There are many reasons to visit St. Stephen’s, Vienna’s iconic cathedral. The city’s geographical position assured the cathedral would have an important place in the cultural and religious history of Europe.
Not every church in Christendom so wholeheartedly invites pilgrims to simply wait outside in its plaza in joyful contemplation. But St. Stephen’s Cathedral is certainly one of them. It is a delightful, sometimes unnerving, pastiche of Gothic, Baroque and Romanesque styles, incongruous architectural styles that, for some unknown aesthetic, or possibly spiritual, reason, produce a surprisingly pleasant and even whimsical balance.
Listening to the 23 bells of St. Stephen’s was a mixed pleasure. The sounds ranged from a sweet, far-off tinkling to a thunderous, bone-shaking boom that I could feel in my chest. When I heard it, my thoughts went immediately to Ludwig van Bee-thoven, who realized his own deafness was complete when he could no longer hear St. Stephen’s bells.
St. Stephen’s richly colored and ornately patterned roof strikes pilgrims even from a substantial distance. Most architects, whether designing cathedrals or condominiums, rarely worry about decorating roofs. Not so with St. Stephen’s. The building’s 361-foot-long, white, sharply steep roof is covered by 230,000 glazed tiles that form several mosaics, including a double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Habsburg dynastic empire, and the coats of arms of the City of Vienna and the Republic of Austria.
Among the cathedral’s many points of interest are St. Valentine’s relics and the Fenstergucker (German: “window gawker”), a whimsical stone self-portrait of an unknown sculptor.
But my main reason for going there was to pray before the famed weeping Mariapócs icon, known in German as Die Pötscher Madonna.
Saved From Nazis
Vienna’s beloved church towers over surrounding buildings at 445 feet and is affectionately known among the Viennese as “Steffl,” a nickname for “Stephen.” The church is dedicated to St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr (Acts 6:5-8:2). Whereas most traditional churches face east, this building is oriented towards where the sun rises on his feast day (Dec. 26).
The magnificent edifice is actually the cathedral’s third incarnation, as the previous two buildings were destroyed by fire over the centuries. St. Stephen’s was founded in 1137 and solemnly dedicated in 1147, even though it was only partially constructed at that point. Major reconstruction and expansion lasted until 1511.
Every April 23, the anniversary of the second reconstruction and reconsecration of the church (in 1263), the north tower’s otherwise silent St. Mary’s bell, colloquially referred to as Pummerin (German: “Boomer”), is rung for three minutes. At more than 44,000 pounds, it is the largest bell in Austria and the second-largest swinging bell in Europe (the largest is St. Petersglocke in Cologne Cathedral).
Even Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an important relationship with Stephansdom, as the Viennese call the church. He had been appointed an adjunct music director of the cathedral shortly before his untimely death. This was his parish church, and he and his wife were married here. In fact, two of his children were baptized here, and this was where his funeral took place.
St. Stephen’s was scheduled for destruction at the end of World War II by Nazi City Commandant Sepp Dietrich. When the Nazis were routed from the city by advancing Allied troops, Dietrich ordered his troops to “fire a hundred shells and leave it in just debris and ashes.” But Capt. Gerhard Klinkicht disregarded the orders and saved the cathedral.
The cathedral’s two Roman towers, or Heidentürme, are 215 feet tall. The name refers to the fact that they were constructed from the rubble of older structures built by the ancient Romans.
The church’s immense entrance is named Riesentor (the Giant’s Door.) The name refers to the mastodon bone that once hung over it. The tympanum above the door depicts Christ Pantocrator (Greek: “Ruler of All”) flanked by a brace of angels.
Inside, one is struck by the vast and truly inspiring space. Despite the shuffling of pilgrims’ feet, St. Stephen’s offers a beautifully peaceful respite, especially in front of the Mariapócs icon of the Virgin and Child. It depicts Mary pointing to Jesus as if saying “He is the way,” while Christ is depicted holding a three-stemmed rose symbolizing the Trinity. Laszlo Csigri commissioned Istvan Papp to paint the icon in thankfulness of Csigri’s release as a prisoner of the invading Turks. The icon was later donated to a small church in Pócs (pronounced “poach”), Hungary.
On Nov. 4, 1696, the faithful who were attending Mass in the tiny church witnessed the icon weeping. The miracle happened a second time on Dec. 8 of the same year. The village subsequently changed its name to Mariapócs.
Emperor Leopold I, upon hearing of the miracle, requested that the icon be transferred to Vienna and exhibited inside St. Stephen’s, where it immediately attracted attention and evoked many prayers from the faithful. Those included prayers for protection against the invading Turks, who were successfully stopped in 1697.
Though the icon hasn’t shed tears since it was installed in the cathedral, many miracles have been attributed to it, including Prince Eugene of Savoy’s victory over the Turks at Zenta a few weeks after the icon was brought to St. Stephen’s.
The magnificent Baroque high altar took seven years to build (1641-1647) and was designed by Tobias Pock using marble from Tyrol, Poland and Styria. The frieze depicts the stoning of St. Stephen and is framed by figures of Sts. Sebastian, Leopold, Rochus and Florian. A statue of the Blessed Virgin directs the viewer to a depiction of heaven wherein Christ beckons to St. Stephen to join him.
The cathedral’s pulpit is a beautiful example of Gothic sculpture and was designed by Niclaes Gerhaert van Leyden. The pulpit gives the impression of a stone flower with four petals. On each petal is a doctor of the Church (Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great). The handrail of the stairway leading from ground level to the pulpit is decorated with lizards and toads biting each other, symbolizing the eternal struggle between good and evil. A little stone puppy looks down on the homilist protecting him from evil influences and intruders. It is from this pulpit that St. John Capistrano preached about a crusade in 1454 to hold back Muslim invaders.
There are several chapels in St. Stephen’s, including St. Katherine’s at the base of the south tower, which serves as a baptismal chapel. The 14-sided baptismal font was completed in 1481 and depicts Christ, his apostles and St. Stephen. St. Valentine’s relics are stored in a chapel dedicated to that saint.
St. Stephen’s is a jewel in the Church’s crown and offers a magnificent respite for the weary pilgrim. Of all of the stops on my pilgrimage, this sacred site offered me a remarkable insight into Christendom’s history. The cathedral, like the Church herself, welcomes everyone into its gentle, peaceful embrace.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
1010 Vienna, Austria
011-43 (513) 76-48
Planning Your Visit
Vienna has a temperate continental climate affected by its alpine altitude. It has warm, sunny summers and cold winters that can produce a great deal of snow. Thunderstorms are frequent during the summer, and snowfall is common in winter. Spring, autumn and the beginning of summer are perhaps the best times to travel to Vienna.
Mass on Sundays and public holidays is at 10:15 a.m. In July and August, it’s at 9:30 a.m.
Feast day Masses are at 11 a.m. on Dec. 26.
Subway lines U1 and U3 both go to Stephansplatz.