Tag Archives: Emperor Charles VI of Austria

Vienna’s Karlskirche Dome: Up Close and Personal


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.



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.


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.


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


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.



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.


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!

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.”


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