Category Archives: Austria

Maria Christina: She Even Got the Canova!


MariaChristinaCanova The Augustinian Church, adjoining the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, contains one of the saddest and most grandiose memorials I’ve ever seen.  It occupies a huge section of wall space in the family church of the Habsburgs. It was exquisitely sculpted by the great Italian artist Antonio Canova in 1805 and remains one of his most famous works.  A procession of downcast mourners slowly climbs the stairs toward an open doorway with nothing but darkness inside. Gazing into the void of that black space is truly terrifying.



A tearful lion lies beside the doorway, disconsolately resting his mighty chin on his paws.  A handsome male angel leans on the lion’s back, clearly overcome with grief. The whole structure is in gleaming white marble. Canova’s funeral monuments were mostly for Popes and Venetian nobles, plus a small one for the British war hero Horatio Nelson. Most people agree that the monument in the Augustinian Church in Vienna is the grandest and most beautiful of them all.

Maria Christina

Maria Christina

This masterpiece honors a woman who never did much of anything: Archduchess Maria Christina, favorite daughter of Empress Maria Theresa. After her death at age 56, her husband (flush with wealth lavished on the couple by the Empress) commissioned the monument.

Who is buried in Maria Christina’s tomb?  No one.  She is actually buried in the Imperial Crypt along with the rest of the Habsburgs. But apparently her husband, with the blessing of her mother, wanted everyone who attended church at the Augustinian to be reminded of her loss.

I can’t help thinking of Marie Antoinette, the unfortunate younger sister of Maria Christina. After her beheading, she was unceremoniously thrown into a common pit along with other victims of the Terror in Paris.  Reportedly, when Maria Christina heard of her sister’s gruesome death, she remarked, “She never should have married.” Of course Marie Antoinette had nothing to say about whether or whom or when she married, unlike the more fortunate Maria Christina.

Why did Maria Theresa favor one daughter so highly, out of all her 16 children?  Was Maria Christina possibly the most intelligent?  If Maria Christina had been the daughter sent off the France, might she have been intelligent and strong-willed enough to persuade Louis XVI, a bit of a dim bulb, to accept some reforms before mobs marched on Versailles? Failing that, might she have persuaded Louis XVI to decamp to a safe haven until things cooled down at home? As it was, he ignored many chances to escape.  When he finally decided to make a run for it, the carriage he chose  was a huge lumbering vehicle that stuck out like a sore thumb on the rural roadways of France.  The royal family was captured and hauled back to prison in Paris.

A previous post about the Augustinian Church is at:…and-dispatched/

Previous posts about Marie Antoinette are at:…rie-antoinette/…dow-treatments/


Maria Theresa was not the most fair or loving mother, but she had her good points.  I wrote about her at:


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Maria Christina: The Sister Who Got Everything


A few months ago in the Albertina Palace and Museum in Vienna, I came upon a small painting that showed the wreck of a carriage–an unusual subject for such grand surroundings. The caption explained that the wreck was an event in the life of the palace’s one-time occupants, Archduchess Maria Christina and her husband Albert of Saxony.  The couple became Duke and Duchess of Teschen and joint governors of the Austrian Netherlands on their marriage. They received an enormous dowry, too, from the bride’s famously parsimonious mother, Empress Maria Theresa.

Maria Christina

Maria Christina

Who were these fortunate people, and why was their carriage wreck such a big deal? Having a painting of a private misfortune, which the victims survived nicely, was the 18th century equivalent of a Facebook post about a fender-bender. And the 18th century was a time when almost no one had access to anything remotely like Facebook. The answer lies in family favoritism.

Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 40 eventful years, produced 16 children.  It seems that she only liked one of them: Maria Christina, who happened to be born on Maria Theresa’s own birthday.  Every other sibling was used as a pawn in the empire’s political ambitions.  They were all packed off to strategic foreign marriages, preferably with either royal cousins or other monarchs who might be able to help the far-flung empire. The unluckiest sibling was Marie Antoinette, shipped off to France as a teenager to marry the doomed Louis XVI and lose her head.

Prince Albert

Prince Albert

But Maria Christina was allowed to marry the man she loved, Albert, a minor princeling with no wealth and no throne. Her doting mother kept Maria Christina close, in Vienna, and built her a magnificent palace right next door to the Hofburg, seat of Austrian royalty.


Maria Christina’s portrait in the Albertina Museum shows her posing (smugly, if you ask me) with her lapdog. In contrast, Marie Antoinette, on arrival all alone at the border of France, was forced to strip down and leave behind every article of Austrian clothing because she became the property of the French state. No one told her, until the last moment, that she also had to leave behind her beloved little dog.

Years later, Maria Christina paid her kid sister a visit in France. I completely understand Marie Antoinette’s reaction. I’ve read that Marie Antoinette retreated to her private mini-palace at Versailles, the Petit Trianon, and pointedly did not invite her big sister along.

Sibling rivalry? There we have it, on a grand scale.

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A Knight in Shining Armor—Wearing a Skirt

A couple of months ago in Vienna, I wandered into the Arms and Armour section of the Kunsthistorisches Museums–included with my museum pass, but not something that usually interests me much.


But whoa!  What was up with this extremely scary suit of armor with a skirt? Were there actual women requiring feminine suits of armor? The waist seems small enough for a woman.  The helmet has a devilish look, male or female. Was this suit designed to get the enemy wondering exactly what he was up against?

The series Game of Thrones features a fearsome female knight, Brienne of Tarth.  Would she have worn something like this? On the show, she wears some skirt-like pads for swordfighting, but nothing like the getup above.

Brienne of Tarth, photo from LA Times article cited below

a Brienne of Tarth, photo from LA Times article cited below

I had trouble deciphering the German museum caption, and the photo I took of the caption didn’t turn out.  The next day, I thought I’d pop back into the museum to investigate further.  But the museum was closed. So I posted my mystery photo to one of the history Facebook groups I follow. Within minutes, people with a lot more knowledge than I had answers.

Armor like this dates from about the 1500s.  King Henry VIII of England had a set like it.  It was not made for a woman, but for a man planning to engage in ground combat. The skirt would protect his legs better than traditional pants-style armor.  Form-fitting armor needs joints that bend.  Joints mean there are gaps that a sword or axe or spear could penetrate. A strong skirt, covering the knees, might look unwieldy to us, but we might be glad enough to reach for one if we were faced with hand-to-hand combat.

The fluted design of the skirt was not just a fashion statement.  The folds made the armor plate stronger.  But it was still not strong enough to block musket fire, which was slowly taking over the battlefield.  Fancy suits of armor went out of vogue on the battlefield by the 1700s, although kings and princes sometimes  wore them into battle as marks of status, much as they sometimes wore battlefield crowns. This seems ill-advised to me–why make oneself an obvious target? Still, there are examples of elaborately decorated skirted suits designed to be worn on horseback.


Anyway, skirted suits eventually became obsolete on the battlefield, but the nobility still wore them for jousting–an extreme sport for the rich in the Renaissance.  Hans Holbein the Younger, among other highly paid artists, designed armor for noblemen to show off in.


Later in Vienna, I came upon this store window, in a lingerie shop.  Window display is an art.  I have to think the display designer, like many Viennese, was a regular visitor to the Kunsthistorisches.

Marie Antoinette: Women and Window Treatments


The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has one of the most famous images of Marie Antoinette, painted by Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun in 1779. It was one of her most important paintings, and the artist herself made six copies of it. The young Queen had only reigned for five years; she still had about thirteen years of high living in store, before the Revolution and the Terror that cost her life.

It’s such a familiar image that I haven’t looked at it very carefully.  What struck me on a recent visit was that it’s mostly about fine silks.  All we really see of the queen is her face.  The rest is window dressing.


I got to thinking that her dress actually looks like a window treatment fit for a palace.


In a way, her entire life was a kind of window dressing.  She was married off as a teenager for the valuable political alliance between Austria and France.  She was expected to produce royal heirs, and in her spare time, to show off the wealth and power of the French monarchy.  No doubt it took at least a dozen ladies-in-waiting to get her into this dress.  No doubt she would much rather have been playing house in her farm on the grounds of Versailles, where she could dress as a milkmaid and tend her shampooed sheep.  But in sitting for this portrait, she was doing her duty.  Sadly, her duty did not work out well for her.

I went directly from the Kunsthistorisches to the Albertina Palace, where Marie Antoinette’s sister Marie Christine got to live out her life.  Marie Christine was the favorite child of the redoubtable Maria Theresa.  Of all the children, Marie Christine was the only one allowed to marry for love instead of political alliance. Life is not fair.


Anyway, the window treatments in the Albertina look exactly like Marie Antoinette’s portrait gown, if you ask me.

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How much of a person’s life, in history and in the present, is spent trying to strike an idealized pose?  How much of a life is window dressing?  It’s a question to ponder.

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Habsburgs Hatched, Matched and Dispatched



The Augustinian Church adjacent to the Hofburg palace in Vienna is the traditional parish church of the Habsburgs.  It was originally built in the 14th century; the present Gothic interior, elegantly austere, dates from the 18th century.  The church almost seems to be built into the walls of the Hofburg, the winter palace of the Habsburgs, and this is where imperial christenings, weddings and funerals took place. Among the marriages were those of Maria Theresa to Francis of Lorraine in 1736; one of their daughters grew up to be the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.

Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Public Domain

Portrait by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Public Domain



French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte married Archduchess Marie Louise here in 1810, after the love of his life, Empress Josephine, failed to produce an heir. Of course, Napoleon was far too busy conquering every corner of Europe to attend his own wedding. Marie Louise had to stand up with a proxy–one of her brothers, I think. That should have told her something about Napoleon as marriage material, not that she really had any choice in the matter.


Today, one of the great pleasures of visiting Vienna is attending Sunday Mass at the Augustinian Church.  From the choir loft, an orchestra and choir produce sublime music.  It is considered poor form to turn around and watch the musicians during the service, but I’ve seen people discreetly pull mirrors out to get a good view.  When I’ve visited, I’ve arrived about an hour early to wander the church and listen to the rehearsal. The church seems to have absolutely no heating at all. In winter, people bundle up. The entire service is in German, but the point is to soak up the music and the historic atmosphere. Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner both composed Masses and conducted them in this church.  The illustrious tradition continues.


In a previous post,,  I described Habsburg burials in the Imperial Crypt beneath the Capuchin Church.  Like many royal families, the Habsburgs were fond of leaving a little of themselves in various other places.  There is a room near the altar at the Augustinian Church which contains, neatly shelved, the hearts of any number of Habsburgs, each encased in an engraved silver urn.  A discreet placard outside gives the visitor an idea of the hidden shelves. I noticed for the first time that it’s possible to pay a couple of Euros for a peek at the urns, but I gave that a miss.

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Why I Love Vienna in Winter


Christmas trees, even commercial ones, are decorated with simplicity. They all look like they were decorated by a cheerful child with very good taste.



The moon rises over Baroque buildings, coexisting with all that is hip and modern.


The Kunsthistorisches Museum is packed with masterpieces.


Just outside the doors of the museum, there’s a Christmas market.  A grand statue of Empress Maria Theresa presides over the square. She  did more than almost anyone else to consolidate and increase the wealth and power of the Habsburgs, who built a huge part of the Vienna we see today. Maria Theresa worked hard, but she always enjoyed a good party. I hope she’s enjoying the holiday season!



Vienna Conservatory: Glorious Music, Free Concerts


One of my first stops when I am lucky enough to visit Vienna is the bulletin board of the biggest and most central branch of the Vienna Conservatory.  Concerts at all three locations are always posted.  Before I buy any tickets for musical performances, I check out these free concerts.


The audiences are usually quite small; the visitor rubs shoulders with friends and family of the performers and their professors.  The students are excited about their accomplishments, relieved when they finish, and glad to have a few more hands applauding in the audience. I’ve seen fabulous performances of opera arias, piano concertos, string quartets, clarinet and flute solos, and sublime violin and cello combinations. I once saw a young percussionist play a solo piece, about 15 minutes long, which used every single orchestral percussion instrument. His kettle drum made sounds I had no idea a drum could make.


I will admit that given the chance, I will probably never again attend an evening of trombone solos.  Mostly, though, I have to say, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “They played real good for free.”



Vienna is a musical city; it’s fun to hang out with young people who are there to play beautiful music.

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Maria Theresa, the Original “Lean In” Woman

Theresia11-12The Habsburg dynasty was about to die out in the year 1740, when Emperor Charles VI died without a male heir.  He had seen this coming; he had worked during his entire reign to promote the Pragmatic Sanction, an agreement whereby members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire recognized his daughter, Maria Theresa, as his rightful heir even though she was a woman. He was not cold in his grave when many of the entities that had agreed changed their minds.

The young queen had to fight battles, both military and political, to hold on to power.  She married the man she loved, Francis of Lorraine. The Habsburg dynasty, instead of dying out entirely, became the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty. Francis was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, though, and Maria Theresa soon realized that she had to be the actual day-to-day ruler of her vast empire. She did it for 40 years.


In her spare time, she gave birth to 16 children.  She arranged politically advantageous marriages for them all over Europe, mostly strengthening Habsburg power with each marriage.  Poor Marie Antoinette got the short end of the stick, but the other children made out pretty well.


In the Hofburg at Innsbruck, Maria Theresa’s PR skills are on glorious display.  She redecorated a very grand reception room, called the Giants’ Hall. When she began her reign, the room came with paintings of Hercules and other characters from myth and legend.  Maria Theresa did away with all that; instead she filled the room with oversized portraits of herself, her husband and above all her many children.  Visitors to the palace had to pass through this room, basically plastered with Habsburg dynasty billboards, to reach the other rooms of the palace. Children who had died in infancy were pictured in the clouds.


I don’t know why someone has not made a movie of Maria Theresa’s colorful life.  She is every bit as interesting as, say, her unfortunate daughter Marie Antoinette. Actually, there are not many biographies of Maria Theresa, and I don’t know of any historical novels about her.  I have a feeling, though, that Maria Theresa could have written a very modern book like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In:  Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.”


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Augustinian Church in Vienna: A Cheerful Resting Place


The Augustinian Church in Vienna is still very much a working church.  When I’m lucky enough to visit in December, I look forward to the little Christmas market held by church ladies (and gentlemen) in the adjoining chapel, which they call the crypt. It has tall windows, so it doesn’t seem very crypt-like.  I don’t think there is an altar, so maybe it is not really a chapel, at least not now.

The center of this cozy room houses the tomb of some notable, not a Habsburg but still important.  I always check his name, and I always forget.  I think he was an illustrious general.


Surrounding his very grand tomb, the church folks set up tables with ornaments and some handcrafted items.  They sell CDs of the many musical performances the church is famous for. They sell coffee, loaves of bread and cookies, too.  There’s nothing like a bake sale to make a tired traveler feel at home.


The occupant of the tomb has his very own permanent mourner to keep him company, a life-sized marble lady standing sadly beside his resting place.  Still, I think this person, whoever he was, must enjoy the seasonal cheer of twinkling lights, glowing candles, cinnamon buns and fresh coffee.  Easter is in Vienna is almost as big a holiday as Christmas.  I imagine the church ladies and gentlemen have a springtime market set up in the chapel right now, selling brightly colored eggs and sprightly tulips.

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An Imperial Last Stop


Since about 1633, members of the Habsburg dynasty have enjoyed a rare privilege: their own private burial vault under the Capuchin Church in Vienna.  It’s right in the middle of the city. Someday maybe I’ll pay a few Euros and descend into the vault, but so far I get creeped out every time I consider doing it. The vault is really a series of underground rooms, some of them domed so that daylight enters. About 145 Habsburgs rest there in their elaborate tombs, and some Habsburgs are still eligible even though the monarchy is long gone.  The most recent burial was in 2011. I think the statue outside is St. Peter, very appropriate for the royal pearly gates.


In an age when common people (and geniuses like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) were usually buried in unmarked mass graves, the Habsburgs enjoyed their privilege.  It would not do to flaunt the luxury of a grand burial vault, though.

Early on, a Habsburg PR person came up with a brilliant idea: a ceremony of regal humility that precedes each burial.  The royal procession arrives at the church door and an official knocks–with a special regal staff, of course.  Crowds of commoners outside listen breathlessly to the ritual. A waiting monk inside the door calls out, “Who is there?” The official recites all the titles of the deceased–and with the Habsburgs, it was always a long and impressive list. The waiting monk answers, mournfully, “We do not know him.”  The official knocks again.  The monk asks, “Who is there?” The official recites an abbreviated list of titles.  Again, the waiting monk replies, “We do not know him.”  FInally, after the third knock on the door, the official says, “Here is (insert name), a poor sinner.”  The door swings open and the procession enters.



In a previous post, “A Tragic Crown Prince,” I wrote about Rudolf, the frustrated son of Emperor Franz Joseph.   This young man could see that change was in the air, and tried his best, in his muddled way, to convince his father to go with the flow in order to hang on to power.  Franz Joseph would have none of it.  Rudolf committed suicide, along with his mistress, rather than live out his life in the gilded cage of the monarchy that was soon to be swept away by sweeping social change. That post is at A favorite movie of mine–I guess it’s a guilty pleasure–begins and ends with the Capuchin Church ceremony for poor Rudolf, with his heartbroken but stoic father, Emperor Franz Joseph, patiently waiting to enter the church. Those knocks on the massive church door get me every time.

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