FULL OF SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING
Vienna, 29 December 2016
Nice, isn’t it? It’s Karlskirche, Charles Church, fronting the square of the same name, Karlsplatz, in Vienna. In this picture, the church is reflected in a large pool situated in front of it, making an even prettier picture of it all.
It so happens that we pass through Karlsplatz every time we take the tram into the city centre, and I always give Karlskirche an admiring look as we pass by.
It was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI who ordered it to be built, in 1713, just after what turned out to be the last great plague epidemic had swept through these lands. He had it built as thanks for the pestilence having spared him and his family. He dedicated the new church to San Carlo Borromeo, Cardinal of Milan, who not only was his personal patron saint but was also revered as a healer of plague sufferers. The church was completed by 1737.
Karlskirche was built in pure Baroque style. A few quotes are in order here, to hopefully answer the question “what exactly is the Baroque style?”:
– a style “characterized by new explorations of form, light and shadow, and dramatic intensity”
– a style which “used exaggerated motion and clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur”
– “Baroque architecture and its embellishments were on the one hand more accessible to the emotions and on the other hand, a visible statement of the wealth and power of the Church” (as well as of the secular Princes, I should add)
Well, Karlskirche certainly produces drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur on the outside. We have that dominating dome with its green copper sheath, along with the two columns flanking the front.
Those columns are modeled on Trajan’s column in Rome.
However, they substitute tales of Trajan’s victories in the Dacian wars with pious scenes from the life of that great “Prince” of the Church, San Carlo Borromeo.
We have the pediment crowning the front, where we see the cardinal virtues sucking up to San Carlo standing on the apex of the pediment.
So it is in a state of high tension and of great exuberance that one enters the church – only to find oneself in a small chapel. It is really the strangest feeling: all that architectonic might and majesty on the outside, clothing a really very modestly-sized internal space.
Oh, I grant you, there is also dramatic intensity on the inside: the fresco in the dome, for instance
or the altarpiece portraying the ascension of San Carlo.
But the overall effect is: “Really? That’s all there is to this church? This tiddly little space?” I have to say, the only time I went in I felt quite cheated.
In the name of full disclosure, I should state at this point that I am anyway not a great fan of Baroque decoration. My general feeling about this style of art can be summed up in Macbeth’s words, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Even if the scale of the church’s interior had been on a par with the outside I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I find Baroque decoration, especially in Catholic churches, pompous and overblown. On top of that, for a religion that claims to value poverty, I find Baroque’s in-your-face glitter – gold and silver everywhere – particularly offensive. There is a toe-curling example of this blingy over-the-top quality in Baroque in Vienna’s Jesuit church, whose interior was completed some five years before Charles VI decided to have Karlskirche built.
All this being said, there is one example of church baroque that I have come across which I really loved, and that was in the cathedral of Saint Gall in the Swiss canton of Saint Gallen. Our visit to it was completely serendipitous. We were driving from Vienna to my parents’ house in France, and Saint Gallen happened to be a good place to stop for the night. The next morning, I decided that we should take the occasion to visit the cathedral and dragged a rather unwilling family with me. What a revelation!
There were the usual dramatic and intense frescoes on the ceiling, but the rest of the church was quite bare. Instead of the glittering gold, the marble, the overwrought statuary, we found ourselves in a space of mostly bare white walls carrying only a few highly curlicued decorations painted a lovely pale blue-green. It was so wonderful that it put me in a good mood for the next nine hours of driving and the thought of having to spend a long weekend with my parents.
The cathedral was remodeled into its current form in the 1750s-60s, so some 20-30 years after Karlskirche. That lapse of time might explain the more rococo style that was used, along with the fact that the cathedral stood at the border with Protestantism – literally, since the town that had sprung up around the cathedral and its abbey had turned Protestant while the abbey itself remained Catholic; Protestant baroque tends to be more restrained than the Catholic version.
Whatever the reason, Saint Gall Cathedral has partially reconciled me to baroque. Since that magic moment some 20 years ago when I first entered the cathedral, I have been inclined to simply grimace and shrug at excesses like those in Vienna’s Jesuit church rather than dream of taking the iconoclast’s hammer to it all. Or maybe I’m simply getting older and perhaps a little bit wiser.
Karlskirche panoramic: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Karlskirche
Karlskirche at night: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karlskirche
Karlskirche dome: http://www.123rf.com/photo_13006441_dome-of-the-karlskirche-st-charles-s-church–vienna-austria.html
Trajan’s column: https://www2.bc.edu/~kenth/honors4.html
Karlskirche columns’ detail: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Karlskirche_column_detail_-_Vienna.jpg
Karlskirche pediment: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/93052486
Karlskirche interior: https://www.studyblue.com/notes/note/n/lecture-21/deck/5993225
Karlskirche dome fresco: https://www.pinterest.com/soledadvilchez/monumental-ceilings/
Karlskirche altar: https://www.flickr.com/photos/57669468@N00/3252233159
Jesuit church, Vienna, interior: https://www.flickr.com/photos/time-to-look/18903468079
Cathedral of St. Gall, interior: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St-gall-interior-cathedral_1.jpg