Saturday, October 22, 2011

Under the Streets of Vienna



Under this innocuous looking church in Vienna is a crypt that spreads out under the streets and holds some 4000 burials.

Heading for a café after emerging from the Spanish Riding School, I happened to notice a sign in front of the Michaelerkirche, St. Michael’s Church,  a small, elaborate church right in the center of things near the Hofburg. The interior is mostly Baroque, but there are traces of earlier paintings on the walls, and some of the original building was built in the 13th century, during the Gothic period. The guide informed me that it is one of the oldest churches in Vienna – but then she added, “of course, we have older ones, naturally, naturally.”

In any case, while I had visited the church the preceding day, this time I saw the word “Gruft,” or Crypt, on a sign out front and had to make a detour to see what was going on. I found that I had arrived just as a tour of the crypt was about to begin and I joined it immediately.

The huge crypt under St Michael’s extends beyond the boundaries of the church itself and out under the streets. The practice of burials in the crypt started in the 15th century, when the city decided that burials in the churchyards, often near a stream or water source, just might have been unhealthy. Originally bodies were placed in the crypt by simply opening a ledger stone that was set into the floor and dropping the coffin into the crypt below, but this also resulted in complaints because of the odor when the stone was raised. Because the staircase to the crypt was too narrow to permit a coffin to be carried down it, a chute was built on the side of the church and the coffins were placed on it so that they could slide down into the crypt, where they were then arranged by an attendant.  Many of the wooden coffins are beautifully decorated.

Over the years, as they ran out of space and the wooden coffins decayed, the gravediggers would remove the bones and simply place them on the floor and cover the bones with a layer of soil, so that they ended up with a compacted floor of bones and soil that was about 4 feet deep. Bones were also placed in heaps in niches or sometimes carefully stacked to form walls. 

And then there are the mummies. Several of the bodies were naturally mummified by the cool underground environment, and the coffins have been opened so that the occupants can be seen lying there peacefully in their 18th century dress.  It’s somewhat of a gruesome sight, actually, but our guide seemed unfazed by it.

Burials in the crypt itself ceased in 1784, also for health reasons. The crypt had been closed for over 150 years when a religious order known as the Salvatorians took over the church and decided to, as the guide put it, “tidy up” the crypt.  Much of it is open to the public now in these guided visits, although there are some areas of the crypt that are still walled off and have not been entered for hundreds of years.


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