In the absence of antibiotics, what’s a 17th-century city to do when the plague sweeps across Europe? Put up a few statues and trust to providence it would seem.
- Detailed decorated column erected around 1690
- A Viennese landmark on the pedestrianised Graben
- Look for the (in)famous protruding Habsburg lip on a lower relief
- See also: Vienna sights
Life is rarely relaxed when your next visitor might bring 100,000 friends waving swords and pitchforks.
So you can hardly blame the 17th century Viennese for trying everything to get a bit of higher authority on their side. Just in case they ever needed divine help.
In 1679, for example, one particularly unwelcome visitor was Yersinia pestis, better known as the bacteria that causes the plague.
To help ward off the epidemic, the authorities built a wooden Pestsäule (pest column) on the Graben in Vienna’s centre.
This Pestsäule drew its inspiration from the tradition of Marian or Holy Trinity columns. These are columns topped by the Virgin Mary or a representation of the Holy Trinity, erected typically as a declaration of faith or out of gratitude for surviving some dramatic event, like a war.
(Of course, large columns of this nature also did no harm for the self-esteem and image of the sponsor, adding another tick in the book of good deeds for the local aristocrat.)
This first (wooden) Pestsäule went up while the plague was still raging through the city, but the Emperor of the time (Leopold I) committed to build a more durable alternative, presumably to give thanks for the eventual end of the epidemic.
Incidentally, Leopold didn’t hang around to lend much moral support to his suffering subjects. He fled the city, returning only when the all clear was given. Though not even monarchs are safe from fate’s eye for a touch of irony: the disease “followed” him to Prague, too.
The column itself
The first designer of the new, permanent Pestsäule (Matthias Rauchmiller) died in 1686 before too much progress could be made.
Various sculptors and others were then involved with the further development and construction, including a certain Fischer von Erlach, the architect responsible for such iconic Viennese buildings as Schönbrunn Palace, the Spanish Riding School or Karlskirche.
As a dedication to the Holy Trinity, the number three or multiples of three play a strong role throughout the column’s design. For example, there are three vertical layers – the first human, then angels, then the Holy Trinity itself. You’ll also see the column has three wings, nine large angels, three bronze scrolls, etc.
Look for the Kaiser himself on the most open side, easily identified by the protruding lower lip – a facial characteristic common to the Habsburg dynasty:
Even today, this medical condition (mandibular prognathism) is known as Habsburg Jaw.
Below the Emperor is the scene where Faith casts down the plague (represented as a slightly crazy-looking character, with mad hair and withered breasts).
How to get to the plague column
If you’re in Vienna for longer than around 5 minutes, you’ll likely find yourself wandering down the pedestrianised Graben, which runs between Stephansdom cathedral and the east side of the Hofburg palace complex. The plague column sits about half way along – you can’t miss it.