Stephansdom: The Beloved Cathedral of Vienna

by Joanna Diane Caytas, appearing in Volume 28


Giant’s Gate at Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria. Photo:

Among the greatest Gothic cathedrals of Central Europe,1 Vienna’s Saint Stephen’s Cathedral features one of the most incomplete, heterogeneous architectures, but also one of the lengthiest construction periods.2 While the Northern Tower has remained unfinished at a mere 50 percent of its intended height and was topped by a Renaissance cupola that not even so much as pretended conceptual harmony or finish,3 structural additions continued throughout the Baroque era and indeed well into the twentieth century.

Original construction plans served the evolving political ambitions of the rising dukes of Austria to make their capital city a bishopric independent of the ancient diocese of Passau4 and thus increase the stature of their house within the Holy Roman Empire.5 Consecutive rulers expanded and built over the existing structures, and in the process they changed both the size and style of the church.

As a consequence, not everything here complies with the traditional characteristics of Gothic cathedrals. The basilica plan shows a lack of a distinctive transept; instead, the oversized South Tower of record height6 was added to the side in the mid-fourteenth century as a tower flanking the choir (Chorflankenturm),7 as was the unfinished North Tower with the “Eagle’s Door” marking the transverse axis of the church. Saint Stephen’s has not one but three choirs: one main and two side choirs, each culminating in an apse.8 The gable roof of the choir area is markedly lower than that of the later nave.9 It is still Romanesque in its western façade with a single portal,10 along with two hexagonal, westerly towers that barely reach beyond the extremely massive roof of the nave. This accounts for much of the height of the cathedral without finding a reflection in the internal height of its vaulting.11 These western Heathen Towers—Heidentürme—were built with stones and masonry of ancient Roman structures cannibalized during the twelfth century from ancient military fortifications. They form the oldest part of the church, together with the Giant’s Gate (Riesentor), in late Romanesque style (circa 1230).12



Section drawing showing the generous height of the side aisles. Image: A History of Architecture, Sir Banister Fletcher

The main portal is crowned by a simple tympanum partially hidden by a porch, portraying the traditional Christ in Majesty (Christos Pantokrator, an early, almost Byzantine version of the posture) in a mandorla, symbolically baring his knee, either as a secret Masonic sign or to underline his position as the biblical judge, even though there are no typical registers visible below that would portray the Last Judgment. Christ is accompanied by two winged angels in a composition distinctly reminiscent of the church of Saint Julien at Saint-Julien-de-Jonzy13 (ca. 1150). The archivolts are decorated with geometric motifs in low relief instead of ornate sculptures of angels or saints as in Amiens and other French Gothic cathedrals. The simple doorway has no lintel, no jamb figures, and no trumeau characteristic of other Gothic cathedrals such as Amiens. The Giant’s Gate derived its popular name from the giant mammoth thighbone that was unearthed much later, in 1443, during excavations for the North Tower. For decades thereafter, this bone hung over the main entrance as a supposed giant human relic “from the time before the great flood when giants walked the Earth.”14 Aside from the Giant’s Gate, which is used mostly for processional purposes, behind the Heathen Towers is the Bishop’s Gate to the north, once reserved for women, and to the south the Singer Gate for men—both in high Gothic style (ca. 1360–70). The decorative tympanum over the Bishop’s Gate features the Dormition and Coronation of the Virgin, while the Singer Gate portrays the life and conversion of Saint Paul. Two additional, more modest entries lead to the church through its South and North Towers.

Lateral aspects of this limestone structure create the appearance of façades without an accentuating median: the western frontispiece, stacked with architectural elements, lacks the vertical drive of Romanesque full-length salient buttresses or Gothic uniform horizontal divisions that would accentuate the width and stability of the cathedral. Instead of a central wheel or rose window above the main portal, Saint Stephen’s features a large traceried window with a pointed arch, reminiscent of clerestories in English Gothic cathedrals.



Nave of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, with the pulpit at the left. Photo:

Still, dominant techniques and flourishes of Gothic architectural design abound: in accordance with the canon of German Gothic hall churches, the aisles are almost the same height as the nave, disposing of the three-story internal elevation of the nave typical of French Gothic (cf. Amiens Cathedral). Instead, they let more light in through larger, traceried stained-glass windows and full-height arcades as the importance of sermons as a congregational activity increased across all transalpine parts of Europe. Complex web vaulting of the nave and aisles reflects High Gothic style similar to that of another German Gothic hall church, the Heilig-Kreuz-Münster (Holy Cross Minster) at Schwäbisch Gmünd (1317–1351), while the choir preserved the older quadripartite ribbed vaulting. An abundance of pinnacles, especially on the towers, adds to the appearance of Gothic weightlessness, while flamboyant arches as well as multiple gargoyles increase the decorative aspects of the architecture. Several sculptures and intricate decorative elements attached to the internal piers and arcades disrupt the monotony of the multitude of soaring vertical lines of the nave.

Simple stone floors in maroon and white checkerboard pattern, without decorative elements such as labyrinths or swastikas as in Amiens, disrupt the visual main axis of the church by diverting attention to the aisles and creating an illusion of increased width for the nave.

Six separate chapels form part of the cathedral: Saint Barbara’s under the North Tower, Saint Catherine’s under the South Tower, the Chapel of the Cross in the northeast corner, Saint Eligius’s in the southeast corner, Saint Bartholomew’s, and Saint Valentine’s (which holds the sepulcher of Saint Valentine).

The gable roof, now supported by six hundred metric tons of steel, is 111 meters long, rises to 60 meters in height in the nave, and is covered by 230,000 glazed tiles15 in an interwoven diamond pattern, enshrining on the south side the coat of arms of the house of Habsburg-Lorraine16 and on the north side the coats of arms of the City of Vienna and of the Republic of Austria. The roof of the cathedral is so steep that it is self-cleaning by rain and virtually never gathers snow.

Saint Stephen’s has a total of twenty-three working bells, including Austria’s largest (and Europe’s second-largest), the immensely popular Pummerin (Boomer), dedicated to the Virgin Mary, founded of three hundred Turkish cannons captured after the siege of Vienna by Sultan Mehmed IV in 1683, and decorated by a crown showing the heads of six Turks. It rings in the New Year, Christmas, Easter, All Saints Day, and only very few other major events due to its structure-endangering weight (44,380 pounds).17 One of the most popular and most innovative artworks of this cathedral is its pulpit, providing considerably greater audibility of local language sermons to the faithful delivered from a stone perch carved in late Gothic style at the top of a staircase wrapped around a pillar in the nave, rather than from the pulpit in the choir.Under the stairs, a hatted man looks out of a trompe l’oeil window under the stone handrail adorned with toads and lizards devouring one another in a struggle between good and evil. It is a famous self-portrait of its master mason, the “Fenstergucker.”18



Wiener Neustädter altar. Photo:

The principal focus of any church is, of course, its altars. Saint Stephen’s has eighteen of them in the nave and central apse along with one in each of its six chapels. Of the three most famous altars, two survived shelling and conflagration at the end of WWII: the High Altar and the Wiener Neustädter Altar.19 Crafted with marble from Poland, Styria, and Tyrol, the High Altar (1641–47) is surrounded by figurines of local saints Leopold, Florian, Sebastian, and Rochus, and crowned by a statue of the Blessed Virgin under an oil panel of Christ welcoming the ascension into heaven of Saint Stephen, the first martyr. The High Altar was part of a Baroque remodeling of the cathedral under Emperor Ferdinand III in the 1640s.



The South Tower, built between 1368 and 1433, stands 445 feet high. Its nickname is “Steffl,” a diminutive form of Stephen. Photo:

Over time, the cathedral’s exterior served also profane yet important societal purposes such as the display of the official Vienna measurements for fabric20 or coded anti-Nazi resistance graffiti.21 For many centuries, a watchman’s apartment was manned every night high in the South Tower for long-range military surveillance and fire alarms. Ernst Rüdiger Graf Starhemberg, city commander during the Second Turkish Siege of 1683, used this perch for reconnaissance of enemy movements and directed the defense effort from this unlikely “command and control center.”22 More than any other city landmark, Saint Stephen’s faithfully held immense emotional significance to the people of Vienna in their darkest hours and visibly bears the scars of 750 years of their history.