Stephansdom Crypt – Vienna4 min read
In Vienna city center, the dark and imposing St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom in German) draws thousands of tourists to gaze at its imposing architecture. It is arguably Vienna’s No. 1 attraction all round, certainly a marvel of gothic architecture, and it’s truly ancient: work began in the 12th century and the present structure was completed in 1511 (even though the north tower was never finished) and, in addition, It is Austria’s largest and most significant religious building.
However, there is something to be seen below as well: just beneath the stone floors lie the skeletal remains of over 11,000 people even if, surprisingly few visitors opt to enter the crypt.
The entrance to the underground tomb is hidden in plain sight, as an innocuous and anonymous staircase on the left side of the main floor. The vast Stephansdom crypt is divided into a number of smaller crypts and catacombs, and is still an active burial spot. The last tenant to move in was Franz Cardinal König, the archbishop of Vienna, who was laid to rest there in 2004, while most of the bodies of the Habsburg royalty are interred nearby in the Imperial Crypt on Neuer Markt square (but this is another story).
Another section, known as the ducal crypt, forms the oldest part of Vienna’s three burial places for Austria’s rulers and other highest-ranking nobility, beginning with Archduke Rudolf IV whose remains rest here since 1365. Later the Imperial Crypt took over the role as the main mausoleum of the empire, but the old Ducal Crypt was still used for parts of the Habsburgs. Literally, parts of them, namely the internal organs of princes, queens, and emperors. These were stored in urns separately from the bodies and the hearts (the latter were put in another place, a special “Herzgrüfterl”, or “little heart crypt”, in the St. Augustin church in the Hofburg palace).
Along with some bodies and hearts, over 60 jars of imperial intestines rest in the ducal crypt, including one containing Empress Maria Theresia’s sovereign stomach. Not long ago, the seals on one jar broke, leaking 200-year-old visceral fluid onto the floor. The stink was apparently so awful that it took a day or two before someone was willing to go down and address the situation!
The catacombs proper lie under the square around the north and east side of the building. The remains of some 11,000 people were taken from previous cemeteries at the site after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1735.
In an effort to keep the so-called Black Death at bay, the numerous cemeteries surrounding the Stephansdom and the charnel house (a building for storing stacked bones) were emptied, and thousands of bones and rotting corpses were thrown down into the pits dug in the floor of the crypt. However, the downside to this arrangement was that the smell of the catacombs would occasionally waft up into the church and make religious services impossible.
To combat the terrible smell, as well as make room for more bodies, a few unlucky prisoners were lowered into the pits where they were forced to scrub the rotting flesh off the plague-ridden and disordered bodies, snapping and breaking the skeletons down to individual bones, and stacking them into neatly ordered rows, skulls on top.
It seems that, still today, they never finished the job, and one can still find sections of the crypt scattered with piles of disorganized bones and deteriorating coffins.
Author’s notes: There are only guided tours, and on special occasions like “die lange Nacht der Kirche” (“the long night of churches,” a yearly event), the crypt is open to the public. Inside the Cathedral, there are the stairs to the catacombs, which are on the left side near the back as you enter the church. St. Stephan Cathedral Website.
Images from web, except the first one!