In 1327, Frederick the Handsome (Friedrich der Schöne) endowed the church and monastery of the Augustinians in Vienna. This triple-naved church became the Imperial Court Church in 1643.
The nave was built under architect Dietrich Landtner from 1330 to 1339, although not consecrated until 1st November 1349, together with the adjacent Augustinian cloister. With the gradual expansion of the Hofburg, the Hapsburg's court palace, the Augustinian Church came within the immediate vicinity of the palace and thus was elevated to the status of Imperial Court Church in 1634, and consequently used as the Hapsburgs' wedding chapel. Although the church is inconspicuous from the outside, the view inside (see photos above and below) is stunning. There is a soaring harmony of vertical piers, ribbed vaults, and hanging chandeliers that makes Vienna's other Gothic interiors look earthbound by comparison.
As the church for the imperial court, it was the scene of many Hapsburg weddings, among them Archduchess (and future Empress) Maria Theresa in 1736 to Duke Francis of Lorraine, Marie Antoinette to Louis XVI of France in 1770, Archduchess Marie Louise in 1810 to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France (by proxy -- he did not show up), and Emperor Franz Joseph in 1854 to Duchess Elisabeth of Bavaria. The establishment of the Diocese of Vienna in 1729 gave rise to a tradition for the newly appointed archbishop of Vienna to be clothed in the Augustinian Church. The tradition was kept up until the appointment of Cardinal Franz König.
In 1783, Emperor Joseph II had the church refashioned in the Gothic style, under the direction of architect, J. F. Hetendorf von Hohenberg, in the course of which eighteen Baroque side altars that had been made between 1630 and 1780 were removed. A new side altar was added in 2004, dedicated to Emperor Karl I of Austria (1887 - 1922) who is on the path to being recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Augustinians in early Vienna
The condition of the Augustinian presence in Vienna in 1306 was such that, at the Augustinian General Chapter of that year, Vienna was granted approval to open a studium generale, an international house of higher studies for Augustinians. The friary in Vienna became a centre for intellectual currents with an Augustinian orientation. Among its members who took part in the university life of the capital of Austria the name of friar Augustine Molitor of Ingolstadt (died 1517) stands out. For more than fifteen years he was professor of theology at the University of Vienna and as a learned humanist he found himself in frequent contact with the followers of humanism of southern Germany.
In 1603-1604 the Augustinian houses in Austria and Bohemia, previously part of the Province of Bavaria, became a separate Province. With the seat of government of the new Province being at Prague, the Augustinians in Vienna and elsewhere in Austria felt that this was not particularly a great advance from their previous pattern of being governed from Munich in Bavaria. The matter was redressed by the establishment of the Augustinian Province of Austria in 1636. This was of consolation to the Augustinians of Vienna, who in 1630 by decision of the Pope were forced to hand their monastery next to the Hofburg (royal palace) to the Discalced Augustinians.
A few years later, however, the Order of Saint Augustine returned to Vienna by building a new foundation in a suburban section known as the Landstrasse, which became a new centre of Augustinian religious life. The Augustinians there resumed the Order’s tradition as professors at the university. They were augmented by learned Augustinians exiled from elsewhere and others from the Province of Cologne. By 1646 the community exceeded thirty friars.
Architecture and space arrangement in the Augustinerkirche
The sheer spaciousness and ample proportions of the church are not easily recognised when viewed from the outside. Entering from Josefsplatz, visitors emerge from a porch into the three-aisled nave extending in parallel to Augustinerstrasse. The nave is 43 metres in length, 20 metres in width and 20 metres in height, followed by a choir of 40 metres in length, 10 metres in width and 24 metres in height. The church is excellently proportioned not only for its liturgical functions but also offers space for organ concerts and ecclesiastical music. The tower was built in 1652.
Additional space at ground floor level is taken up by Saint George's Chapel (Georgskapelle - built in 1341-1351), the vestry and Loreto Chapel (Loretokapelle - built in 1724). The Georgskapelle was originally conceived as a chapel for the Order of the Knights of St George, but is now the resting place of Imperial dignitaries. The tombs prepared for Leopold II and Maria Christina were never used. Inside the Georgskapelle, visitors will immediately find their attention drawn to the "Christinendenkmal", a marble tomb and sculpture. It was designed in 1798-1805 by the Italian classicist sculptor, Antonio Canova, as a memorial to Maria Christina (daughter of Empress Maria Theresa).
The Loretokapelle is situated on the right side of the church near the entrance.
Photos (at left):Picture 1: Steeple of the Augustinian Church (Augustinerkirche). Pictures 2 & 3: The memorial to Maria Christina in the Augustinerkirche.
At the far end of this chapel is a tiny round room called the Herzgruft ("Heart Vault"), where the hearts of 54 members of the House of Habsburg are preserved in small urns. The oldest urn belongs to Mathias, who breathed his last in 1619. In total, the assembly includes those of nine emperors and eight empresses. The Herzgruft can only be visited on Sundays after the conclusion of the 11.00 a.m. Mass (entrance fee, € 1,50). Oratories are placed at two levels above the connecting corridor that allowed the imperial family to attend Mass.
Renovation of the church began in June 1996, with attention given to the entrance, the historic pews in the nave and the Loreto Chapel. The second stage from early 1998 encompassed the choir, high altar, vestry, oratories and Augustinus Hall. The renovation aimed to re-instate the situation of 1783 as precisely as possible, which required much research. The alteration of the existing architecture was limited to a few instances. The entrance was given more light, and a bronze portal was constructed at the side facing Josefsplatz. The renovation concentrated on protecting the substance, cleaning surfaces and removing unsuitable "overpaintings".
Flaws were repaired only to the extent essential to maintain the architectural readability of elements. Inside the church, the pews and altar play a key role. Both had originally been intended for other locations. The front pews were made by Johann Baptist Straub in about 1732, initially for Schwarzspanier Church. In arranging the pews, care was given to emulate the former system where pews carrying relief motives from the Old Testament faced pews showing scenes from the New Testament. Old oil varnishes were carefully removed layer by layer, and missing carvings were replaced where necessary. The walnut was waxed to give it back its original sheen.
The neo-Gothic high altar, initially designed for the Votiv Church and made by Andreas Halbig from Würzburg in 1854–70, was installed in this Augustinian church in Vienna in 1874. A large part of the restoration involved structural work to prop up the altar. Cleaning and restoration of the altar surfaces, both long-delayed, greatly improved its overall appearance. Stencilled painting discovered behind the altar was restored to its former glory, together with the painted firmament above it. In combination with the restored altar, this has resulted in a much more colourful picture than was the case prior to the renovation.
Much effort was also put into restoring the vestry and Augustinus Hall. Both rooms had their ceilings of stucco and elaborate woodwork restored, so that they now display much more brilliance and warmth. The church is primarily used for liturgical events, with sacred music given a fixed place in the schedule. Saint George's Chapel accommodates special events, and the Loreto Chapel serves as the "day-to-day" chapel for the small Augustinian community. The oratories act as archives for contemporary church objects, and the Augustinus Hall serves as a rehearsal room for church music.
Photos (at right): Picture 1: Old sketch of the Augustinian Church (Augustinerkirche), Vienna. Picture 2: The Augustinerkirche today.
In the 21st century the Augustinerkirche is greatly acclaimed for its exceptional sacred music, particularly for its weekly Sunday High Mass with full orchestra and choir. The church has two organs. Composer Franz Schubert conducted his Mass in F there, and Anton Bruckner’s Mass in F minor had its world premiere in the church. Whether you are Catholic or not, attending Mass at the Augustinerkirche is highly recommended and can be the highlight of a visit to Austria. Every Sunday at 11am, June through September, is a spectacular organ Mass, which regularly features Haydn or Mozart. The imposing Baroque organ sounds as heavenly as it looks. Be there ninety minutes early to ensure a seat – it is usually standing room only.
More recent Augustinian presence
The presence of the Order of Saint Augustine at the church and adjacent monastery has not been continuous. In the year 1783 Emperor Joseph II made the Augustinian church (Augustinerkirche) a parish church, and forbade the Augustinians to accept any further candidates (novices). Because of this prohibition and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, this monastery community became extinct in the year 1836. Diocesan priests took over the Augustinerkirche. Only 115 years later in the year 1951 did members of the Order of Saint Augustine take over the liturgical services at the Augustinerkirche once more. Today a small Augustinian community lives in nearby small apartments.
Augustinerkirche website. (In the German language). http://www.augustinerkirche.at Wien – Augustinerkirche (You Tube: 4 minutes 18 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqwIIls63Dw
Vienna: Kirchenmusik in der Wiener Augustinerkirche, Juni 24, 2012 (You Tube: 2 minutes 41 seconds) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mawC453y7w