Exploring European Churches: Part 2

Yesterday I wrote a post about poking around in old European churches, particularly the ones along Viking River Cruise’s Grand European Tour. These included medieval Gothic structures and Baroque extravaganzas in Catholic Austria and Bavaria.

Sometimes, though, I hit a roadblock that’s outside of Viking’s control. Here are a few, along with some of the treasures I was fortunate enough to see.

Closed for Mass

Because of Sunday Mass, Vienna’s14th- and 15th-century Stephansdom, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna, was closed to tourists. Our morning walking tour of the city ended there and we had an hour of free time before heading back to the boat.

Maria Potsch Icon, Stephansom, Vienna, churches

The Maria Potsch Icon

With the cathedral closed for Mass, I power-walked back along the pedestrian Graben, past the Spanish Riding School, through the Hofburg Palace Complex and across the Burgring to the Kunsthistoriches Museum (Art Museum). I had a goal: to buy Gustav Klimt scarves for my granddaughters in the gift shop. (There is a story behind this but that’s for another day.)

When I got back, Mass had finished and I still had a quarter hour to explore but I didn’t get much further than the rear of the cathedral with its two side chapels. But i did see the “Maria Pötsch” icon of the Virgin Mary. That was enough to give me a taste of the artistic and historical riches that I had seen in the guidebook. I put the Stephansdom on my bucket list for a return visit. in fact, I put all of Vienna on the list.

Closed for a Religious Event

In Salzburg, the dom, or cathedral. was closed to visitors for a ritual that involved a parade of laymen followed by a procession of priests, several monsignors, a bishop or two, some Swiss Guards and the firing of several small cannons.

When the doors had closed behind the last man, I wandered across the Domplatz to the Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church). This Gothic structure, like many European houses of worship, stands on the site of an even earlier church. Decorated with Baroque ornaments, it houses a towering high altar of red marble and gold that was created in 1709/1710 by Johann Fischer von Erlach. The church also contains a “Madonna with Child” by Michael Pacher.

Here and there on the columns, a sharp eye could spy very old frescoes of the region’s salt miners at work—a perfect combination of art and history—as well as 12th-century marble lion set into the pulpit steps.I spent a happy hour admiring it all, including the nine chapels with their gilded statues and carvings.

Listening to Mass

St. Peter's Cathedral,l Regensburg, High Gothic, European churches

Interior of St. Peter’s Cathedral

In Regensburg, Germany, on another Sunday, I sat in the back of St. Peter’s Cathedral, a High Gothic structure, and listened to Mass until the priest reached the sermon, which was, of course, in German. Unable to understand the sermon or see some of the more notable features, like sculptures of the devil and his grandmother or the Smiling Angel carved by the Master of St. Erminold, I retreated to the Cathedral’s museum to soak up the atmosphere.

Visiting these churches goes a bit beyond art museums because you get to see everything in place, the way the artist meant it to be seen. Museums give you better visibility but it’s a more sterile experience.

St. Stephen’s, Budapest

An early taste of Baroque architecture came on the first day of the tour in Budapest. Viking’s walking tour of the city showed me what I wanted to see in more detail and how to get there. After lunch, I made my way from Viking Modi at the Chain Bridge back to St. Stephen’s Basilica. (I have a good sense of direction.) This neo-classical church took a century and a half to build and required two architects because one died halfway through. (Not recommended for stylistic consistency.)

St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest, European churches

St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest

While the inside of St.Stephen’s is dark, the stained-glass windows and massive amounts of gold leaf brighten it up. I found so much to see that I wandered around the nave for over an hour. I looked up, looked down, peered into side chapels, craned to see the dome, read plaques and found informational signs. After a while, I just sat and looked at the main altar with its glowing statue of St. Stephen.

The Holy Dexter

Shrine of the Holy Dexter, St. Stephen's hand, relic, reliquary, St. Stephen's Ckurch, BudapestEventually I found my way to the left of the main altar and into the Holy Right Chapel, which contains the Holy Dexter: the mummified right hand of St. Stephen. (Right is dexter, Left is sinister.) It resides in an ornate reliquary of gold and silver that is shaped like a Gothic church.

You can’t really see much unless you put a few coins in the slot to turn on the light. I had spent all my Hungarian currency on the entry fee (Hungary doesn’t use Euros) but two women tourists came in and lit it up. As usual, the reliquary is more impressive than the relic. I don’t think a mummified hand can every look impressive, no matter how much jewelry they drape on it.

Note: Getting into St. Stephen’s costs a few coins and there is an extra charge to walk the stone steps up to the dome, a trip the guide books recommend. Both entrances are guarded by little old Hungarian grandmothers who don’t take Euros. Bring local money.

More on European Churches 

I’m going to stop here. There’s more—too much for one post on European churches—but I will finish up next week.

Part 1: Exploring the Old Churches of Europe