St. Stephen’s Cathedral, or Stephansdom, is the iconic symbol and dominating landmark of Vienna. Besides its huge proportions, the Stephansdom alongside Hofburg stands out as an edifice that features a mixture of several interesting architectural styles. Located in the centre of Vienna’s Inner Stadt (Inner city), it is practically impossible to be bypassed. And, once you find yourselves in the vicinity of the cathedral, you’ll be drawn to it as inevitably as the sun rises.
Main architectural features of the Stephansdom
Awe-inspiring from the outside, the Stephansdom is equally impressive inside. Basically, St. Stephen’s cathedral is a Gothic structure, featuring a skyscraping tower with a spire, known as Steffl, which is crowned with an eagle. The roof decoration features shapes reminiscent of the fish scales, geometric patterns and symbols of the former empire. Additional towers, varying in styles, are also attached.
The interior is embellished with carvings, paintings, reconstructions of certain biblical scenes and other appealing decoration. However, you’ll be initially carried away by the cathedral’s imposing rib vaulted ceiling, which seemingly rises into heaven. The central nave is over 100 meters long, while the ceiling is (who would say?) “only” 27 meters high. The High Altar is located at the far end of the Stephansdom. However, before you reach it, you can take a look on dozens of others, distributed throughout the chapels.
Symbolism of the exterior of the Stephansdom
Above-mentioned Steffl is the masterpiece of the Gothic style, as elaborated as striking. The name of the main tower of the Stephansdom, which is almost 137 meters high, means “little Stephen”, ironically alluding to the name of the cathedral. The eagle adorning its top, which symbolizes the Hapsburgs - a long ruling dynasty - is surmounted by a cross.
The northern halfway Gothic tower (in the photo) is crowned with the Renaissance cupola! The original intention of the builders was to create twin towers, but according to the legend, the Devil had Hans Puchsbaum (the main builder) fallen to his death. Another version involves Lutheran reformation and Turkish threat, which shifted the focus elsewhere. When the building time came again, the Renaissance style was in vogue.
Next to the tower is the Capistrano Pulpit (also in the photo), which used to be the St. Stephen’s main pulpit once. From this very spot, St. John Capistrano advocated the holy crusade against the Turks in 1456, after the fall of Christian Constantinople, when the Turks threatened Europe. The sculpture features a sunburst, casting light on St. Francis, who triumphantly tramples a fallen Turk.
Two polygonal towers flanking the main entrance to the cathedral are known as the Heathen Towers, meaning the Pagan Towers. At the very spot used to be the original Romanesque church, replaced by the present Gothic. The Pagan Towers are believed to be created by the material from the dismantled Roman structures, thus their name.
The portal is the only surviving remnant of the Romanesque church. Known as the Giant’s Doorway, because of a mammoth’s tibia that was found during the excavation process, it’s decorated with figures of animals and saints. Christ flanked by two angels is the central figure of the tympanum.
Internal decoration of the Stephansdom
Gothic architecture of the interior is combined with mostly Baroque decoration all the way from the entrance to the Baroque altar. Opulent decoration illustrates distinguished personalities of the previous centuries, including artists and religious officials among others, Christian symbols, highly elaborated pillars and walls (Gothic in this case), etc.
An outstanding biblical reconstruction depicts the birth of Christ. The Stephansdom’s highlight, though, is a Gothic pulpit. Its balustrade is decorated with the relief busts of the Four Fathers of the Church. Their physical expressions are so obvious that you can almost read their thoughts. The anonymous author’s signature, featuring the portrait carved at the base of the pillar slightly to the right, complements the masterwork.
Carved and painted left part of the choir, named Women’s Choir, features another masterpiece of the Gothic style. Take a closer look at a statue of Our Lady the Protectress.
Another notable self-portrait of the artist can be seen on the organ’s base. Maestro Anton Pilgram, a medieval architect and sculptor, is represented holding a compass and square while leaning over the sill.
The St. Stephen’s cathedral is a resting place for one of the most distinguished Austrian military personalities in history – Prince Eugene of Savoy. The mortal remains of the “Scourge of the Turks” rest in the Tirna Chapel (Kreuzkapelle). The sarcophagus is decorated with a bronze relief of Eugene combating the Turks.
Craving for more curiosities? Probably the biggest is the St. Stephen’s bell named Pummerin. The bell was initially created from 208 captured Turkish cannons of the unsuccessful 1683 siege (Second Turkish Siege of Vienna). The original bell was destroyed during the 1945 allied air raids. However, the present bell, which is located in the northern half-Gothic half-Renaissance tower, was compounded of the original’s smashed remains. Nowadays, it’s among the world’s several largest bells.
Willing to find out more?
Stephansdom offers guided tours to its visitors. The meeting spot is the pulpit at 10:30, and the tour lasts approximately 30 minutes. Besides the cathedral, the tour encompasses catacombs and main towers. The full price of the guided tour is 5.50 EUR (5.85 USD).
St. Stephen’s cathedral operates daily from 06:00 (07:00 on Sundays) until 22:00.