St. Stephen’s Cathedral (“Stephansdom” in German) is one of Vienna’s most popular attractions. It’s a true masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Work originally began constructing the Cathedral in the 12th century, although the final structure you see today wasn’t completed until 1511, though the north tower was never properly finished. It is Austria’s largest and most significant religious building.
The entrance to the underground crypt is accessed through a staircase on the left side of the main floor, but it’s surprising as to how many people skip visiting the catacombs of St Stephens. If you did want to enter however, you can only do so as part of a guided tour.
The Venetian priest St John Capistrano once preached a famous sermon against the Turks in the fifteenth century. The pulpit from where he preached has now been replaced, but it can still be seen in the Cathedral, and is known as the Capistrano pulpit.
The Expansion of the Catacombs
The public cemetery around the Cathedral was finally closed in the 1730’s, and the catacombs of St Stephens were expanded. This meant that the catacombs would run beneath neighbouring properties, with the cellars of houses becoming part of the complex passageways of the catacombs.
As the plague ravaged it’s way through the world, Vienna became victim to it’s own outbreak in 1735, and as well as an expansion of the tunnels, a couple of plague pits were also dug in order to bury the many dead quickly. Plague pits were not uncommon throughout Europe, and the plague pits of Vienna can still be seen today.
The 18th century catacombs were closed in 1783 after the stench became too overpowering. The smell of the catacombs was said to rise into the church and sometimes make religious services impossible.
The Ducal vault in the crypt contains the coffin of Rudolph IV, and Empress Maria Therese (d.1780), as well as other members of the Habsburg family. However, the Ducal vault only houses their entrails, which are now kept in coffins behind cages that you can still visit today. Twelve emperors, 18 empresses, and 113 other members of the Habsburg family are entombed in the Imperial Crypt.
The nearby St George’s Chapel houses the hearts of 54 members of the royal family, in what’s called the Herzgruft, or Heart Room.
Along with some bodies and hearts, there are also containers of intestines and other viscera in the Ducal crypt, including one containing Empress Maria Theresa’s royal stomach. Legend has it that one of the containers fell and smashed, and the smell was so overpowering, nobody dared go down to remove the remains.
The catacombs of St Stephens became a common place of burial for those with authority in Vienna, when in 1953 a new vault was constructed, in order to receive the remains of 14 Bishops of Vienna.
Other notable names also joined the Bishops and royalty, with people such as architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, the poet Conrad Celtis and doctor, historian and diplomat Johannes Cuspinian and his family, also buried in the catacombs. These famous names joined a total of around 11,000 people who were buried in the catacombs.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s body was also consecrated in the Cathedral, but wasn’t buried in the catacombs, instead he was buried at St Marx cemetery.
The last burial was in 2004, when Franz Cardinal König, the archbishop of Vienna was taken there to be laid to rest.