The English name for Karlskirche (St. Charles Church) offers a bit of a clue to the building’s origins. Let’s talk about Saint Charles Borromeo of Milan.
- Built in the reign of Emperor Charles VI in honour of the patron saint of plague sufferers
- Reliefs include various plague references
- Architect Fischer von Erlach also designed other great Viennese landmarks
- See also:
What’s in a name?
(Eduard Peithner von Lichtenfels (Artist), Die Flusslandschaft an der Schwarzenberg-Brücke (gegen Karlskirche), around 1890, Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 51001, excerpt reproduced under the terms of the CC BY 4.0 license; photo by Birgit und Peter Kainz)
We begin our story back in the 16th century and the city of Milan, which belonged to the Spanish Habsburgs at the time.
Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584) became Archbishop of the city at the tender age of 27, and many acts of sacrifice, humility, and compassion characterise his ecclesiastical career.
In particular, Charles was a source of great comfort to the people of the city during the plague that struck in the 1570s.
Such paintings as St. Charles Cares for the Plague Victims of Milan by the famous Dutch baroque artist, Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens, depict his charitable and pastoral efforts during that time.
As such, Saint Charles is often referred to as the patron saint of plague sufferers.
Now fast forward to early 18th-century Vienna, where a final plague epidemic raged across the city in 1713.
To his credit, the Emperor at the time (Charles VI) stayed in town. Given the circumstances, he also determined to build a church to honour St. Charles.
(I’m sure the fact the saint and the emperor shared the same name added to the appeal of the undertaking.)
Located on the banks of the River Wien, this new church offered views across to the main palace and displaced a vineyard on the same site. So you might say it turned wine into (holy) water.
The esteemed architect, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, designed the new building, though he died before its completion in 1737.
Despite its monumental majesty, Karlskirche did not even count as von Erlach’s greatest achievement. He designed the astonishing State Hall of the National Library, for example. And also a little country cottage known as Schönbrunn Palace (albeit the final building owed much to modifications by Nikolaus Pacassi).
Von Erlach even had a hand in the plague column that dominates the Graben pedestrianised zone in the centre.
The epidemic-inspired origins of Karlskirche are reflected in more than just the church’s name, though.
For example, the reliefs above the entrance portal show plague scenes, while those on the two giant exterior columns trace the life of Saint Charles. The man himself features significantly in the painted ceiling of the central dome (use the panorama lift to get up close).
Enter Karlskirche and a spiral stone staircase just past the ticket counter takes you up to the small treasury and further connections to the church’s past.
One of the display cases contains a silk mitre with gold lamé; documents suggest it belonged to Charles Borromeo himself.
The (small) treasury also holds such ecclesiastical jewels as a 16th-century choir cape and 18th-century reliquaries, one of which (allegedly) contains wood particles from the cross.
P.S. A church by the river?
Should you visit Karlskirche, something significant does appear to be missing, though: what happened to the river?
The answer lies in one of the biggest urban upheavals in Viennese history.
As you can tell from the photo below (and the picture at the top of this article), the River Wien really did run very close to the church.
(View of the former Schwarzenberg Bridge and the Karlskirche behind, likely sometime between 1875 and 1885. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.)
Fed up with constant problems with flooding, the authorities moved a huge stretch of the waterway underground.
In fact, I’m pretty sure the large water basin (usually empty) in front of today’s Karlskirche is positioned over the underground river, which emerges again in the nearby Stadtpark.