffic management we saw in Potsdam. I actually got quite sweaty with nerves doing the climb – no railings and two-way traffic on narrow spiral stone stairs had me feeling less than calm.

Once we reached the highest point accessible to tourists, we were in the Watchmen’s Chamber, from where a lookout for attacks on the city was done throughout several centuries, and from where the Viennese fire brigade monitored the city until 1956! Our reward: an amazing view in all 4 directions over the city.

Two South Tower displays: information about the Watchmen’s Chamber, and an actual glazed roof tile of the kind used on the cathedral.
Seen from the South Tower, the roof mosaics on this side feature the double-headed eagle, symbol of the Austrian empire under the rule of the Habsburgs.

We sat in the chamber for a while, enjoying the views and the breeze at that altitude, but eventually I had to face the descent to ground level. I was REALLY tempted to reward myself with a large Aperol spritz, but instead we headed home to a light supper of omelettes and the sounds of our neighbourhood park.

Just two days left in Vienna. Time really does fly.

9 comments

  1. What an amazing church! We’re tempted to attend the evening concert? That would have been a nice way to complete the visit!

    Al

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I know that in Germany you expressed appreciation at some point for the degree to which Germany has accepted responsibility for the Holocaust and other war crimes — teaching students, erecting monuments and taking care to explain less PC monuments left intact if they might raise questions, among other things. Do you have any sense that Austria has done anything to acknowledge their culpability? I lived there 1976-77 as a student and found the country very shut down, super conservative, very Catholic and rather old — though I loved the art, music, theatre, architecture (at least once the sun came out) and pastries. Does it have a younger vibe now? Of course I’m older so I might not be as sensitive to it having an old population, but I’d be even more sensitive to any expression of neo-Nazi sentiments. I’m so looking forward to seeing it again after nearly 50 years!

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    • Definitely a younger vibe, and of course much more multicultural, although there has always been a Turkish connection. We’ve seen no evidence of neo-Nazi sympathies at all, but also no evidence of WWII culpability. On the contrary, what I have noticed are numerous memorials that reinforce Austria as one of the victims of the Nazi regime, and many references to its hard-won independence.

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  3. Rose,
    Really enjoying your blog on your Germany and Austria trip. Followed you on the WC and thoroughly enjoyed your postings. I do have a question for you concerning the WC. Did Viking supply everyone with a world map so you could track the cruise. I believe they did this for the 20/21 cruise and am hopeful they will do it for 22/23 cruise which we are on.
    Thanks again
    Rick Buddrus
    Buddrus1@gmail.com

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