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Imperial Crypt (Kaisergruft)

Imperial Crypt (Kaisergruft) (24)

Close to the Hofburg complex is this austere Capuchin Church which, precisely for the simplicity and austerity imposed by this order, was chosen in the 17th century by the Emperor Matthias and Empress Anna to locate an imperial crypt.

What is known as the Kaisergruft is located underneath the church, and its 10 chambers house the remains of some 149 members of the Habsburg dynasty, the first of whom were buried here in 1633.

In total the crypt houses more than 100 coffins containing the bodies of royals and aristocrats, including 12 emperors and 19 empresses. Funerals have been held in the Imperial Crypt to this day. In 1989, Zita, the last Austrian Empress, was buried here. And on the 16th of July, 2011 her eldest son, Otto Habsburg and his wife Regina also found their final resting place here.

From 1654 to 1878 the tradition regarding the funeral rites of the Habsburgs was to extract the heart of the deceased and deposit it in a silver urn that was stored in another crypt, in this case the church of the Augustinians. In some cases other organs were extracted and placed in copper urns which remained in the cathedral crypt. Following this, the solemn funeral mass was celebrated in Stephansdom and finally the body was brought to the Kapuzinerkirche mausoleum. 

Within the outer sarcophagus, the bodies are found in wooden coffins wrapped in silk. As a general rule the coffin has two locks, one key being guarded by Capuchin guard of the crypt, while the other is stored in the Schatzkammer in the Hofburg Imperial Palace, in other words, the Imperial Treasury.

The tombs tend to be very simple.

Up until 1700 the most common material used in the sarcophagus was an alloy similar to bronze and covered with lacquer. The splendid tombs of the Baroque and Rococo era were true bronze, a far more expensive material. The reformist emperor Joseph II decreed a simplification of the tombs, which were to use copper, which is both lighter and cheaper. In the years since mixtures of copper, bronze and silver have been used. Only one sarcophagus, that of the Emperor Franz Joseph I, is made of stone rather than metal.

Of all the graves, perhaps the most notable for its artistic value is that of Maria Theresa and her husband, Emperor Francis I, which is the work of Balthasar Ferdinand Moll. Another important work by Moll is the grisly tomb of Charles VI, which features a skull adorned with the crown of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

In comparison with the ornate rococo monuments by Moll, other tombs, such as that of Joseph II, are notable for their simplicity. Other sarcophagi stand out for their sentimental value, including the most visited, that of the famous Empress Sissi, where visitors generally leave flowers, often with the colours of the Hungarian flag, green, white and red. 

Franz Joseph, Sissi's husband, died in 1916 and was the last emperor to be buried in the crypt.

Over the centuries the constant humidity, variations in temperature and the influx of visitors have caused extensive damage to the coffins. However, several efforts at restoration have been made, the first in 1956, when additional space was created and the crypt was dehumidified. In addition, in 2003 the crypt was made accessible to the disabled and the tour was modified so that visitors could see the graves in chronological sequence.

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