I have always loved the Gothic. My favourite Gothic cathedral, for both patriotic and personal reasons, is York Minster. Yet I think even that gothic masterpiece has to bow to the Stephansdom in Vienna. The magnificent tower of the Stephansdom is outrageously high. It assaults heaven in a riot of imagination frozen into stone.
We recently visited on a bright August day. The square outside was noisy and packed with tourists. They thronged through the main doors into the dark and quiet cathedral. Although basic entry was free, much of the interior was cordoned off for paying guests only. We had a pass but were disappointed to find that it did not seem to cover the best bits, but only something called the “Treasury”. We decided to get our money’s worth and visit the Treasury, but there was a problem. It would not allow itself to be found. We followed the signs but ended up where we started. Eventually, we came across a small archway within the entrance passage, hiding behind the constant stream of visitors. There was a friendly gatekeeper sitting in the archway. On seeing our passes, he ushered us into a tiny ancient lift and elevated us to the mysterious upper levels of the Cathedral. This was a strange way to visit a museum. But even stranger was the fact that we were the only visitors.
From our high vantage point we had marvellous views:
We could see right down the main aisle to the high altar:
The Treasury was indeed a place of many treasures. There was a tomb of black rock:
The sleepers wait the coming of the King of Kings.
Then there was the tablecloth on which Jesus ate his last supper. On this very cloth he broke the bread before dipping a piece into the dish and handing it to Judas:
It seems almost as fresh as when it was laid upon the table of the upper chamber.
There were a vast number of relics of the saints, their poor bones displayed in rich reliquaries of gold and jewels:
Thin gauze stretches across the eyeless sockets of martyrs who wear the crown.
Lovers will be pleased to know that Saint Valentine also rests in the treasury of the Stephansdom:
He was martyred in the third century in Rome, so it is a miracle that his complete skeleton is so well preserved. His bones lie fully dressed in his glass coffin, like a snow white virgin waiting for the life-giving kiss of the Prince of Princes.
But for me, the best treasure of all was one panel of an altar piece. There I found this picture of Mary:
Dressed in green, the colour of life, and with the stars of heaven behind her, she is the Queen of Queens.
My son looked at the panel in bemusement. “Why should Mary be holding a tower?” he asked. It was a good question. As it happened, I had written a long book, The Rock and the Tower, on just this subject.The thing is that it is not Mary Magdalene (meaning “tower”) who is depicted, but the Virgin Mary. In the story of Jesus as it developed in the gospels these were two different women. But imagery has a long memory. It preserves its secrets more tenaciously than mere words.