It is not located in the center of Vienna. Neither it is beleaguered by the mass of tourists. Nevertheless, it is one of the most interesting sights in the Austrian capital, one of the most important Art Nouveau churches in the world! It was designed by the famous Austrian architect Otto Wagner. Although I have visited it several times already, I am always very impressed by how thoroughly his plan was elaborated.
The reason why this very first modern church in Europe was built outside the imperial center of Vienna was very simple: it is part of the hospital compound for the mentally ill patients. It wouldn’t be possible for something like that to be located directly in the city! Out of sight of the proud Viennese it was like it had never existed…
It is almost unbelievable that all 66 buildings – not only the church but also a theater, laundry, library, post office and other objects – were built over the course of just three years: between 1904 and 1907. And even without cranes or other heavy machines! You can see some of the buildings while walking uphills to the main attraction – the St Leopold Church. For me, this place has a very strong genius locus. I know another place with a madhouse, or I can recall some scenes from the famous movie by director Milos Forman, and I can imagine very precisely what fellows I could meet or what sounds I could hear here… However, everything is calm now, no tourists here, the path is lined with one-hundred-year old trees. We can also see a lawn where, instead of flowers, lamps are growing…
Otto Wagner knew very well what a church and for whom he should build, he discussed his plans not only with representatives of the church but also with doctors and nurses. So a new building was created which differs from other churches in many details, for example:
– there were separate entrances for men and women (because the treatment was also separated for male and female patients), the main entrance was used on special occasions only
– the holy water drips like tap water to avoid infections
– the floor is slightly sloped like in a theater to enable to see the altar from the backbenches as well and to clean the floor more easily
– there were also emergency exits, a toilet and a room for the medical team inside the church
– the modern chandeliers can be pulled down for cleaning
– the corners of the benches are rounded, the original side benches used to be wider – for calm patients while the central ones were narrower for restless patients
– the pulpit “hangs” from the wall, unlike in other churches, it is without a staircase. The pulpit is accessible from the vestry only
– the interior of the church is flooded with light but the windows are orientated to east and west so the light didn’t blind the patients
If you enter a church, usually you expect walls richly painted with biblical scenes. However, in this church, there are no frescoes at all, just mosaics. The baldachin over the altar reminds me of a Byzantine crown.
The main mosaic behind the altar weighs 2 tonnes and depicts the reception of the departed soul into Heaven. Among the saints, there are also patrons of mentally ill people or people who suffer from epilepsy.
If you visit the church, don’t forget to take a look at the ceiling. The dome, which you can see outside, disappeared. Otto Wagner has designed an inner ceiling with four blue windows with the four evangelists.
Wagner also designed the candlesticks and other objects.
The side stained windows were made by Austrian artist Koloman Moser. They have been valued at 5 million Euro! The walking saints on the windows represent the seven temporal and seven spiritual mercies. There are also the names of those holy people.
Emperor Franz Joseph had already been old at that time, he didn’t like modern art, so he sent Archduke Franz Ferdinand to the opening ceremony. However, he had the same opinion that the wealth of the imperial court can be showed by Baroque art only, and not by this ugly simple style. He didn’t like the new church so much that he didn’t mention the name of the architect in his speech at all.
Otto Wagner didn’t want to offend the successor to the throne so he answered with the following comparison: in Baroque time, under Maria Theresa, they produced both richly decorated and very simple cannons. Both had the same purpose! So a simple church can also fulfil its task – to be a place for prayer – the same way as a precious Baroque cathedral. Franz Ferdinand turned around and walked away. Since then, Otto Wagner had never been commissioned with any new order from the court. Moreover, due to the lack of funds, his original project including a synagogue, a Protestant church, the Procession of the Cross and heating in the church had never been realized.
Well, no prophet is accepted in his home town. Viennese didn’t like the church either. They couldn’t accept that such godless materials as concrete and iron were used, they didn’t like that there were a WC and a first-aid room inside, they said the building didn’t look like a church but like a mausoleum for an Indian maharaja. They were even joking that in this church, the patients would become crazier. They also said that St Peter with a key (one of two figures on the sides of the main mosaic) looked like Franz Joseph and the strange dome like a golden lemon. Even now, local people call this place Lemoniberg (Lemon’s Hill).
The critics were hard, they couldn’t be softened either by the four gorgeous giant angels clasping their hands together over the entrance. They were made by Othmar Schimkowitz and actually with their risen golden wings, they cover the window – there are God, Adam and Eva on it.
On the high towers, there are two saints sitting – St Leopold and St Severin, the patrons of Lower Austria, made by the Viennese sculptor Richard Luksch.
It would be nice if you could experience the church at dusk because by the illumination, some details – like the metal nails which hold the marble plates on the walls or the golden wreaths, the favourite motif of Otto Wagner – are better visible.
Going down the area, we found the lamps on the lawn already alight. During the 2nd World War, the Nazis made horrible experiments on the patients here because they considered them as unworthy lives. There are 772 lights, one lamp for every children patient. But there were almost ten times more victims of that regime here…
The Church Am Steinhof is open to the public on Saturdays between 16 – 17 and Sundays between 12 – 16. There is a small fee for church maintenance. In winter, warm blankets are available.
How to get there: by the subway U3 to Ottakring and then by bus 48a (Otto Wagner Spital). Detailed information about public transport in Vienna: here
More articles about Vienna on our blog: here
More articles about Austria: here
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri