The Imperial Crypt


In the oldest part of Vienna, right on the main downtown walking plaza, is the tiny Kapuzinerkirche -- a plain, simple little church that you could walk right past and never notice (I did, several times).  But it has been the burial place for the past 500 years of almost all of the Austrian emperors, their wives, and families.  The bodies of over 140 of the Habsburg family are lying here, including 12 emperors and 18 empresses.  Actually, none of them are "buried" here -- the incredible metal caskets, or sarcophagi, are in full view, as they should be, since most are amazing works of art.  

After entering the church, you go underground down a rather plain, modern, industrial-looking set of stairs.  You are directed through a set of doors, and suddenly, you are in another world, perhaps another century.  Row after row of ornate metal tombs line the walls of the ancient crypt, all carefully polished and labeled.  The Habsburgs were perhaps the most royal family in history, producing 645 years of kings, archdukes, and Holy Roman Emperors.  The royal family of Spain were also Habsburgs, and one was even the Emperor of Mexico.  They tended to marry within their family, since few other families were of high enough rank for them, and also to keep their wealth from getting spread out too far.  So cousins married cousins, uncles married nieces, daughters married in-laws, all of which eventually caused so many genetic problems that much of the family was afflicted with bad health, low intelligence, insanity, and deformed faces and bodies.  It has been proved that King Carlos II of Spain was so absurdly inbred that his genetic diversity was even less than if his parents had been brother and sister -- they weren't, they were uncle and niece, but all their ancestors were closely related too.  All eight of his great-grandparents were descended from the same king and queen.  It would have done the family a lot of good to have gotten some strong, healthy peasant blood in their lineage, but they of course were too royal for that, so ironically they become some of the most miserable examples of the human race at the time.  However, some were fine people and excellent rulers; many encouraged the arts and sciences of the time.  The glory of Vienna to this day is the result of all those centuries of Habsburg rule.  

After an elaborate funeral, when a royal body was brought to the Imperial Crypt, the funeral procession would stop at the front door of the church and the priest would knock on the door three times.  From within, a voice of a monk would ask, "Who is requesting entry?"  
The priest would read off the full name and royal titles of the person, such as this actual official title of Emperor Charles VI:
"Charles Francis Josephus Wenceslaus Balthazar Johannes Antonius Ignatius, by the grace of God elected Holy Roman Emperor of Austria, forever King in Germany, of Castile, Aragon, Leon, Sicily, Jerusalem, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Serbia, Galitia, Lodomeria, Cumania, Navarra, Grenada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, Majorca, Sevilla, Sardinia, Cordova, Corsica, Murcia, the Algarve, Algeciras, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, the islands of India and the Ocean sea, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Milan, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Limburg, Luxemburg, Gelderland, Württemberg, Upper and Lower Silesia, Calabria, Athens and Neopatria, Prince of Swabia, Catalonia, Asturia, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, of Burgau, Moravia, Upper and Lower Lusatia, Princely Count of Habsburg, Flanders, Tyrol, Kyburg, Gorizia, Artois, Landgrave of Alsace, Margrave of Oristano, Count of Goceano, Namur, Roussillon, Cerdagne, Lord of the Wendish March, Pordenone, Biscay, Molina, Salins, Tripoli and Mechelen."
The voice from within would answer, "We know him not!"
The priest outside would knock three times again.  Again, the voice within would say, "Who is requesting entry?"
This time, the priest would answer, "A mortal, sinful human."
And then the door would open, and the body was taken in.
So this charming custom shows that in spite of all their pride and glory, the Habsburgs realized that even they were not the ultimate power.


This is the first view you have of the royal crypt, built in the 1500's:


Some of the first of the many royal tombs you will see.





The grand tomb of Emperor Charles VI, with the famous crowned skulls.


A grisly close-up from the above tomb.





These are the oldest sarcophagi in the whole crypt, kept in a tiny separate room of their own -- 
Holy Roman Emperor Matthias and his wife Empress Anna of Tyrol.


The most elaborate tomb of all is that of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, and his wife the Empress Maria Theresa.  After he died, she became the sole ruler, the only woman to ever rule Austria.


A close-up of the end of their tomb, showing a distant battle scene. 


Reclining on the top of their tomb, Francis and Maria Theresa stare at each other forever. 


Francis and Maria Theresa's little daughter, the Archduchess Maria Karolina.


Even though Maria Theresa and Francis have the most elaborate sarcophagus of all, their son Joseph, who became the next Holy Roman Emperor, decided all that showiness and expense was not proper.  He chose to lie in this simple, rustic casket in front of his parents. 


This is Emperor Ferdinand, known for being one of the more mentally unstable ones.  Behind is his wife, Empress Maria Anna of Savoy.


Another little dead princess.


These are the tombs everybody comes to see, even though they are in a more restrained and sober style compared to the wild baroque extravagance of the earlier tombs.  These are the graves of the most popular and famous of all the Habsburgs -- Emperor Franz Joseph, his wife, and son.  Franz Joseph was responsible for having all the grand buildings of the Ring Street constructed during his lifetime.  He died in 1916.  His casket is the only one in the crypt made of stone, not metal.


Franz Joseph's wife was the beautiful Empress Elisabeth of Bavaria -- always known as Queen Sisi.  She was assassinated in 1898.  You can see a picture of her at the bottom of this page. 


The son of Franz Joseph and Queen Sisi was the Crown Prince Rudolf, who killed himself along with his girlfriend in 1889.  He preferred death rather than having to become the next emperor.  His mother never got over the shock, and spent the rest of her life travelling the world, spending as little time as possible at the royal palaces of Vienna.


Here are two of the newest tombs -- on the left is Empress Zita of Bourbon-Parma, the last empress of them all.  On the right is that of her son, Prince Karl Ludwig, plus a space for his wife, who is still living.  Austria has not had official royalty since WWI, and does not allow the living Habsburgs to use royal titles; but they still have the right to be buried in the royal crypt.  The most recent tomb is from 2011. 


The famous Empress Elisabeth, always called Sisi by the Austrians.
Her hair was six feet long, and it took her attendants 2 to 3 hours every day to care for it and fix it up.
She was killed by an anarchist radical in Switzerland with an ice pick to the heart. 
empress-elisabeth-of-austria-in-dancing-dress.jpg (1500×2000)


Click here for Page 5 -- the Art History Museum

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