Thursday, July 18, 2013

Touching the Void...well, almost

The domed ceiling of the Karlskirche, Vienna
Walking into a magnificent Baroque church, festooned with curlicues, gilt, cherubims and seraphims, Madonnas and Christs, angels and tombs, the vaulted ceiling usually seems so far away -- and it usually is. Way above you may swirl the work of a famous Master, and you crick your neck trying to appreciate his work. The Sistine Chapel ceiling has given many a tourist a sore neck. So it was with astonishment that I discovered, in the Karlskirche in Vienna, a lift! All the way to the ceiling!

It seems that restoration work is underway on that ceiling - a dome shaped like an an elongated ellipse - and as a boost for the restorers who have to reach the vault, and a bonus for visitors, a temporary lift has been installed in the nave. Yes, this does mean a rather ugly bit of scaffolding and machinery right in the middle of the church, but restoration scaffolding is always a necessary eyesore. It’s just that in this case you can take a ride all the way up, to within a metre or two of the painted vault.

Taking the lift.
Stairs continue into the lantern (for restorers only).
My ‘Rough Guide’ describes the Karlskirche as ‘without doubt the city’s finest Baroque eclectic and rather self-conscious mixture of styles, built to impress.’ The church was completed in 1737, originally commissioned by Emperor Karl I in 1713 as a thank-you, gift...for the saving of the city from the plague. The church is dedicated to Saint Carlo Borromeo, who was known for ministering to plague victims. The name ‘Karlskirche’ thus manages to commemorate both the saint and the Emperor. The ‘Rough Guide’ is a bit skeptical about this co-incidence, noting that the name ‘conveniently glorifies both at once’. The pretty exterior of the church does have the curious architectural feature of two replicas of Trajan’s columns (originals in Rome) flanking its front -- symbols of imperialism, certainly; though the columns are carved with scenes from the saint’s life. They’re topped with Hapsburg eagles. A meeting of Karls.

Trajan column lookalike.
 I'm not sure how long the lift has been in the Karlskirche, or how long it will stay, but it is advertised as an attraction on the church's website, so it seems that the restoration, and the lift, are long-term projects.
A light-filled dome.
The lovely interior of the Karlskirche is unusually light for an 18th century Baroque church, because it is lit by a windows high in the galleries (some are clever double-galleries creating optical illusions) and a lantern in the dome itself. The dome is covered with an enormous fresco by Johann Michael Rottmayr, covering 1250 square metres - which you can appreciate so amazingly from the top of the lift platform, 32.5 metres high. The Rough Guide - which may or may not have been up in the lift, it doesn’t say - describes the fresco thus:
‘The subject is the apotheosis of Carlo Borromeo, along with a bit of counter-Reformation Luther-bashing - note the angel setting fire to the German’s Bible and the depiction of Luther in cahoots with the devil. Everything else in the church finds it rather difficult to compete with the sublime beauty of the dome...’
'Defeat of the Lutheran Heresy' (source)
I’ve rarely enjoyed a huge Italianate dome more. Up close and personal. 

Up very close.
Dome fresco detail.
Dome fresco detail.
Dome fresco detail.
Karlskirche, Vienna

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