St. Stephen’s Cathedral – Germany And Austria

Of the chief objects of architecture which decorate street scenery in Vienna, there are none, to my old-fashioned eyes, more attractive and thoroughly beautiful and interesting—from a thousand associations of ideas than places of worship, and of course, among these, none stands so eminently conspicuous as the mother-church, or the cathedral, which in this place, is dedicated to St. Stephen. The spire has been long distinguished for its elegance and height. Probably these are the. most appropriate, if not the only, epithets of commendation which can be applied to it. After Strassburg and Ulm, it appears a second-rate edifice. Not but what the spire may even vie with that of the former, and the nave may be yet larger than that of the latter; but, as a whole, it is much inferior to either—even allowing for the palpable falling off in the nave of Strassburg cathedral.

The spire, or tower—for it partakes of both characters—is indeed worthy of general admiration. It is oddly situated, being almost detached—and on the south side of the building. Indeed the whole structure has a very strange, and I may add capricious, if not repulsive, appearance, as to its exterior. The western and eastern ends have nothing deserving of distinct notice or commendation. The former has a porch; which is called “the Giant’s porch;” it should rather be designated as that of the Dwarf. It has no pretensions to size or striking character of any description. Some of the oldest parts of the cathedral appear to belong to the porch of the eastern end. As you walk round the church, you can not fail to be struck with the great variety of ancient —and to an Englishman, whimsical looking mural monuments, in basso and alto relievos. Some of these are doubtless both interesting and curious.

But the spire is indeed an object deserving of particular admiration. It is next to that of Strassburg in height; being 432 feet of Vienna measurement. It may be said to begin to taper from the first stage or floor; and is distinguished for its open and sometimes intricate fretwork. About two-thirds of its height, just above the clock, and where the more slender part of the spire commences, there is a gallery or platform, to which the French quickly ascended, on their possession of Vienna, to reconnoiter the surrounding country. The very summit of the spire is bent, or inclined to the north; so much so, as to give the notion that the cap or crown will fall in a short time.

As to the period of the erection of this spire, it is supposed to have been about the middle, or latter end, of the fifteenth century. It has certainly much in common with the highly ornamental Gothic style of building in our own country, about the reign of Henry VI. The colored glazed tiles of the roof of the church are very disagreeable and unharmonizing. These colors are chiefly green, red, and blue. Indeed the whole roof is exceedingly heavy and tasteless.

I will now conduct you to the interior. On entering, from the southeast door, you observe, to the left, a small piece of white marble—which every one touches, with the finger or thumb charged with holy water, on entering or leaving the cathedral. Such have been the countless thousands of times that this piece of marble has been so touched, that, purely, from such friction, it has been worn nearly half an inch below the general surrounding surface. I have great doubts, however, if this mysterious piece of masonry be as old as the walls of the church (which may be of the fourteenth century), which they pretend to say it is.

The first view of the interior of this cathedral, seen even at the most favorable moment —which is from about three till five o’clock-is far from prepossessing. Indeed, after what I had seen at Rouen, Paris, Strassburg, Ulm, and Munich, it was a palpable disappointment. In the first place, there seems to be no grand leading feature of simplicity; add to which, darkness reigns everywhere. Yon look up, and discern no roof—not so much from its extreme height, as from the absolute want of windows. Everything not only looks dreary, but is dingy and black—from the mere dirt and dust which seem to have covered the great pillars of the nave—and especially the figures and ornaments upon it—for the last four centuries. This is the more to be regretted; as the larger pillars are highly ornamented; having human figures, of the size of life, beneath sharply pointed canopies, running up the shafts. The extreme length of the cathedral is 342 feet of Vienna measurement. The extreme width, between the tower and its opposite extremity—or the transepts—is 222 feet.

There are comparatively few chapels; only four—but many Bethstuhle or Prie-Dieus. Of the former, the chapels of Savoy and St. Eloy are the chief; but the large sacristy is more extensive than either. On my first entrance, while attentively examining the choir, I noticed—what was really a very provoking, but probably not a very uncommon sight—a maid servant deliberately using a long broom in sweeping the pavement of the high altar, at the moment when several very respectable people, of both sexes, were kneeling upon the steps, occupied in prayer. But the devotion of the people is incessant—all the day long—and in all ‘parts of the cathedral.

Meanwhile, service is going on in all parts of the cathedral. They are singing here; they are praying there; and they are preaching in a third place. But during the whole time, I never heard one single note of the organ. I remember only the other Sunday morning walking out beneath one of the brightest blue skies that ever shone upon man—and entering the cathedral about nine o’clock. A preacher was in the principal pulpit; while a tolerably numerous congregation was gathered around him. He preached, of course, in the German language, and used much action. As he became more and more animated, he necessarily became warmer, and pulled off a black cap—which, till then, he had kept upon his head; the zeal and piety of the congregation at the same time seeming to increase with the accelerated motions of the preacher.

In other more retired parts, solitary devotees were seen—silent, and absorbed in prayer. Among these, I shall not easily forget the head and the pysiognomical expression of one old man-who, having been supported by crutches, which lay by the side of him-appeared to have come for the last time -to offer his orisons to heaven. The light shone full upon his bald head and elevated countenance; which latter indicated a genuineness of piety, and benevolence of disposition, not to be soured, even by the most bitter of worldly-disappointments! It seemed as if the old man were taking leave of this life, in full confidence of the rewards which await the righteous beyond the grave.

So much for the living. A word or two now for the dead. Of course this letter alludes to the monuments of the more distinguished characters once resident in and near the metropolis. Among these, doubtless the most elaborate is that of the Emperor Frederick III.—in the florid Gothic style, surmounted y a’ tablet, filled with coat-armor, or heraldic shields. Some of the mural monuments are very curious, and among them are several of the early part of the sixteenth century—which represent the chins and even mouths of females, entirely covered by drapery; such as is even now to be seen and such as we saw on descending from the Vosges. But among these monuments—both for absolute and relative antiquity none will appear to the curious eye of an antiquary so precious as that of the head of the architect of the cathedral, whose name was Pilgram.