Schönbrunn Palace is by far the most visited monument in Vienna. Before the pandemic, in 2019, it was visited by over 4 million visitors! I guess no one can miss the former summer residence of the Habsburg family when visiting the Austrian capital. It is a vast complex – 1441 rooms, of which 45 are accessible – the Great Gallery, the Oval Chinese Cabinet, the Blue Chinese Salon, the so-called Millions Room… However, not everyone knows that there is also a chapel in the castle.
You will not find the chapel through a cross or a tower. However, the ringing of the bell can remind you that you are near the house of God. This bell comes from the workshop of Johann Dival, was cast in 1715 and weighs almost 50 kg. So where is the entrance to the chapel? When you enter the compound, facing the palace, you will see the central staircase. To the left of it, there is the east wing – it houses the chapel and the entrance is exactly opposite the staircase.
The palace and the chapel were built by Emperor Leopold I at the end of the 17th century for his son and successor Joseph I. The building was designed by the most important Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. The chapel was dedicated to Mary Magdalene, who was also the central figure of the painting on the main altar by the imperial court painter Johann Michael Rottmayr from 1707. Every year on July 22, a great feast of the chapel’s patron saint was held. The procession passed through the courtyard, along flower beds and the avenue of trees with perfectly trimmed crowns, continued to the nearby Church of Maria Hietzing, and then returned to the castle.
Today, this original patron is commemorated by a ceiling fresco from 1744 by Daniel Gran (if you have visited the State Hall of the Austrian library, the Prunksaal, you will surely remember his beautiful paintings in the library’s dome). Mary Magdalene looks up to the personifications of the three divine virtues, which are faith, hope and love.
The figure with a heart in her hand as a symbol of love unmistakably bears the features of the young Maria Theresa. When this monarch received Schönbrunn as a gift from her father, Emperor Charles VI, she called her favorite architect, Nicola Pacassi, to rebuild the castle according to her wishes. The chapel was hardly affected by the reconstruction, but Maria Theresa changed its patronage to the Betrothal of the Virgin Mary, which is celebrated on January 23. The original altarpiece was moved to the Augustiner Church, where it can still be seen today. The chapel was rededicated on April 29, 1745. The author of the new altarpiece was Paul Troger, one of the main representatives of the Austrian late Baroque. Joseph and Mary are in the picture and the light and shadow effects around their strikingly slender figures almost create the illusion of three-dimensionality.
The marble altar comes from the circle of the Austrian sculptor Georg Raphael Donner, who had his workshop in Pressburg (today Bratislava) for 11 years (he is also the author of the statue of St. Martin in the Bratislava Cathedral).
On the sides of the altar, two angels stand in pious poses, and in the center, a small golden door attracts your attention. The pieta relief on the door was created by Donner himself.
When Donner died in 1741, the altar was completed by his pupil Franz Kohl, who at the same time married his master’s widow. Kohl is the author of two gilded lead sculptures on the side walls: Mater Dolorosa and John the Baptist.
The left side of the chapel was intended for women. That is why there is the aforementioned statue of the Sorrowful Mother of God with a sword in her chest, as well as a side altar – a picture of little Mary with her parents, Joachim and Anna (patroness of women and all women’s professions), teaching their daughter to pray and to read the Old Testament.
The right (south) side is male: Kohl’s statue of John the Baptist with a lamb and a cross and an altarpiece of John of Nepomuk. Both paintings on the side walls are the work of the Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Pittoni.
Also notice the small angel with a gesture of silence in the lower part of the painting with John of Nepomuck, which symbolizes the preservation of the confessional secret.
The decorative elements on both sides are chosen very carefully. Small golden putti figures sit above the ledge of paintings, holding thematically assigned attributes. For example, a weeping angel and a putto holding tongs symbolize the crucifixion, the subsequent pain of the Mother of God, and Christ’s removal from the cross. Above John the Baptist, one putto holds a reed and the other a shell, from which silver water “flows”, symbolizing baptism…
Although the reconstruction of the Schönbrunn Palace during the time of Maria Theresa was very extensive, the design of the chapel remained unchanged and there were no fundamental changes in the interior either. And so when you enter the chapel, you find yourself in a room from 300 years ago, as designed by Fischer von Erlach. Even the wooden benches with carved shells are from the 18th century.
Maria Josepha of Bavaria was greeted by the same view when she walked the aisle alongside Joseph II here on January 23, 1765, to become his second wife. The first time, Joseph married Isabella of Parma, whom he truly loved, despite the fact that she did not reciprocate his feelings (she preferred to write love letters to his sister Maria Christina…). Isabella was only 22 years old when she died of smallpox. Joseph was devastated and no longer capable of deeper emotional relationships, but his mother Maria Theresa convinced him to remarry. She chose the Bavarian princess, two years older than him, as his bride. However, Joseph did not love her at all. He not only had their bedrooms separated, but even a balcony, just so he wouldn’t have to look at his unattractive, corpulent wife with ugly teeth. The second year after the wedding, Maria Josepha got sick with smallpox as well, and Joseph didn’t even visit her. She was cared for by her mother-in-law, Maria Theresa, who also fell ill but overcame the illness, unlike her daughter-in-law who died. Joseph did not even attend his wife’s funeral.
When the pious Maria Theresa lived in her summer residence, every morning, she went to the chapel for Holy Mass and in the evening for the rosary. Palace employees also took part in the services; at that time there were about a thousand of them. As many as eleven priests took care of their spiritual needs. Holy masses are still held here in German, on Sundays and holidays at 10:00 a.m. And although the wedding that took place here did not have a happy ending, weddings still take place in the chapel – which has been perfectly renovated since 2017. You can arrange an individual tour of the chapel (also for groups) directly with the rector’s assistant, contact: Michi Kobinia – email@example.com
During Easter Lent, the main altar is covered with a curtain. Unlike other churches, this Lenten curtain is not all purple but consists of eight silk stripes. The dark burgundy stripe symbolizes Ash Wednesday – the first day of Easter Lent, the gold and silver stripes match the rich decoration of the chapel and the other five stripes represent the five Sundays before Easter, while the pink marks the halfway point of Lent.
If you decide to spend the Easter holidays in Vienna and you speak English, you can participate in the Mass of the Lord´s Supper, The Passion of the Lord or The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night in the Schönbrunn Chapel. They are organized by the Vienna English Speaking Catholic Community, more information on their website: VESCC
More information about the chapel (in German): Schlosskapelle
By the way, when Maria Theresa had recovered, together with her son Joseph, they accelerated the vaccination against smallpox. Four imperial children were the first to be vaccinated…
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri