25 November 2013

High in the Karlskirche

In which we get a great opportunity to see a Baroque masterpiece up close!
a moment in the dome of the Karlskirche, Vienna
During our most recent stay in Vienna, I met Karl Groissenberger and his gorgeous family for a quick visit.  Karl, a fine muralist and fellow ornamentalist, suggested I go see the Karlskirche, whose interior has just been completely restored.   Visitors were being allowed up a "Panormalift" to a scaffold which climbs to the very top of the 70 metre high dome.  Karl was really enthusiastic about it, so of course the very next day we went to see it.
In 1713, in celebration of the end of the Great Plague of Vienna, Karl VI, Holy Roman Emperor,  pledged to build a church for his namesake patron saint, Charles Borromeo.  The prestigious  commission went to architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, and is widely considered the most outstanding baroque cathedral North of the Alps, and Fischer von Erlach's greatest achievement.
The design of the Karlskirche makes some reference to Roman architecture. photo by Gryffindor via Wikipedia
I have seen this church a number of times in the past, learned about the effect of its elongated ellipsoid dome, and the symbolic details of its architecture in art history class, enjoyed a view of it from the Secessionist Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station,  but I confess I had never been all that impressed with the interior before, maybe because it seemed so dull with age and filth; I just never thought much of it. 
scaffolding in the dome for visitor access
However, seeing it clean and sparkling after its 7 year restoration project,  I finally realized the joy and conviction that suffuses every aspect of its design.  It's bright and pink! It's light and lively!  It's like an Osterei made of sugar!  Not that I don't like to see the age of something, but in this case the intent of the artists needed to be seen in bright color.
The lower part of the interior is clad in beautiful stucmarmor,  a finish that uses a special pigmented plaster technique to mimic marble. In this case it's used to great advantage to make gorgeous rose marble pilasters which create a support for the action in the ceiling.
Are the angels holding up that upper scaffolding?  Let's hope so.
The interior of the enormous dome is painted with an exuberant fresco by Johann Michael Rottmayr (1656 –1730) who is perhaps most famous for his work in the enormous Abbey at Melk.   Rottmayr trained in Venice, and it shows.
Charity, one of the Virtues, as seen from the scaffold.
Now, you'd think after 25+ years of working on scaffold I could scamper up any old 200+ foot scaffold with ease, but I made it up the first two levels and then I remembered that acrophobia thing I have.  Erling and Juliet went all the way up into the lantern while I stayed frozen at about 180 feet.  Eventually I regained the use of my hands enough to operate the camera.
The quadratura architectural elements seem distorted when seen at eye level
Seen from inside the dome, the perspective of figures painted di sotto in sù makes them look oddly distorted. The same is true of the  architectural elements (painted by Gaetano Fauti) that frame the mural, which further enhance the feeling of height. 
Speaking of height, I met a couple from Holland climbing up the stairs. They wanted to know if I was ok. Dutch people are so nice.
gilt enhancements on a cartouche in the dome
I find fascinating the gilt highlights on the painted statuary.  In addition to the illusionistic painting that makes the urns and statues look like metal, they have tiny  highlights of gold leaf  which really enhance the effect and tend to appear and disappear as you move around.
no really, look how this is done!
I usually refer to this highlight as rehaussé (French for "enhanced")  or assiste (the tiny rays of gold in icon paintings),  but I am not sure of the Italian or German term for it.
Painting like this makes me squeal, sometimes audibly.
Counter-reformation churches weren't built just to be glorious.  In this mural is a warning to those protestant hooligans:
An angel sets fire to German bible and expels Martin Luther and the devil from the scene.
perspective is everything
I look forward to my next visit to Vienna and to seeing this fantastic ceiling mural in its entirety, from the floor. It will be that much more thrilling having seen the actual brushstrokes that created it.
trompe l'oeil detail in one of the oval windows

Virtual tour at the Karslkirche official website  

quadratura, di sotto in sù, rehaussé  
are all in the glossary! 

all photos by Lynne Rutter, Vienna, December 2012
unless otherwise noted



  1. Wow, great post and beautiful clear photos. What a treat to see this space in person. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hi, Lynne - It's such a wonderful opportunity to see this artwork at close hand (though like you, I would have not gone all the way up!). It takes a true artist to do that kind of highlight gilding and know the effect it will have at a distance.

  3. lovely! The word for the highlight work in gold leaf in italian is 'lumeggiato'. by the way


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