Vienna: St. Stephen’s Cathedral

In most of the European cities I’ve been to, the center of activity revolves around the parish church, or cathedral, if the city has been declared a diocese and this proves true as well in Vienna, perhaps even more so, since the main shopping and cultural area of the city is located in the Saint Stephansplatz, where the Saint Stephen Cathedral (or Stephensdom in German) is located.

Consecrated in 1147, it was hardly the oldest church in Vienna; however, recent excavations inside the cathedral revealed graves that have been carbon-dated to the 4th century, suggesting that it may have stood on an even older religious building. It was named after Saint Stephen, tthe earliest known martyr of Christianity, stoned to death on accusations of the Jewish authorities. Trivia: Saul was one of the witnesses at his death, when he still believed that he was serving God by persecuting Christians; he later converted after witnessing a bright light on his way to Damascus, converting into the saint we now know as Paul.

The building is of limestone, which over the years has been covered by soot and dust; recent restorations have brought it back to its original white. The south tower of the cathedral, called steffl by the the people. stands at 136 meters, and was used as an observation and command post for the city, and at one point even had an apartment for the watchmen.


I realized I didn’t have a full shot of the cathedral (I wanted to climb on top of one of the nearby buildings), so I grabbed this wonderful shot from my friend, Gizelle. Photo credit goes to her. 🙂

The roof of the church, on the other hand, is made of ornately designed glazed tiles, forming the Royal and Imperial double-headed eagle and the coat of arms of Vienna on one side. It’s quite steep and I’ve read that due to this, only the rain cleans it every now and then. I wonder how they built it though and how many accidents must have happened! And I can’t believe that one point, this church was in fact ordered to be razed to the ground along with the rest of the city when the Germans were retreating during World War II; thankfully, Captain Gerhard Klinkicht disobeyed orders and left the church intact.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANear the entrance to the catacombs is the church’s original pulpit, the Capistran Chancel, where St. John Capistrano preached to a crusade to fight the invading Muslims in the mid-15th century. It shows St. Francis stepping on a defeated Turk, with a sunburst above his head.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur hotel was located just a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral (to our pleasant surprise), but I didn’t get to go inside until our last day. My friends and I decided to split up (we couldn’t agree whether to go shopping or touring; my friend Leah and I chose the latter but ended in different destinations), and I as on an amazing race to tour the entire church in less than an hour. Tip: when pressed for time, avoid the guided tour and rent those headsets for a couple of euros. Both are extremely organized and I was surprised that such a well detailed and organized guide could be rented so cheaply (so I donated a couple more euros to the church’s coffers).

I was awed by the number of carvings and the fact that for an old church, it didn’t smell musty. I could tell that this church is frequented by Catholics and tourists alike, judging from the number of lit candles as well as the long row of tourist waiting to get in to tour the cathedral, or the catacombs underneath. I would have gone to see the latter but after my experience in Milan, I didn’t want to go by myself (never mind that I spied a lot of tourists going down the stairwell leading into the catacombs).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am no architecture major (though the thought did cross my mind at one point), but I have come to realize that thick posts are easily identifiable features of Gothic architecture and while this is common in many churches in Europe, St. Stephen’s is embellished by colorful statues of saints in ornately carved alcoves, albeit some of them have faded a bit.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt also boasts of a huge organ, though not that old at only a litle over half a century.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe high altar of the cathedral is perhaps the first thing that would draw a visitor, since it is right in the middle and you just can’t tear yourself away from the magnificent paintings and carvings. It shows the stoning of St. Stephen, surrounded by figures of four saints and a statue of Mary on top. And I must say the stained glass windows are also very vibrant and lovely to look at.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are many objects inside the cathedral which I found very interesting, not the least of which is this stone pulpit. I’ve seen many grand pulpits in Europe but this probably takes the cake in the way the sculptor paid attention to the tiniest detail – even the portions not easily seen by a casual observer was not spared. It shows the faces of the four doctors of the church: St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat I even found more interesting is that the rails going up the pulpit had carvings of frogs and lizards fighting each other; I later found out that this was a symbol of the fight between good and evil. At the top of the stairs, there is even a puppy to protect the preachers (how cute is that!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven the baptismal fount was TDF!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI normally find it creepy whenever I see tombs in conspicuous places inside churches, never mind that it is undoubtedly a great honor to be buried inside a church. While this one is no exception, I can’t help but agree that if I had a tomb this beautiful, I would want the whole world to see it too, which is probably what the church officials where thinking when they put Emperor Frederick III’s tomb on display, during whose reign, in 1469, Vienna was finally declared a diocese.

Such a massive tomb took 45 years to complete, beginning more than two decades prior to his death. It is made of red stone and depicts the emperor in his coronation regalia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe tomb of Prince Eugene of Savoy (I first wrote about him in my post Belvedere Castle) is also located inside the cathedral, In the Chapel of the Cross, but this is off limits to the public. The Ducal Crypt, located under the chancel of the cathedral, is also the final resting place of 72 members of the Habsburg family.

Saving the best for last, is perhaps my favorite piece in all the church – the Wiener Neustadter Altar which was originally used in the Cistercian Viktring Abbey, and later the monastery of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, until it was finally sold to the cathedral in 1885. Ordered by Emperor Frederick III, tt is just so beautiful, with the double triptych opening up to reveal gilded wooden figures of Mary. When the panels are closed (during weekdays), it shows a painting of 72 saints.

It’s a retablo and triptych all rolled into one.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are so many beautiful churches in Europe and it is getting hard to play favorites; I had always thought the Notre Dame in Paris would be the clear winner in my books but with more than ten cities and seven countries visited in the continent, I am now not so sure. Each of them have unique features that distinguish them, and make them works of art.

Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Roman Columns in Milan

Built sometime between the 4th and 5th centuries, the Basilica of San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches in Milan; even the names of the persons behind this structure have been lost, and the exact dates and purpose for building it is unknown. Regardless, it is one of the most intriguing churches I’ve been to – and definitely the least crowded. I was the only tourist!

I wasn’t able to get a nice photo of the facade because it was barricaded (no point taking photos when all I can show you are steel bars). Plus, I ran into a group of goths dressed in leather, spikes and dark lips and I hightailed out of the place after that (I fear the living more than I fear ghosts or monsters – I am a practical person after all) so all I can show you is the back, which opens up into a park previously used for, among others, public executions. Nowadays, it’s a nice hangout for exercise, picnics or just walking your dog.


Upon entering the place, I was immediately greeted by an eerie silence, darkness, and a cold draft of air. Seriously, this is the most spooky church I’ve been too, even though it’s very beautiful and solemn.

The church is quite unique in that it is a bit circular as opposed to the usual cross-shaped structure and there are many rooms and a chapel off to the side, though most are off limits. For a church that appears to me to have very few parishioners (most probably because the Duomo of Milan is just 10-15 minutes away and I spied two more churches in between the two), it is well maintained and clean, although the air feels damp.



Several of the church’s pillars are recycled – they used some of the columns from the ruins of a Roman amphitheater just outside the basilica which gives the impression that the church is much older, and contributes to its appeal. For some reason though, they used the pillars upside down so that the carved cornices are at the foot of the post instead of at the top.


As was my custom, I lit a candle and prayed for happiness, success and good health for myself and my loved ones, and, cliche as it may sound, world peace. Then I adropped a couple of euros in the donation box…

…which made one hell of a ruckus I probably woke up the entire church. Hahaha!


Anyway, probably hearing my coins, the lone caretaker (not a hunchback, thank heavens) suddenly appeared behind me. He was very nice especially when he realized I was by myself, pointing out the most interesting spots and explaining their history to me. We did have a rocky start because I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me at first – that I had to pay an entrance fee to get into the the other parts of the church. How we managed to communicate with only Italian words (he appears to speak zero English and I know just enough to get by) leaves me baffled to this day.

One of the most interesting parts of the basilica is the octagonal chapel of St. Aquilino, which has retained its original structure and can be accessed via a “pincer-shaped” entrance to the south of the main church. The chapel used terracotta ducts and the original dome (which is one of the oldest parts of the church, at 1,600 years old) is hemispherical. Inside is a succession of semi-circular and rectangular niches with Byzantine mosaics at the ceiling. Some of the mosaics are in badly worn out, and in some cases, have fallen out that y0u are left with the artist’s drawings, but nevertheless, the walls are still very pretty.


Here’s a close up of the mosaic above the first entryway. In some parts, you can clearly see that there must have been various mosaics or paintings that have each been painted over during its long existence, so I can only imagine how hard it must be to reconstruct and restore these walls.


There are various color schemes as well – this room obviously had blue for its motif.


The last room immediately before the rooms where Saint Aquilino’s remains are kept, has perhaps the most beautifully preserved mosaics in the chapel and is the third spookiest place in the church, what with all those eerie spotlights casting an ethereal glow over everrything – and yes, the only light from outside are coming from those windows.



Another mosaic close-up, this one of Jesus surrounded by the Apostles:


This one, where almost only the drawing is left, can be found in one of the alcoves on the opposite wall but I could not figure out (or research on the net) what it’s supposed to be. Can you spy that rectangular slab or marble? I saw several of them in the room and while I couldn’t find any inscription, I think these are the tombs of various members of the imperial family as it served as the imperial mausoleum when it was initially built.


 The next room is the 2nd scariest place – I was by this time, about ten meters from the only entrance/exit of the chapel and I was the only living soul in the place so my goosebumps were literally jumping off my skin. I almost turned around since I didn’t want to get close to the coffin but the caretaker was again right behind me, prodding me to move forward. He was actually starting to give me the creeps as well – less than a minutes after telling me to go into the next room, when I turned around, he was gone. Either he vanished into thin air, or he ran really fast.


Ah, but the sight inside is a marvel with its carved, painted and gilded ceiling, the fresco by Carlo Urbino behind the ark and the silver ark itself created by Carlo Garavaglia, all very exquisitely done.


I was by this point scared out of my wits and would gladly have ignored the fact that there was a flight of stairs behind the ark were it not for the caretaker who magically popped up again to hold my hand and take me to the top step of the stairs. I wanted to tell him, no, I am already fine with what I’ve seen so far, but, he wouldn’t take no for an answer.  I was so scared he would lock the gates behind me once I’ve descended though I was comforted by the fact that my friends all knew where I was, plus, my curiosity got the better of me.

And what do you know? Such a treasure! Seems that underneath the chapel is an ongoing excavation – from this photo, you can see a glimpse of the church’s foundation (or perhaps the ruin of the old complex), back from Roman times! I didn’t dare go further than this though since the cold, airless feeling was getting to me and I rushed back to the chapel and headed straight for the main church.


Seeing as I was the only tourist, the caretaker told me he would show me a room that is off-limits to the public – I could tell based on the tone of his voice and the fact that the door had a big off limits sign. Hahaha!

Inside are various religious treasure (which I didn’t photograph – I assumed that similar to Manila, taking pictures of such things are generally not allowed), and the best of all was this old baptistry – for the “ninos”and “ninas” as the caretaker put it.


I was so happy to have been given that exclusive tour I almost berated myself for being suspicious of the caretaker. Hahaha! But I was more than relieved to finally walk out of the basilica and into the direct heat of the sun (and I still can’t shake off the feeling that he was a ghost or something, or that he walked at lightning speed).

The Basilica of San Lorenzo is part of the Basilicas Park, where the Basilica of Saint Eustorgio (where the tomb of the three Magis are) and the Colonne di San Lorenzo can also be found. I didn’t get to Saint Eustorgio (I didn’t have time to visit both so I chose the one which I felt was more historically and architecturally significant) but the columns were right out front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo and cannot be missed. It is the most well-know Roman ruins in Milan, with the columns dating from the 2nd century, taken from old baths and temples.



A lot of people also gather here, with some musicians and dancers offering free entertainment during the early summer evenings, and crowds waiting perhaps for the clubs nearby to open pass the time here so it can get pretty crowded and smoky. If you’re planning to take a nice photo, I would suggest you visit early in the morning.

There are a couple of other old churches nearby but time was too short. I will write next about the Duomo, which I visited several times during our stay in Milan.