Bad Deutsch Altenburg – The Sequel

As promised at the end of my previous post, here’s the magnificent parish church right next to the cemetery chapel in Bad Deutsch Altenburg:

I should point out perhaps that in the above photo the cemetery chapel looks disproportionately large in comparison to the church because it’s actually closer to the camera – a fact that is somewhat obscured by all the bushes, trees and gravestones in the foreground. And the architecture of the church itself may seem a bit confusing from this particular angle as well. So, to give you a better understanding of how the building works, here it is seen from a different point of view:

To the left, there is the richly decorated late-Gothic choir, built around 1400. To the right, we have the rather extraordinary Gothic tower, dating to c. 1350-1380. And, finally, perched in between them, there is the much lower late-Romanesque nave. Obviously, this is the oldest part of the building, having been begun in 1213. It shares many characteristics with the adjacent cemetery chapel which was built around the same time, though presumably begun a few years later.

Also, the church’s Romanesque nave was what brought me to Bad Deutsch Altenburg in the first place: As splendid as the cemetery chapel may be, there are quite a few Romanesque buildings of a similar size and appearance in the vicinity of Vienna. However, I can only think of two places in that area where you can actually find a large Romanesque church that comes with a central nave and side aisles, one of them being the church of the Cistercian Abbey in Heiligenkreuz and the other, of course, Bad Deutsch Altenburg:

With a length of roughly 26 m, and a width of c. 17 m, the Romanesque part of the church presents itself as an example of what in German we call a Pfeilerbasilika (‘pier basilica’), i.e. the nave arcades rest on square piers rather than on columns. Originally, the nave and side aisles were covered by a flat wooden ceiling, but this was substituted with rib-vaulting towards the end of the 14th century, presumably at the same time the late-Gothic choir was added.

But even before that, a major addition was made to the building, namely the rather unusual western tower which was begun c. 1350 and presumably was completed by c. 1380. It consists of an octogonal upper part growing out of a square base and is structured by all kinds of gables, buttresses and gargoyles. This creates an interesting contrast with the towers overall massive appearance which culminates in the massive pyramidal spire.

All in all, the parish church in Bad Deutsch Altenburg features one of the most unusual and therefore most iconic steeples in medieval Austrian architecture. Nonetheless, it really is the church’s elegant and elaborate late-Gothic choir that steals the show:

Erected around 1400, it is closely related to some of the finest and most prestigious churches that were built in Vienna at that same time, e.g. the Chapel of the Ducal (later: Imperial) Palace, the church of Maria am Gestade or indeed St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It is one of those late-Gothic extravaganzas where every square inch of wall seems to be taken up by crockets and pinnacles, blind tracery and finials.

As you have seen in the first two photos in this post, the choir greatly exceeds the nave in height. On the outside, this looks slightly strange (at least to our modern eyes), but on the inside it creates a fantastic contrast:

With the sunlight streaming in through its high lancet windows, the choir appears like an otherworldly vision of light at the end of the low, poorly lit Romanesque nave, thus literally highlighting the site of the church’s main point of worship, the high altar.

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3 Responses to Bad Deutsch Altenburg – The Sequel

  1. That’s an amazing building. I’m surprised as much light comes in through those choir windows as does, given how the buttresses seem to crowd them outside. I mean, those are some mean buttresses. They can’t be much slighter than the piers of the nave, and they’re also quadrangular. Are they meant somehow to echo the Romanesque parts of the building with their mass?

    • Yes, those buttresses are pretty amazing. I’m not sure though that they’re meant to respond to the Romanesque parts of the building – I mean, with all their rich gothic tracery and finials they look decidedely un-Romanesque to me, but I may be wrong here. To me it seems rather that the choir was conceived as some sort of x-large version of a reliquary or some similar goldsmith’s work. Something like this or, if you prefer, this.

      As for the light coming in through the windows, well, the photos in my post were taken on a sunny day in mid-August, shortly before noon, so what they show is pretty much the maximum of light you’ll ever get in that church. Also, considering the time of the day, the sunlight was coming more or less directly from the south, so the buttresses didn’t really get in the way all that much. And those windows are pretty large, too! (But, while even the windows today contain modern stained glass panels, it’s safe to assume that the original 14th century stained glass decoration would have been a bit darker and richer in colour, so the overall effect would have been slightly different.)

  2. Pingback: Seckau Abbey, or Another Stop on the Romanesque Trail « L'Historien Errant

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