Today’s plans were tweaked, and officially began with lunch.
Glacis Beisl, the perfect place to start. A cosy backdoor kind of restaurant where you feel at home among locals eating locally-sourced Austrian food. The autumn chill in the air made the pumpkin soup, laced with roasted pumpkin seeds and creme fraiche, perfect. The waiter frowned when I eagerly ordered wiener schnitzel (a tourist dish, apparently) and I should have paid attention. Instead, Yes, I said. When a large dinner plate of deep-fried meat garnished with a single lemon wedge arrived, I should not, therefore, have been surprised…. A warm, crunchy apple crisp to follow, was delicious.
Having abandoned several museum plans for the day, I headed out to explore the city’s amazing churches. All of these churches are Catholic, and all in the centre of Vienna within a short walk of one another. These are just a smattering of the countless beautiful churches in Vienna. Russia’s onion domes have followed me here – the Russian Orthodox Church does not own the rights, apparently. In all the cities I’ve been to, I’ve enjoyed the dialogue that goes on between the spires, cranes and modern towers in the landscape.
Every city has its own signature, and in the Viennese churches, the motif of the monstrance was everywhere. The word jangled vaguely around in the back of my mind and I looked it up to confirm – the monstrance is a decorative, usually sunburst patterned, vessel used to carry the “host” – the communion wafer – during Catholic services.
In the Catholic church, the bread in the monstrance is believed to go through “transubstantiation,” meaning that the bread literally becomes the body of Christ, it just doesn’t change its outward appearance. This notion bothered my little atheist mind and I had to delve deeper. To demand this leap of faith from the symbolic to the “transubstantiated” demands too much from the faithful, in my mind. Aha, cries the Church, we’ve really got them hooked now, they defy what stands right before them! A modern artist, Michael Craig-Martin, created an installation for the Tate Modern which I think challenges this concept beautifully:
An Oak Tree is a conceptual art installation consisting of a glass of water, which the artist declared he had turned into “a full-grown oak tree without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” Craig-Martin is claiming that he has changed the substance but not the appearance. The text he included as part of his work states: “It’s not a symbol. I have changed the physical substance of the glass of water into that of an oak tree. I didn’t change its appearance. The actual oak tree is physically present, but in the form of a glass of water.” Ok, he’s not God. one could argue, but still….
So, if you believe the glass of water is an oak tree then I guess you can believe a cracker actually is the human body of a 2000-year-old man that looks like a cracker. This is a much further stretch than a belief in God or spirit, wouldn’t you say? In any event, the monstrance itself is beautiful and the artists decorating Viennese churches have adapted it spectacularly.
The first church I visited was Michaelerkirche, next door to the Hofburg Palace, the imperial “Winter Palace.” St. Michael’s Church, built in around 1220 AD, was built in the Romanesque style. Appropriately, just outside its door a Roman ruin was discovered and is being lovingly restored. Mozart’s Requiem was first played here; imagine hearing it here. (Mozart’s home where he wrote this on his deathbed is just a 10-minute walk down the street. Although Mozart wrote this for an anonymous patron, he would have known he himself was dying, he would have realized this was his last. His faithful student, to critical praise now, finished the Requiem after he died.) The Church is known for its catacombs which house some 4,000 former wealthy Vienna residents. Some have mummified and are displayed with open coffins. I couldn’t partake because of the service, and I’m not sure I would have had the stomach for it in any event.
My next stop was the Kapuzinerkirche (Capuchin Church, whose monks wear brown robes with cream-coloured caps and in Italy gave cappuccino its name). I headed straight for the Imperial Crypt in the dark, quiet and slightly eerie basement. More on that coming soon. Meantime, the Capuchin Church, upstairs, is beautiful, too. Built in 1632.
Built in 1603, Franziskanerkirche, also known as Church of St. Jerome, is unusual because its exterior is Renaissance but its interior Baroque. Outside the Church in the charming little square lives a statue of Moses. Nearby, on the Church is a statue of St. Jerome, who is depicted as a Middle Ages cardinal. About 1,000 tombs lie beneath the Church, many of which were torn open by French soldiers looking for jewelry and closed up again. A later monk tried to “tidy up,” attempting to re-assemble the bodies, but died of a fungal infection – and the crypt is now closed.
Stephensdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral, is the best-known landmark of Vienna and the heart of the city. Built in the Gothic style in 1359, it was intended to emphasize that Vienna was the capital of Austria. There was a police service commemorating fallen comrades this afternoon. Grotesquely, and I’m not sure why, the imperial bodies were divested of their organs before burial. The bodies lie in the tombs at the Imperial Crypt in the Kapuzinerkirche, the hearts reside in the Augustinerkirche, and the internal organs grace the Stephansdom. I didn’t see them.
Next, darned if I didn’t take a wrong turn and wind up right in front of the Sacher Cafe! What could I do?
Peterskirshe, Opus Dei’s contribution to Vienna (remember the da Vinci Code?). Built from 1701 to 1722, it holds Vienna’s first dome.
The Votive Church, on the Ring Circle near the university, serves a cosmopolitan parish. The brother of the Emperor, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, later emperor of Mexico, called on the Viennese people to commemorate the failed assassination attempt of the very young Franz Joseph I on the site of the attack “to thank for the salvation of his Majesty” and to donate to and build a new Church in Vienna. Today the church serves the Viennese, English-speaking ex-patriots and the Latin-American and African communities.
It seemed fitting to end the day at Ruprechtskirche, the city’s oldest church, for a concert of early music played on old instruments. Achingly beautiful notes, heard from achingly stiff pews, reverberated off the old walls of the 11th century and stained glass dating back to the 1200’s.