Viennese Churches, and Cool Tricks I Can Do With My Armpits

As the weather (and tourist season) here in Vienna heat up, I myself have been doing more sightseeing, combing the first district and making the occasional venture into the suburbs. Everyone says Vienna is beautiful, and it’s true, but for the most part it’s the kind of beauty that makes you feel like a squirmy little insignificant peasant instead of like a human being.

Which is, I suppose, what it’s meant to do. Take a look at Stephansdom, mostly built by 1511, the main cathedral in Vienna, with what it claims is the second-highest church tower in the world:

It’s hard to get a decent picture of Stephansdom because it is much taller than you and also because half of it is currently covered in scaffolding. That said, it does has a beautiful tile roof which is basically an ad for the Hapsburg Dynasty. When Gaudi was asked why he cared so much about the top of his church, he said that the angels were also part of his audience. With their slanting roof, the Hapsburgs get the best of both worlds–they’re impressing God, but there’s no way the proles are going to miss it either. I actually like this version of the church, which fits in my hand.

Note the double eagle to the left? That’s the Hapsburg advertisement. Another thing not to miss at Stephansdom is this “O5” carving, to the right of the main door:

“What’s O5?” you ask. And I answer: “A perfect excuse for me to give my quick and dirty rundown of Austrian history.”

1276-1914: Hapsburgs rule Austria-Hungary and oversee huge empire.
1908: Hapsburgs annex Bosnia and Herzegovina.
1914: Bosnia turns out to be a big mistake when emperor-to-be Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo by Serb nationalist. World War One ensues. Thanks, Austria-Hungary!

1918: On losing side of World War One, Austria-Hungary is dissolved. The new Austria has three million people as opposed to 50 million. These three million don’t think their newly tiny country is going to be economically viable, and ask to be joined with Germany. The Allies say “We didn’t fight this war so Germany could get bigger! Hells no.” Austrians are sad.

1934: Austrians move to quasi-fascist government which provokes four-day Austrian Civil War between socialists and fascists. Fascists win.
1938: Hitler moves into Austria and annexes it. While some Austrians are probably sad, most Austrians are pretty happy, as after all this is what they wanted only twenty years before. You know what happens next.

1943: Allies make “Moscow Declaration” that if they win the war, they will judge Austria on whether or not it has appeared to resist Hitler. Only now does a significant resistance movement develop–the resistance movement calls itself O5, which is an awful name in my opinion. Austria in German is “Oesterreich,” you see, and so O5 stands for the first two letters of the country. Somebody carves these letters into the side of the cathedral.

After 1945: Austria eventually (in 1955) gets full independence, aid from the Marshall Plan, everything it needs to get back on its feet and start getting rich again. The process of de-nazification here is far less extensive than the process in Germany, which means…

1986: Austria elects former UN Secretary-General and Wehrmacht squad leader Kurt Waldheim as president. This despite serious controversy that he eliminated the second part of that description in his recently-published autobiography. Rest of world freaks out. Waldheim and his wife are not allowed to enter the United States and not invited to any other Western European countries during his time in office. Resistance also continues at home: Whenever Waldheim goes to Mass, somebody marks the “O5” symbol up with chalk to indicate that some Austrians don’t think he should be in power. The symbol is eventually covered with Plexiglass.

And then, uh, in 2008 I tell you all about it. I should add that I find it interesting that whenever you go to a cathedral with a group of students, somebody will start complaining about how the experience was cheapened by all the stuff being hawked inside–little statues of Jesus, postcards, shot glasses with the cathedral on them–and to that I always want to say, way to make an original argument.

In 1517 it was tickets to heaven and in 2008 it’s apricot liquor with 40% alcohol content–as far as I’m considered, they’re the same thing, and if you think that’s mixing the sacred and the profane, then don’t be a Catholic. Just know that the hawkers are absolutely historically accurate.

Alternatively, head to the suburbs for your religious experience. Two weeks ago I made the trek out to Otto Wagner’s Kirche am Steinhof, part of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital founded in 1902.

Being a church for a psychiatric ward, most of the corners are rounded off, the priests can shut their part of the church off from the crazy part, there are emergency exits built into the walls, the pews are especially wide to accommodate “disturbed” patients, and the altarpiece depicts among others St. Dymphna, the patron saint of epileptics.

None of this stops it from being one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen.

The altarpiece. I forget which one is the epileptic saint.

One of the stained glass windows.

I wish it stopped there. But Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital, originally a ground-breaking center for treating mental illness, had all of its patients shipped off to gas chambers in 1940. What did the Nazis do with the now empty hospital? They turned it into a laboratory for experiments on sick children, particularly those suffering from tuberculosis and rickets, and nearly 800 children died here during those years. I left the exhibit on those atrocities absolutely stunned.

Isn’t great art supposed to be uplifting and inspiring? If so, how could people walk by a church that beautiful every day and still do these things? How can such beauty and tragedy exist in the same place at the same time? How can they exist in the same world, even?

At the time, and now, I didn’t have the words to express how I felt, not in any language. Sometimes the gap between how the world is and how it should be hits you, hard, and you sit down on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital and you start crying because what else are you going to do?

If you build a beautiful church, people are just going to torture and kill children at its feet.

I’m not strong enough to do anything about that but cry. Somebody built a memorial on the grounds of the hospital, which is a hospital again today. It’s supposed to represent extinguished candles for the “lights that went out.” I’d already been wrenched enough from the exhibit, so I just snapped a photo through my tears and moved on.

The next Sunday, still a bit shaken, always a bit shaken, I set out to what promised to be a very different experience: the Wotruba Church, a super-modern church built in 1976 in the 23rd district of Vienna.

After taking two different subways and one tram, I found myself on a residential street with a thirty minute wait for the next bus, which would take me ten minutes from the church itself. I didn’t want to wait thirty minutes, so I decided to take a picture of the map of the area posted at the bus stop with my digital camera and walk there, as it looked like maybe a thirty-five minute walk.

One problem with this plan–my digital camera was entirely out of battery. I cursed under my breath–as any Japanese tourist knows, half of the reason to go any place is to take pictures of yourself there. What was I going to do? Should I turn back now?

But I’d come too far. So I wrote the directions down on my hand and turned to a trick I had learned in eighth grade–I popped my digital camera battery under my left armpit and began to walk.

When I got there, the battery was just about charged enough to take this picture:

That’s the church. What do you think of when you see it? From what I can tell, every German and Austrian in the post-war period was familiar with images of their cities reduced to stones, and the Trümmerfrauen, or rubble-women, who picked through the piles to rebuild. As a German Studies major, that’s what I think of too: an enormous pile of rubble on top of a mountain. (Remember that sometimes these women piled up the rubble so that it actually became a mountain, as in the case of the Teufelsberg in Berlin.)

And inside? Again, I’m left speechless, if not entirely image-less. Remember that my photographs were constrained by having five seconds to pull the battery out of my armpit, pop it in, and take something before the power ran out again.

You wouldn’t think it, but it’s a light-filled space. It’s something of a craggy space–I wondered idly how the acoustics were–but it’s a beautiful space.

So what did I do? I sat down and cried. But this time–and I’m not using this phrase ironically, not now–this time I was having a religious experience. Because if Stephansdom is a symbol of imperial power, and Steinhof is a paradox, then the Wotruba Church is a metaphor for how to live.

It says to me that when life is a heap of rubble and it seems like everything around is a big scary concrete block trying to fall on your head, you scoop out a little space in that pile and you pray. And now you’ve turned the pile into something beautiful, at least a little bit, and the light comes in through the windows and you’re safe here, it’s all shit outside but you’re safe and it’s beautiful…

And now here you are crying again, crying for an hour (an hour!) in a church. It’s a bit like the armpits, really–they may be stinky, but you scoop out a space inside and now your camera works.

Well, it’s more of a struggle, generally, scooping out a space in the rubble of your life, but maybe you get the idea of how good it feels to get through all that to the freedom and the light and the peace in the middle? Because when you get there you know that if not for the rubble–the rubble, after all, is what makes the space–you wouldn’t have the light and the peace at all.

And to be in a place where they’ve frozen that process, if even for just a moment–a place where the peace is safe inside, where the rubble’s not collapsing in again, where they’ve claimed a space for God or Love or Light or what have you, a space for Good in spite of it all–and now I’m crying again.

They warn you on the website that Der Besuch dieser Kirche kann Ihr Leben verändern, or “Visiting this church can change your life.”

They’re not trying to sell you anything. But they’re not kidding.

Deine Trümmerfrau,

Lauren Stokes


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