St. Stephen’s Cathedral, or Stephansdom, has survived many wars and has become the symbol of freedom for the Viennese people. The edifice constructed in the Gothic style has been built in 1147, but the tile roof, shaped as a diamond, has been added much later, in 1952.
The cathedral’s uniqueness is conveyed by the multitude of architectural elements comprised within the edifice: the arches, the alters, the painting, as well as the towers were all designated with a specific purpose in mind and they have a story to tell the beholder.
The bell of the cathedral is one of the largest ones in the world and it has been forged out of the iron of a cannon which had been taken from the Turks in 1683. The bell tolls each year on New Year’s Eve, announcing the townsmen of the beginning of a new year.
The cathedral had been destroyed several times by fire but it had been reconstructed each time. The Second World Conflagration left its imprint on the cathedral, but even so, the edifice managed to evade a terrible fate, that of being completely destroyed by the German troupes who passed by it on their way back to Germany. The commandment stationed in town gave the order to the captain of the German soldiers to open fire on the cathedral and destroy it to the ground. But Captain Gerhard Klinkicht did not obey this order.
But while the edifice managed to remain untouched for the time being, it was however severely damaged in 1945 when fire was opened in the vicinity of the cathedral as the Russian army invaded the town. The result was that the fires, which were unintentionally directed towards the cathedral, caused the roof to fall to the ground.
There were no real damages caused to the interior in as much that the majority of the artwork present within the cathedral managed to remain intact. The restoration work began almost immediately, but while the cathedral was partially open for visitation in 1948, it was finally restored in its entirety in 1952.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral measures 107 m in length, 40 m in width and 136 m in height. In time, the coloration of the edifice was ruined due to pollution, transforming the white edifice into a grim looking construction. But the restoration work conducted most recently gave the cathedral its original color.
One of the most important elements of the cathedral is the multi-colored roof because it is extensively, but tastefully decorated. The surface of the roof measures 111 m and it is covered with an impressive number of glazed tiles. On the southern part, the tiles are arranged in such a way that they constitute a mosaic representation of the emblem of the Habsburg Empire (the double-headed eagle).
The roof is so abruptly constructed that it is not necessary for it to undergo a periodic cleaning process made by men. The rain does this job perfectly. More so, in the cold season, there are rare deposits of snow on the roof.
The main section of the cathedral alone consists of 18 altars, with others being located in different parts of the edifice. Probably the most famous ones are the High Altar and the Wiener Neustadt Altar. The first one was constructed over a period of seven years (1641-1647) during the first restoration work conducted in which the cathedral was given a Baroque look.
The altar, the work of art of Tobias Pock, was built solely out of marble. On each side of the altar, there are the representations of the following saints: St. Leopold, St. Florian, St. Sebastian and St. Rochus. But the monumental sculpture of the Virgin Mary, which is found above the altar, overcomes the other statues. The second altar, the Wiener Neustadt Altar, was constructed in 1447 by the orders of Emperor Frederick III. This is found in the northern nave, just opposite the crypt in which its founder, Frederick III, was laid to spend its eternal sleep.
One of the most representative icons in the cathedral is the one representing the Virgin Mary with Jesus Christ (the Maria Potsch Icon). This is an icon realized in the Byzantine style and it depict the Mother of Christ pointing towards her child – a gesture that signifies that Jesus represents the path we ought to take in life (to follow him), while Jesus carries a rose with three flowers – a representation of the Holy Trinity.
The story of how the icon got to St. Stephen’s Cathedral revolves around the a miracle which supposedly had occurred in 1696 – the Virgin Mary in the icon having shed real tears. Upon these incidents, the Austrian Emperor at that time, Leopold I, decided to transfer the icon from Hungary to the cathedral in discussion so as to protect it from the Muslims who had invaded the country.
The cathedral has several chapels, each with a well designated purpose. St Katherine’s Chapel is located right beneath the southern tower and it is used for the baptizing ritual. Meditations and prayers are held in St Barbara’s Chapel (to the north), whereas the St. Eligius Chapel is used solely for prayer. All the vestiges of the cathedral are deposited in St. Valentine’s Chapel, among which a fragment of the tablecloth which was used at the Last Supper can be found.
But besides the impressive altars, icons and treasures, St. Stephen’s Cathedral also hold numerous catacombs, tombs and crypts, all preserving the earthly remains of various saints and important official figures, such as the Emperor Frederick III or Prince Eugene of Savoy.
The grandeur of the edifice is really going to impress you, not to mention that you will be taken aback by the numerous works of art which adorn the cathedral.