The Karlskirche, Vienna (1716-1737)

Fischer von Erlach’s Church of Saint Charles, the Karlskirche, reflects the architect’s understanding of history — that is, of universal history, encompassing the whole story of civilization.


This becomes apparent if we study the fascinating book that Fischer von Erlach published at around the same time: his Outline of a History of Architecture (Entwurff einer historischen Architektur). This book begins with the Temple of Solomon before covering ancient Rome, and world architecture including fanciful versions of China and India,  and ends with the author’s own Karlskirche!

In other words, with this building, Fischer means to place the Habsburg Charles VI in the line of divinely ordained rulers from Solomon, Augustus, Constantine, Charlemagne leading up to the present Christian Emperor.

As Kristoffer Neville explains, Fischer presented architectural history not just as a collection of column and building types (a la Sebastiano Serlio), or a study of ancient monuments (Pirro Ligorio); rather, “Fischer’s major innovation lies in his presentation of these reconstructions in a complete and coherent historical scheme.” This helps account for the seemingly disparate nature of the elements of the building, which some have found frustratingly eclectic or even kitschy (Fergusson).

Why might the emperor have felt so bold and entitled to claim such a position at this particular point in time?

Victories over the Ottomans and the Plague

First, there was the sense that Vienna was the bulwark of Christian Europe against Islam. In fact, after a millennium of conquest and the expansion of Muslim rule over what had been the Christian Roman Empire from Spain to Mesopotamia, that expansion had reached what turned out to be its furthest point at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. There, the unusual cooperation between the rival Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire (under Charles’s father Leopold) managed to successfully resist the Ottoman Turks (although not Turkish coffee), after centuries of the latters’ expansion northward and westward into Europe.

The heroism of the Polish general in charge, Jan III Sobieski, not only impressed Pope Innocent XI at the time, who dubbed Jan the “savior of Western European civilization,” but is still remembered today, as in Renzo Martinelli’s 2012 film depiction of the climactic winged hussar cavalry charge down the Kahlenberg (from 3:00 in the video):

Following that, an even more unusual cooperation between the Papal States and the Venetian Republic and the Tsar of Russia and the Polish and the Habsburgs managed to reconquer Hungary by 1699, helping to solidify Habsburg prestige. So Charles felt that his empire had helped turn the tide of history.

Furthermore, this was not simply about southeastern Europe trading one empire for another; there must have been a sense of security and what we would now call human rights, insofar as villagers would know that their eight-year-old sons would not be kidnapped, enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam for service in the emperor’s palace guard, nor their daughters into sexual slavery in the imperial harem (the latter, the premise for Mozart’s 1782 “Abduction from the Seraglio” composed alla turca and perhaps not yet totally outmoded 1 2 3 4 5 6).

Thus, the Habsburgs felt entitled to take some credit for their service.

That was the broader historical moment, but the specific occasion for Charles’s 1713 church-building pledge was not the battle 30 years earlier, but rather, the deliverance that year from the plague. For this, Charles credited his patron saint, Charles Borromeo, and pledged to build a church in his honor (not the only such pledge; cf. Longhena’s Santa Maria della Salute in Venice). (The double meaning of “Charles” in the church’s name is only the first of countless examples of the building layering one meaning on top of another.)

The theme of deliverance from the plague is prominently featured in the church’s decoration, for example the grateful victims on the gable tympanum:



The theme of healing through divine mercy is continued inside, on the painted altarpieces: Christ raising the son of the widow of Nain (Martino Altomonte), Christ healing the centurion’s servant (Daniel Gran).

But perhaps most distinctive is the way that the two columns in front of the church are deployed in service of the same theme of deliverance from plague.



To be sure, the columns are a prime and remarkable example of Fischer’s giving multiple meanings to the same architectural element. They do recall the two columns which stood in front of Solomon’s Temple in ancient Jerusalem (which were named “Boaz” and “Jachin”), as well as “the emblem of the Spanish Habsburgs, the Pillars of Hercules … in memory of the lost Habsburg inheritance of Spain and the New World.” The format of the columns, also, was directly modeled on Trajan’s Column, ancient symbol of imperial triumph, which Fischer had featured in his book.

But that non-exhaustive list of three distinct iconographical references is not all!

As Frances Fergusson explains, the most immediate parallel to the church’s columns would be the “plague columns” (Pestsäule) which were erected all across central Europe, in gratitude for deliverance, including, relevantly, a prominent example in Vienna itself erected by Charles’s father Leopold. Quoting Fergusson:

By the early eighteenth century, permanent plague columns were found in almost all Austrian cities and towns… The flagellant’s use of a plague column was intended as a reenactment of Christ’s flogging. The column itself, however, became the particular object of veneration...Not surprisingly, some of the Austrian plague columns, such as that of 1683-1685 in the Square of the Carmelites in Graz, are clearly related to the undulating columns of Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter’s…

Bernini’s was based on five antique columns still preserved in Peter’s and accepted since the late Middle Ages as remnants of Solomon’s Temple. According to St. Jerome, Christ had been whipped against a column from the portico Solomon’s Temple on the night before the Crucifixion. One of the antique columns, the Colonna Sancta, was particularly venerated. An inscription of 1438 on its surrounding balustrade records that Christ leaned against this column of Solomon’s Temple while preaching. The inscription further expounds the column’s ability to expel demons and perform miracles.

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Both the Solomonic origin and the healing capabilities of the Colonna Sancta were thus known to the High Renaissance. It seems no coincidence that Raphael’s tapestry cartoon depicts St. Peter healing a lame man on the spiral-columned porch of Solomon’s Temple. 


There is, in addition, some small suggestion that the plague references of Solomon’s Temple were accepted in Fischer’s own time. In the Bible, Solomon’s Dedication Prayer for his Temple includes a short reference: “If there be in the land famine, if there be pestilence, . … whatever plague, whatever sickness there be; … who shall know every man the plague of his own heart, … Then hear thou in heaven.. .” (I Kings 8: 37-39). This is echoed by the title of a pamphlet issued in 1666 by Matthew Mead in response to the London plague of I665, Solomon’s Prescription for the Removal of the Pestilence; or the Discovery of the Plague of Our Hearts, in order to the Healing of that in our Flesh. Thus, in at least one instance, this specific wisdom of Solomon was considered by Fischer’s near contemporaries as a preventive to the plague. (Fergusson)

A Historical Architecture

Thus, with the Empire having defeated its enemies in battle, and the city having been delivered from the plague by the grace of God, Charles might very well have felt himself to be “on the right side of history,” to coin a phrase. (Also, unlike his father, Emperor Leopold, who had shamefully and ignominiously fled the city during both the 1679 plague and the 1683 battle, Charles was proud of having remained in place for the duration.)

Fortunately for Charles, his architect, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, author of the Entwurff, was uniquely qualified to advance this cause. From 1671, when he left Graz for Rome at the age of sixteen, to 1687, when he returned to Austria as court architect, Fischer had an excellent education in the Roman Baroque, which was to greatly impress the comparatively provincial Austrians when he returned home. In Rome, Fischer had learned from Bernini, Bellori, and Athanasius Kircher, to name only a few renowned figures. Furthermore, Kristoffer Neville suggests that Fischer “somehow came into contact” with the ideas of Christopher Wren, the greatest architectural genius of the age:

“Wren’s thinking extended far beyond his predecessors, for he was interested not only in the reconstruction of ancient monuments across a much broader spectrum than earlier writers, but also in their sequence and influence through time: “from the Phoenicians I derive as well the Arts as the Letters of the Graecians, though it may be, the Tyrians were Imitators of the Babylonians, and They of the Egyptians.” Wren’s notes and documented interests have in common with Fischer’s Entwurff Solomon’s Temple, the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Pyramids at Giza, Babylon, Hagia Sophia, mosques in Constantinople, Stonehenge (described in both cases as a Roman ruin), and Chinese architecture. Some overlap is to be expected, since both used the same sources—most notably Josephus, Pliny the Younger, and Herodotus. These sources cannot account for the interest in non- Mediterranean works, however, much less their shared historical scheme, beginning with a single (divine) source in Solomon’s Temple diffusing into the Greco-Roman and all other architectural traditions. A generation before Fischer began thinking about the Entwurff, Wren already had brought to the study of architecture a clear historical structure that extended beyond the antiquarian interests of Bellori and Fischer’s other sources.”

This excellent education developed two important aspects to Fischer’s understanding of architecture: first, his sophisticated historical awareness, and second, the idea of architecture as rhetoric, useful in persuasion by moving the affections.

On the historical side: Hans Aurenhammer argued that Fischer “liked to see his work as an ideal synthesis of the best of the past and the present, and that that “Leibniz’s philosophy of a higher order composed of independent parts parallels Fischer’s ideal synthesis of diverse meanings and diverse forms.” Esther Gordon Dotson argued that his “first comprehensive world history of architecture also offered an unprecedented paradigm for combining classical, biblical, and even non-European theatrical motifs within a unified architectural idiom.”

And Fergusson concludes (emphasis added):

“Responding to specific historical needs, Fischer applied a new criterion of historical relativity, choosing his motifs on iconographical grounds, rather than on the basis of formal usage or propriety. His empiricism is an attitude fostered by Fischer’s own wide-ranging studies of world architecture–and is conditioned by such a study’s implied belief that architecture does not consist of a single set of unbreakable formal rules, but varies with time, place, and needs. St. Charles’ Church stands as one of the earliest constructed examples of the crisis in form created by eighteenth-century historicism. As such, Fischer’s work was not a last fantastic gasp of the Baroque, but a precursor of the new age.”

A Rhetorical Architecture

On the rhetorical side: the most basic Baroque lesson that Fischer picked up from Bernini and Borromini was the idea that architecture was not an arrangement of static forms, but rather a kind of dramatic stage set, allowing for the effects of light and shadow, and of the viewer’s changing perspective, in order to create a specific kind of experience and send a certain message. Baroque architects, like painters and sculptors, described this approach as “rhetorical,” adapting that term from the art of oratory.

The site itself was a strong rhetorical statement of strength and security. No longer in danger of Turkish siege machines, the church stood outside the medieval city walls, facing inward towards the city and the emperor’s palace. Fergusson: “It stood nearly alone; with the exception of a few noble residences, the suburbs had not been rebuilt after the Turkish siege of 1683. Planned as a votive monument, the church served no specific practical needs.”

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It was a pleasant place to be. Lady Montagu wrote in 1713: “I must own that I never saw a place so perfectly delightful as the faubourg of Vienna. It is very large, and almost wholly composed of delicious palaces. If the emperor found it proper to.permit the gates of the town to be laid open that the faubourg might be joined to it, he would have one of the largest and best built cities in Europe” (cited in Fergusson).

Esther Dotson interpreted Fischer’s work as “urban scenography” governed by “his sensitivity to the interplay between light and shadow, deft fixing and ordering of views, and keen manipulation of viewer’s movements between and through interior and exterior spaces.” And since his churches

“…were built under conditions unconstrained by extant architecture or surrounding topography. Fischer was therefore free to perfect a model for what Dotson terms the “urban proscenium”—a dramatic passage between oblique and frontal angles of approach, often framed by triumphal arches, in which the viewer emerges from darkness into light. The formula drew from Girolamo Fontana and G.F. Grimaldi’s theater designs and the form of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. Yet by propelling audiences between profane and sacred realms, it also suggested the deeper forces these holy spaces contained.” (Petcu)

In the Karlskirche,

“…the architect connected shifting lighting effects with the progressive unfolding of the building’s iconographical program, experimenting with new ways of linking form and allegorical content. In this sense, the work epitomized Fischer’s strategies for moving audiences—physically, emotionally, and psychologically— in a manner attentive to the “human dramas” his works contained… The Karlskirche’s alignment, perpendicular to the axially-aligned Imperial stables, Filiberto Lucchese’s Leopoldinertrakt, the Imperial library, and the Michaelertor, commanded a full vista of the palace complex Fischer and his son realized during the first decades of the eighteenth century. By visibly connecting his numerous Imperial commissions within and across Vienna’s rapidly transforming landscape, the architect created an enduring theater for representing Habsburg dynastic glory.” (Petcu)

Not only the site, however, but the plan of the building itself was laid out in rhetorical terms.

Plan of the Karlskirche, drawn by Otto Wagner betwen 1898 and 1906

Friedrich Polleross explains some of the rhetorical concepts which Fischer would have learned in Rome. The central idea was persuasion (persuasio), which was to be accomplished by moving the audience’s affections. Alberti had already explained painting this way, and in architecture, prime examples of such persuasio were the high altars designed by the “theater architects” Bernini and Cortona as ‘stages’ for the Forty Hours’ Devotion.

Fischer’s high altar in the Karlskirche is very much in this line:


The first step in successful persuasion was invention (inventio), “the discovery of arguments to shock the affections and produce pathos and ethos” (Polleross). For this, Fischer could draw on his wide knowledge of historical building types, as we have discussed. The next step was the ordering (dispositio) of the different elements, which Fischer pursued in his eclectic fashion. “The principal architectural contribution of the Karlskirche is the conscious combination of classicistic elements and Baroque solutions, for most of which the original inspiration was Bernini’s facade of Saint Peter and Borromini’s Santa Agnese in the Piazza Navona” (Polleross).

After inventio and dispositio, the next rhetorical step was elocutio, the expression of ideas “through skilled mastery of the forms of embellishment and effect,” of which the main elocutionary virtue was decorum, that is, appropriateness or decentia in choosing the “correspondence of form and content” (Polleross).


How did Fischer do with the elocutio here? Some have found his approach to be too indiscriminately eclectic, or too derivative of his Roman models. Others, more sympathetic to the Baroque and the Habsburgs, emphasize the more triumphal aspects of the church.

From the perspective of an American Protestant, a few things stand out:

  1. The wholehearted enthusiastic support for the Christian Emperor is a reminder that the democratic republic is somewhat of an anomalous form of government in Christian history. Since Americans and our ancestors haven’t been well-disposed to the idea of a Roman Catholic emperor, or even a Christian king, since at least 1787 or 1588 or 1534, it takes some mental effort to become a sympathetic audience for Fischer’s elocutio. 
  2. Since the Reformation, the Protestant plain style had succeeded in “stripping the altars” and transforming a church building into a meetinghouse primarily designed to focus the people’s attention on the preaching of the Word (contemporary American examples here). Thus, the full-scale visual theatricality of the Baroque can seem a bit rich, to say the least: something like eating a large piece of Sachertorte followed by a large cup of Wiener melange made with abundant whipped cream. On the other hand, anyone who as ever been bored by a long-winded preacher in a plain Protestant church, or been seduced by Hollywood movie magic, might well appreciate Fischer’s razzle-dazzle in the service of faith.

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References (by date)


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