There’s old. And there’s old. Take a couple of paces into the Michaelerkirche (St. Michael’s Church) and you find yourself under an early 16th-century fresco. The church had already been around over 250 years when the painter picked up his brush.
- Interior architecture takes you on a journey through the centuries (parts of the church date back to the 1200s)
- Helpful display stands (in English) make your visit remarkably informative
- The famous librettist, Pietro Metastasio, is buried in the crypt
- See also: Mozart guide | Other churches
St. Michael’s church
Enter the Michaelerkirche and look down toward the main altar and you might think yourself in another of those largely late Baroque churches that seem to dominate the ecclesiastical landscape in Vienna.
But you’d be wrong, as a closer look reveals.
The altar, with its statuary and reliefs, does indeed date back to the early 1780s. But the church itself began life in 1220.
To put that date in context: Genghis Khan was still around at the time (as was Francis of Assisi) and the ink had barely dried on the Magna Carta.
Successive centuries left their mark on side chapels and other parts of the Michaelerkirche, but late Romanesque and Gothic architecture still plays a dominant role in the look of the building. The main ceiling retains its Gothic vaulting, for example.
One of the joys of a visit is to see the centuries pass before your eyes. The interior offers an almost overwhelming sense of lived history.
For example, a capital of one column features a dragon that first cast its fiery gaze on those below in around 1240. A fading fresco turns out to be of St. Michael from 1350. And a neighbouring fresco apparently went up on the death of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (who passed away in 1519).
The dragon isn’t even the oldest visible piece of architecture. One unassuming corner of the church has a bricked up original portal from 1220, for example.
This progression through time comes across most strongly with the chapels and altars that ring the walls. The central south-side chapel (the Vesperbildkapelle from around 1640) bursts with ornamentation, as if someone crowbarred an early baroque chapel into the middle of the south wall. But just a few metres further up is a simple gothic chapel from 1350.
Perhaps it was just a one-off, but other-worldly music filled the church throughout my visit (or maybe they were merely cleaning the organ pipes). The strange tones added a mystical aspect to the location.
I stood in that gothic chapel listening to the musical rumblings while St. Catherine of Alexandria seemed to look down on me much as a lion might regard a passing mayfly – an ephemeral blip on her timeline. I began to imagine medieval figures drifting their way across the floor.
The Mozart connection
The northeast chapel (the Werdenbergkapelle) includes a memorial plaque for one Pietro Metastasio, who is also buried in the church’s crypt.
A contemporary of Mozart, Metastasio (1698 – 1782) ranks as one of the world’s great librettists. But the real Mozart connection manifests itself just to the right of the entrance as you go in.
Two bronze reliefs from 1991 commemorate the requiem held for Mozart in the Michaelerkirche on December 10th, 1791, which also saw the premiere of the completed parts of his Requiem in D Minor (the piece the great composer was working on at the time of his death).
And for another Viennese connection, look for St. Charles Borromeo in the painting above the righthand altar in the Barnabitenkapelle on the north side of the church. Borromeo gave his name to the magnificent Karlskirche (St. Charles Church).
The church authorities very kindly place small stands around the church with detailed information on the nearby area (in English and German). So you can spot all the important bits without fiddling with your smartphone or guidebook.
Tours may also be available, including those that give you access to the crypts.
How to get to the Michaelerkirche
You probably walk past as you explore Vienna on foot. The church looks down on Michaelerplatz square and sits opposite one entrance to the Hofburg winter palace complex at the heart of the city.
No trams pass through this part of the city, but the Herrengasse subway station (on the U3 line) is just up the road. Michaelerplatz also has its own bus stop, served by the 1A and 2A bus lines that travel through the old town.
Address: Michaelerplatz 5, 1010 Vienna | Website