St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, The current Romanesque and Gothic form of the cathedral, seen today in the Stephansplatz, was largely initiated by Duke Rudolf IV (1339–1365) and stands on the ruins of two earlier churches, the first a parish church consecrated in 1147. The most important religious building in Austria's capital, St. Stephen's Cathedral has borne witness to many important events in that nation's history and has, with its multi-coloured tile roof, become one of the city's most recognizable symbols. By the middle of the 12th century, Vienna had become an important center of German civilisation in eastern Europe, and the four existing churches, including only one parish church, no longer met the town's religious needs. Excavations for a heating system in 2000 revealed graves 2.5 meters below the surface, which were carbon-dated to the 4th century indicating a church from that era was present from ancient times. The church was dedicated to St. Stephen, who was also the patron of the bishop's cathedral in Passau, and was oriented toward the sunrise on his feast day of 26 December, as the position stood in the year that construction began.
We first encountered Stephansdom at night, a mirage of loveliness lit up in the darkened plaza. Lights are projected on the cathedral each night, some of them colored as you can see from the pictures. Inside, it had a Gothic magic with only a very few lights and many candles. The ornate interior seemed to go forever into the semidarkness.
Founded in 1137 following the Treaty of Mautern, the partially constructed Romanesque church was solemnly dedicated in 1147 to Saint Stephen in the presence of Conrad III of Germany, Bishop Otto of Freising, and other German nobles who were about to embark on the Second Crusade. Although the first structure was completed in 1160, major reconstruction and expansion lasted until 1511. As a result, the eastern facade is Romanesque with the two Roman Towers, or Heidentürme, that each stand at approximately 65 meters (215 ft) tall, while the building behind is very Gothic. The name for the towers derives from the fact that they were constructed from the rubble of old structures built by the Romans (German Heiden meaning heathens or pagans) during their occupation of the area. Square at the base and octagonal above the roofline, the Heidentürme originally housed bells; those in the south tower were lost during World War II, but the north tower remains an operational bell tower. The Roman Towers, together with the Giant's Door, are the oldest parts of the church. Instead of the usual transepts there are two towers half way down the building. The north tower was originally intended to mirror the south tower, but the design proved too ambitious, considering the era of Gothic cathedrals was nearing its end, and construction was halted in 1511. In 1578 the north “tower-stump” was augmented with a Renaissance cap, nicknamed the “water tower top” by the Viennese.
The most famous feature of St. Stephen's Cathedral is its ornately patterned, richly colored roof, 111 meters (361 ft) long, and covered by 230,000 glazed tiles. Above the choir on the north side of the building the tiles form a mosaic of the double-headed eagle that is symbolic of the empire ruled from Vienna by the Habsburg dynasty. On the south side, the coats of arms of the City of Vienna and of the Republic of Austria are depicted.
The main entrance to the church is named the Giant's Door, or Riesentor, referring to the thighbone of a mastodon that hung over it for decades after being unearthed in 1443 while digging the foundations for the north tower.
Next to the entrace to the catacombs is the Capistran Chancel, the pulpit from which St. John Capistrano and Hungarian general John Hunyadi preached a crusade in 1456 to hold back Muslim invasions of Christian Europe. The 18th century Baroque statue shows St. Francis under an extravagant sunburst, trampling on a beaten Turk. This was the original cathedral's main pulpit inside until it was replaced by Niclaes Gerhaert van Leyden's pulpit in 1515.
The first focal point of any visitor is the distant High Altar, built over seven years from 1641 to 1647 as part of the first refurbishment of the cathedral in the baroque style. The altar was built by Tobias Pock at the direction of Vienna's Bishop Philipp Friedrich Graf Breuner with marble from Poland, Styria and Tyrol. The High Altar represents the stoning of the church's patron St. Stephen. It is framed by figures of patron saints from the surrounding areas – Saints Leopold, Florian, Sebastian and Rochus – and surmounted with a statue of St. Mary which draws the beholder's eye to a glimpse of heaven where Christ waits for Stephen (the first martyr) to ascend from below.
The stone pulpit is a masterpiece of late Gothic sculpture. Long attributed to Anton Pilgram, today Niclaes Gerhaert van Leyden is thought more likely to be the carver. So that the local language sermon could be better heard by the worshipers in the days before microphones and loud speakers, the pulpit stands against a pillar out in the nave, instead of in the chancel at the front of the church.The sides of the pulpit erupt like stylized petals from the stem supporting it. On those Gothic petals are relief portraits of the four original Doctors of the Church (St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Jerome), each of them in one of four different temperaments and in one of four different stages of life. The handrail of the stairway curving its way around the pillar from ground level to the pulpit has fantastic decorations of toads and lizards biting each other, symbolizing the fight of good against evil. At the top of the stairs, a stone puppy protects the preacher from intruders. Beneath the stairs is one of the most beloved symbols of the cathedral: a stone self-portrait of the unknown sculptor gawking (German: gucken) out of a window (German: fenster) and thus famously known as the Fenstergucker.
There are 18 altars in the main part of the church, and more in the various chapels. The High Altar and the Wiener Neustadt Altar, seen above, are the most famous. The Wiener Neustädter Altar, ordered in 1447 by Emperor Freerick III, is composed of two triptychs, the upper being four times taller than the lower one. When the lower panels are opened, the Gothic grate of the former reliquary depot above the altar is revealed. On weekdays, the four panels are closed and display a drab painted scene involving 72 saints. On Sundays, the panels are opened showing gilded wooden figures depicting events in the life of the Virgin Mary. Below the triptychs is what appears to be an image of the Shroud of Turin.
They have a huge electric organ in a loft at the back of the cathedral, by Michael Kauffmann from 1960 with 125 voices and 4 manuals. They also have a pretty large mechanical choir organ by Rieger on the south side of the Cathedral at ground level with 56 voices and 4 manuals, purchased in 1991.
Saint Stephen is much brighter than many other cathedrals due to the almost transparent stained glass covering most of the windows. The windows are probably a reflection of the damage, and subsequent repairs, that occurred at the end of WWII when the roof collapsed due to fire. This really is one of the most beautiful cathedrals we have seen with a stunning Gothic interior. They also have extensive underground crypts, the treasury and an elevator up the north tower which you can get for an inclusive price of 12.5€. If you are in Vienna, Saint Stephen's Cathedral is a must see.