Discovering Karlskirche

Known but Unnoticed: An Architectural Masterpiece

On The Town | Mariam Shalikashvili | July / August 2008

I excited the U4 subway on Karlsplatz and was heading to Alphaville Video Store (do we still call them video stores?) when I noticed yet again the beautiful Baroque church topped with the massive green cuppola and two tall white stone pillars standing guard in front of it. This is the Karlskirch. And all of a sudden, I knew I needed to get inside and see it for myself.

Karlskirche (St. Charles’ Church) – one of the finest examples of the high baroque churches anywhere and a landmark in Vienna – was commissioned by the Emperor Karl VI to the architect Johann Fischer von Erlach in 1715. the church is named after St. Charles Borromeo – a XVI century Italian bishop who ministered to the Milanese victims of the Bubonic Plague.

Karl VI made a public promise that if the plague were lifted he would build a great church in thanks to God for Vienna’s deliverance and, as monarchs served with a divine right, the church would also glorify the power of the Habsburg emperors. The epidemic had been devastating, taking more than 8, 000 lives in 1713 alone.

The Karlskirche  took the architect a lifetime (26 years) to build, and after his death in 1723, his son Joseph Emanuel took it over and completed in 1737.

As I entered the church the sight of the imperious alter opened before my eyes; I walked around the brightly lit cathedral astonished by the beauty of the allegorical wall paintings conveying hope, charity, faith; I could sense the cold, glittering brown marble floor under my feet and was swept away by the exquisiteness of towering ceiling with gilded angels in white and navy blue shades.

Following the story of the murals, I came across an elevator and learned that I could ride up to the top of the dome, that would allow me to take a closer look at Michael Rottmayer’s frescos. If I was ready to face the stairs, I could even get to the very top of the church. But while I knew I was missing an undoubtedly stunning view,  I am scared of heights, and declined.

Gradually people began to gather in the cathedral, suggesting it was the lunch time, and I started going towards the exit. But one more thing caught my eye – the massive four-manual organ with pipes stretching all the way to the ceiling and reaching back through the wall, behind the tribune. The one disappointment was the scaffolding, coving much of the ornamentation, as several parts of the church were being restored. But I knew it was temporary and I could come here another time when the works would be finished.

It was only when I was again outside, in the brilliant sunshine, that I noticed the bas reliefs on the two columns in front; From passersby I learned that they illustrate the life of St. Charles Borromeo but also the Trials of Hercules, understood to signify the rights of the Habsburgs to their lost Spanish territories.

I turned away, and walked down to the circular lily pond in the plaza below the church stairs. I took a seat on the rim and looked back at the building, astonished again by my discovery – by its extraordinary beauty, and a little ashamed at how could I have lived in this city for so long and never really noticed it before.



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