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St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) - History

St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) - History (18A)

Located in the historic centre of Vienna, the cathedral's status as the true symbol of the city is reflected in the impressive 137-metre spire, known to the Viennese as "Steffl" (short for Stefan), which is visible from almost anywhere in the city.

While the history of this gigantic temple begins in the 13th century, the oldest surviving remains date from the 12th century, more precisely from the year 1137, and testify to the Romanesque origins of the church. While it was consecrated in 1147, the church was not completed until the year 1160. And while nothing remains of the original, thanks to archaeological studies it is known that it was oriented in the same direction as today's cathedral, towards the sunrise on the 26th December, 1137, and that was 12 metres wide and 83 metres long.

Ravaged by two great fires, this basilica was rebuilt in 1230 in a late Romanesque style and consecrated again in 1263 under the reign of King Ottokar II of Bohemia. Of this period only the Giant's Door and Pagan Towers that flank it are preserved. 

In 1273 the Habsburg were granted the dignity of Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. In response, they focussed their attention on this church, deciding to build it as a symbol of their new status. So between 1304 and 1344 the Gothic choir stalls were added. 

At a later date, in 1359, Rudolf IV, known as The Founder, ordered the construction of the new Gothic building, Saint Stephen. From this point on the construction begins to acquire its reputation for greatness. 

The side walls of the nave (one of the widest in Europe) are erected around the Romanesque walls like a sheath, and were not demolished until 1430 in order to allow the continuance of religious celebrations. 

In 1433, for example, the architect Hans von Prachatitz completed the impressive south tower, with its needle-shaped tip. The first stone of the north tower, which is actually an unfinished work and should have been identical to the south tower, was laid in 1450, but building did not continue until 1467 and was subsequently stopped when the funds were used to strengthen the fortifications of the city against the Turkish threat. As a curiosity we can tell you that the foundations of the tower possess an unusual bouquet as, due to bad weather, wine production that year was of such poor quality that the wine was used to make the mortar used in construction. 

Visitors today will notice a Renaissance-style cupola that was added much later, in 1579. One legend has it that the tower was not finished because its master builder, Hans Puchsbaum, pronounced the name of God, thereby breaking a pact he had previously made with the Devil, and he was instantly hurled to his death.

In 1490 the last vaults were completed and the roof was covered with tiles, though it was not until 1511 that the work was finally deemed finished, so you are looking at a project that took more than two centuries to complete.

Building, however, continues to this day... And among the many facts and curiosities surrounding the building up to the present day we can highlight the following:

The cathedral featured a Baroque-style extension that was constructed in two parts: the main altar, by the brothers Pock and completed in 1647, and diverse ornamentation of the central nave. And a few years later, in 1677, new ornamentation commenced in the same style on the side altars, the imperial chapels and the organs.

In 1683, during the second Turkish invasion of the city, the cathedral was hit by about a thousand cannonballs, one of which became embedded in the wall of the sacristy and is still preserved. In order to deceive the enemy into thinking he had plenty of material resources, the roof was repaired with canvas. The city was liberated on the 12th of September, 1683, and as a reminder of the battle the Pummerin bell, forged through the casting of bronze from the abandoned Turkish guns, was commissioned and placed in the south tower. 

During the Napoleonic Wars of 1809, skirmishes took place inside the temple and numerous works of art were damaged. However, this was nothing compared to the damage suffered in 1945.

At the beginning of World War II the most important works of art, such as the Giant's Door, the pulpit or the Mausoleum of Federico III, were protected, and as a result managed to survive the great fire of the 11th and 12th of April, 1945, which was caused by sparks from houses burning nearby. The result was disastrous. Almost all the remaining structure was burned, the roof, the windows, the choir stalls... Along with almost all of the bells, including the "Pummerin".

Having obtained funds from Vienna's residents, the federated Austrian states and numerous foreign donors, the building was once again rebuilt, with Karl Holey as master builder. On the 19th of November, 1948, then, mass was once again celebrated in the temple and, on the 26th of April, 1952, the solemn reopening ceremony was presided over by Cardinal Innitzer. On the same day the new "Pummerin", built from the remnants of the original, was once again brought into operation.

As you will no doubt realise, the work is of such a magnitude that it has been and will continue to be open for continuous modification and restoration, one of the latest being the restoration of the Giant's Door, which was reopened on the 23rd of March, 1997, in a ceremony presided over by Archbishop Christoph Schönborn. In addition, as is almost always the case, the restoration led to the discovery of the remains of a medieval painting of the door, while archaeological excavations unearthed remains of both humans and previously unknown constructions.

So it would appear that the history of Stephansdom is written and rewritten with each restoration.

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