The Votive Church (German: Votivkirche) in Vienna, Austria, is one of the most important neo-Gothic religious architectural sites in the world.

Origin

Located on Ringstraße in the Alsergrund district near the University of Vienna, the origin of the church derives from a knife-attack on Emperor Franz Joseph by Hungarian nationalist János Libényi on February 18, 1853. The emperor was taking a stroll on a city-bastion with one of his officers, Count Maximilian Karl Lamoral O'Donnell von Tyrconnell, when Libényi approached him from behind and stabbed the emperor in the neck. Fortunately, Franz Joseph almost always wore a uniform with a high collar, which was made of very sturdy material and which almost completely enclosed the neck. Even though Franz Joseph was wounded and bleeding, this collar saved his life. Count O'Donnell struck Libényi down with his sabre. O'Donnell, who up until then was a count only by virtue of his Irish nobility, was afterwards made a Count of the Habsburg Empire and received the Commander's Cross of the Royal Order of Leopold. His customary O'Donnell arms were augmented by the initials and shield of the ducal House of Austria and also the double-headed eagle of the Empire. These arms are emblazoned on the portico of no. 2 Mirabel Platz in Salzburg, where O'Donnell later built his residence. Another witness who happened to be nearby, the butcher Joseph Ettenreich, quickly overwhelmed Libényi. For his deed he was later elevated to nobility by Franz Joseph and became Joseph von Ettenreich. Libényi was subsequently put on trial and condemned to death for attempted regicide. He was executed on the Simmeringer Heide.

After the unsuccessful attack on February 18, 1853, Franz Joseph's brother Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, the later emperor of Mexico, called upon the community for donations to a new church on the site of the attack. The church was to be a votive offering for the rescue of Franz Joseph and "a monument of patriotism and of devotion of the people to the Imperial House."

History

The church plans were established in an architectural competition in April 1854. 75 projects from the Austrian-Hungarian empire, German lands, England, and France were submitted. Original plans included to include the neighbouring Allgemeines Krankenhaus and create a campus fashioned after the plans of Oxford and Cambridge University. Another plan was to create a national cathedral for all the people of the empire. However because of spiralling costs and the changing political situation, this plan had to be downsized. The jury choose the project of Heinrich von Ferstel (1828–1883), who, at the time, was only 26. He chose to build the cathedral in the neo-Gothic style, borrowing heavily from the architecture of Gothic French cathedrals. Because of this concept, many people mistake this church for an original Gothic church. However, the Votivkirche has not become a servile imitation of a French Gothic cathedral, but shows a new and individual concept. Furthermore it was built by one single architect, supervising the whole construction, and not by several generations, as the cathedrals in the Middle Ages.

Construction began in 1856, and it was dedicated twenty-six years later on April 24, 1879, the occasion of the silver jubilee of the royal couple.

The church was one of the first buildings to be built on the Ringstraße. Since the city-walls still existed at that point, the church had no natural parishioners. At that time it was meant as a garrison church, serving the many soldiers that had come to Vienna in the wake of 1848 revolution. The church is not located directly on the boulevard but along a broad square (the Sigmund Freud park) in front of it. The Votivkirche is made out of white sandstone, similar to the Stephansdom, and therefore has to be constantly renovated and protected from air-pollution and acid rain, which tends to colour and erode the soft stone.

The church has undergone extensive renovations after being badly damaged during World War II.

Since its architectural style is quite similar to the Stephansdom, it often gets mistaken for it by tourists. In reality more than 700 years lie between the two churches.

The design of this church has been closely imitated in the Gedächtniskirche in Speyer, Germany and the Sint-Petrus-en-Pauluskerk in Oostende, Belgium.

Description

The Votivkirche has the typical form of a Gothic cathedral :

  • a façade with two slimline towers and three gabled portals with archivolts and a gallery with statues above the portals,
  • central portal twice as wide as the side portals
  • a rose window, crowned by the roof gable of the nave
  • belfries and a transept spire
  • buttresses, abutments and flying buttresses

The interior consists of a nave and two aisles, crossed by a transept. This transept has the same height as the nave, while the aisles are only half as high and half as wide as the nave. The side chapels in the transept are as high and wide as the aisles. The choir is surrounded by an ambulatory with apsidioles and a Lady chapel.

This imposing church constitutes a harmonious whole through the proportions, arrangement, spaciousness and unity of style of all the elements.

The Emperor window, donated by the City of Vienna, depicted the delivrance of the Emperor, saved from assassination by Maximilian Graf O'Donell von Tyrconnell, but this original theme was lost when the windows were destroyed during World War II. The replacement window was restored by the City of Vienna in 1964, albeit modified to reflect the changing times. The detail of the actual moment of the Emperor's deliverance was lost, and although otherwise faithful to the original design, the replacement took on a less monarchical and more religious tone.

Main altar

This impressive altar catches the eye with its gilded retable and a superimposed ciborium (or baldacchino). The artist Joseph Glasser drew his inspiration for the ciborium from examples in the Italian Gothic, such as the Basilica of St. John Lateran or Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, both in Rome.

The marble altar is decorated with panels with glass mosaic inlays work. and is supported by six alabaster columns.

A gilded retable stands on top of the altar. Below, on both sides of the tabernacle, it depicts some enameled scenes from the Old Testament : the sacrifice of Abraham and the dream of Joseph. Above the tabernacle is a niche with a crucifix. The outer side niches contain on the left side : statues of the patron saint of the church : cardinal Charles Borromeo, and the founder, bishop Maximilian of Lorch; on the right side : bishop Hilary of Poitiers and Bernard of Clairvaux.

The baldachin is supported by four massive red granite columns. It opens up into four pointed arches, crowned with gables and flanked by pinnacles with statues of saints in their niches. The cross vault is painted with allogorical representations of the four cardinal virtues, while the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, is portrayed on the boss In the spandrel on the front one can see a mosaic of Mary trampling on the snake. This was a gift of pope Pius IX. In the spire, on top of the baldachin, stands Christ, surrounded by four angels.

Transept

The four side chapels in the transept are as high and wide as the aisles : the Rosary chapel, the Chapel of the Cross, the Bishops’ chapel and the baptistry. They form side aisles in the transept, giving the strange impression that the transept is composed of three aisles. Each of these four transept chapels display on their wall pillars four statues of saints. The famous polychrome Antwerp altar in Late-Gothic style (ca. 1530) was in the Rosary chapel till 1986, but is now located in the Museum. The Renaissance sarcophagus of Nicholas, Graf von Salm (defender of Vienna during the Turkish siege in 1529) stands in the baptistry. It was set up as a token of gratitude by emperor Ferdinand I.

Pulpit

The hexagonal Neo-Gothic pulpit stands on six marble pillars. The front panels show us in the middle a preaching Christ, flanked on both sides by the Fathers of the Church: St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. Jerome and St. Ambrose. These half-reliefs are framed inside sunken medaillons with a gilded mosaic background. Four pillars support the wooden soundboard and on top a spire with a statue of John the Baptist. And just as the sculptor of the Stephansdom has been portrayed under the pulpit of that church, the architect of the Votivkirche, Heinrich Ferstel, has been portrayed under this pulpit by Viktor Tilgner.

Note