Where Christmas Eagles Dare

Pairs of eagles watch from high points all around the large, cosmopolitan city of Vienna, Austria. But nowhere are they more impressive than near the top of the soaring southern tower of Stephansdom, St. Stephen's Cathedral.

Could there be a better time to gaze upon this pair, and venture inside the sanctuary below, than Dec. 26, feast of St. Stephen — the Church's first martyr? (See Acts 6:5-7:60.)

Twin eagles, you see, form the crest of the Hapsburg dynasty. A close-up of the finial bears Emperor Francis Joseph's motto, Viribus Unitis (United with all one's might).

But the crest is not the very pinnacle of the cathedral. For rising above the symbol of worldly power is the symbol of God's overpowering love: the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Stephansdom, in the heart of the historic area of Vienna, is a world unto itself. A large, paved pedestrian area in front is a reminder that the structure resides in the world while transcending it. Here coachmen offer rides, musicians play for coins and beggars ask for alms. This hustle and bustle fades to silence as you enter through the Giant's Portal, which dates to 1230. Inside, the Church's history in Austria unfolds in the art, architecture and sculpture of Stephansdom.

Austria has been a Catholic country for virtually all of its history. Vienna, the farthest eastern portion of current Austrian boundaries, was a critical outpost for the Holy Roman Empire. Throughout the Turkish-Christian battles of the Middle Ages, Steffl, the south tower of Stephansdom, was used as a monitoring spot to watch for marauders coming across the hills or up the Danube River. During the second siege in 1683, cannonballs pummeled the walls of Steffl and the southern nave. The marks can still be seen in the masonry. On Sept. 12, 1683, the military chaplain held Mass in the cathedral. The battle fought later that day finally freed the city from its siege.

In 1711, to commemorate this victory, the Pummerin (Boomer), a bell cast from the captured Turkish cannons, was placed in Steffl's bell tower.

Stephansdom was the site, too, of the re-birth of an independent Austria after World War II. Skirmishes between retreating Germans and advancing Russians caused a fire that destroyed nearly half the building, including beams that supported the Pummerin, causing the famous bell to come crashing down.

Through the devotion of Austrians, the completely renovated Stephansdom was reinaugurated on April 26, 1952. A new Pummerin, cast from the shards of the original, tolled throughout the solemn inauguration and continues its unique “song” today from its current location in the belfry of the north tower.

Artifacts of Antiquity

The cathedral is a pleasingly eclectic mix of eras and themes. It's got a Gothic roof, Baroque altar pieces and contemporary stained glass. And why not? Stephansdom is a perpetual work in progress, of sorts. Although the current building's footprint dates to the early 1300s, there is evidence of a church on this site around 1137. Excavations have unearthed fragments of Roman buildings, including a tombstone and early pagan sculptures.

The three-naved Gothic structure of the sanctuary is banked with pillar statues that are a veritable “who's who” of medieval devotion to saints. Completed between 1446 and 1465, these pillars tell the story of the life and death of Jesus and his saints in clear fashion to a once-predominately illiterate congregation.

A total of 95 columns support the Gothic roof, each with its own carved statue of saints, such as the Blessed Mother, John the Baptist and Christopher, as well as saints to whom Austrians have a particular devotion: Urban, Elizabeth of Thuringen, Morandus and Severin. Particularly beautiful are the three statues dedicated to Mary as the “Protective-Mantle Madonna” with her veil shielding her people.

Were it not a great cathedral, Stephansdom would be recognized as an important art museum. There are 15 side altars, dedicated to Our Lady and various saints, and each contains priceless works of art. The most eye-catching is the Weiner Neustadt altar. Dating to 1447, and placed here in 1883, is a four-winged, transformable altar piece. This triptych shows scenes from Mary's life, the Passion of Our Lord, and, when the altar is completely closed, 72 saints, including St. Florian and St. Stephen.

Originally created for a Cistercian monastery near Vienna, this triptych is a memorable, emotionally charged piece of art, with beautifully carved figures and settings. Different parts of the altar are opened or closed, depending on the liturgical season.

Schönborn's Seat

Similarly unique features abound on and around the exterior. The roof is covered with 230,000 multi-colored, glazed roof tiles, reproductions of the originals. Ten colors create the famous zigzag wave, which is bisected by a band of diamond; this pattern is said to be a replica of a Saracen carpet.

The north tower, stubby in height when viewed from Steffl, was originally designed to be a twin to the south tower. With the cornerstone laid by Emperor Friedrich III in 1450, the tower reached its present height in 1511. At that time, due to economic and social tensions in the wake of the Turkish threat and religious disorders, the decision was made to stop building. The cupola, as seen today, capped the “stump tower” in 1578. The Pummerin bell was placed here in 1957.

The exterior has its share of statues and carvings of sacred art, as well. From the 15th century, the Capistran Chancel stands next to the entrance to the catacombs. Here, St. John of Capistrano preached his sermons as an appointee of Emperor Friedrich III. The chancel has a Baroque addition from 1738, an addition created by the Franciscans showing the triumphant St. John of Capistrano trampling on a defeated Turkish invader.

The Gothic portals are carved with scenes of St. Paul's life, the death and coronation of Mary and the Four Evangelists. The carvings on the Giant's Portal, the main entry to the sanctuary, are the oldest and most distinctive of all. The tympanum shows Christ as ruler of the world, enthroned on a rainbow, his hand raised in blessing.

Far from being a relic of history, today's Stephansdom is a living, vibrant parish, the archdiocesan seat of Vienna. Masses are celebrated throughout the day, confessors are available and there's adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

And, of course, Stephansdom is the official seat of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and primary editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

St. Stephen must be pleased.

Mary C. Gildersleeve writes from

Greenville, South Carolina.

Planning Your Visit

In addition to Mass and religious observances, Stephansdom plays host to music concerts and art exhibits throughout the year. Also, catacomb tours, rides up Steffl and the north tower, and guided tours of the cathedral are available throughout the day — check in the gift shop for further information. Visit stephansdom.at or st.stephan.at on the Internet, using Google.com or Altavista.com to translate the pages into English.

Getting There

Stephansdom is in the heart of the historic area of Vienna. By car, follow the signs to the city center and park at one of the many indoor parking garages. By subway, use either the U1 or the U3 line, getting off at “Stephansplatz.” An escalator will deliver you to the steps of the cathedral.