Karlskirche Dome: Up Close and Personal

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Vienna’s Karlskirche, St. Charles’s Church, is a spectacular Baroque creation, built between 1716-1737.  It honors St. Charles Borromeo, who was a church reformer of the 16th century and who also had a reputation for healing people with the dreaded disease of plague.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI pledged to build a church to honor his namesake saint after the last plague epidemic in Vienna. In the photo above, notice the little round windows where the green copper dome meets the masonry below it. More on them later.

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The spectacular paintings that decorate the inside of the dome have been under restoration for several years.  This required construction of an elevator right in the center of the church.

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Someone had the grand idea of charging tourists a fairly nominal fee, about $8, to ride the elevator up into the dome and have a look. I’ve been twice, and I’d cheerfully go again. The last few levels have stairs–a tiny bit shaky, but that only adds to the adventure.

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Remember those little round windows?  The stairway leads WAY ABOVE them!

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How did artists create realistic-looking figures on curved surfaces far above the viewer?  The painters’ tricks are on full display, up close and personal.  They used techniques like foreshortening–making feet and legs subtly bigger than they would in a painting seen at eye level.  They used surprisingly subtle shading and liberally applied gold leaf. Up close, the scenes look completely modern, as though they could have been painted yesterday.

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The illustrations of scenes from the life of St. Charles Borromeo are cheerful and exuberant. The colors are clear and bright, unlike other dome frescoes I’ve seen. So often, years of candle smoke and incense have darkened frescoes that were meant to be bright. Here, angels and other saints float around in the clouds and happily reach down minister to the sick. They all look like they’re having the time of their lives.

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Charles Borromeo looks like a very happy saint, rising into heaven to meet the risen Christ.  From the story told in his dome, it seems his life was pretty serene for a saint.

The Baroque architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach worked on the church for the first 6 years.  After he died, his son took over.  The original frescoes were by J.M. Rottmayr.

If I were in Vienna right now, at the beginning of the high tourist season, I’d take myself to some out-of-the-way sights like the Karlschirche Dome.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

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