Sunday, 10 July 2011

What to see: The Imperial Vault, Vienna

On Saturday Otto von Habsburg will be laid to rest in the Imperial Vault beneath the Capuchin Church in the New Market (Neuer Markt) in Vienna, thus literally joining his forebears.
It was in 1599 that the first Capuchin monks came to Vienna and only eighteen years later Empress Anna, consort of Empress Matthias, granted the Capuchins a church in the New Market and stipulated that she should be buried in its crypt. The Empress died a year later and was followed by her husband three months later. However, it was only in 1633 that work on the church had progressed to the extent that the imperial coffins could be transferred there.
Emperor Ferdinand III soon had to have the crypt enlarged and several expansions have followed throughout the centuries to give room for the coffins of generations of Habsburgs. Joseph II had it closed and walled up, but reopening it was one of the first acts of his brother Leopold II.
The Imperial Vault now consists of nine crypts and nearly 150 people are buried there. Only one of them is not a Habsburg relative: Countess Caroline von Fuchs-Mollard (1675-1754), who was the governess of Maria Theresia, on whose express wish she was interred with the imperial family.
The oldest of the crypts is the Founders or Angel Crypt, which contains the coffins of Emperor Matthias and Empress Anna. It is followed by the Leopold Crypt, built by Leopold I; the Karl Crypt, built by Karl VI; the Maria Theresia Crypt, built by Franz I Stephan and Maria Theresia; the Franz Crypt, built by Franz II/I; the Ferdinand and Tuscany Crypts, built by Ferdinand I; the New Crypt (built 1960-1962); and finally the Franz Joseph Crypt and the adjacent Crypt Chapel (built 1908-1909).
Emperor Matthias (1557-1619) was as mentioned the first Habsburg ruler to be buried there. He has been followed by Ferdinand III (1608-1657), Joseph I (1678-1711), Leopold I (1640-1705), Karl VI (1685-1740), Franz I Stephan (1708-1765), Maria Theresia (1717-1780), Joseph II (1741-1790), Leopold II (1747-1792), Franz II/I (1768-1835), Ferdinand I (1793-1875) and Franz Joseph I (1830-1916). The remains of the last Habsburg emperor, Karl I (1887-1922), are still in Madeira, where he died in exile following the downfall of the Empire. There is, however, a bust to his memory in the Crypt Chapel.
Another notable absentee is Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 unleashed World War I. He and his morganatic wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, is buried in the crypt of Artstetten Palace, but the vault has a plaque commemorating, as it says, “the first victims of World War I 1914-1918”.
The most sumptuous of the memorials is perhaps the double sarcophagus of Franz I Stephan and Maria Theresia (third photo), commissioned from Balthazar Ferdinand Moll long before their deaths. The sarcophagus has reliefs showing great moments of their reigns and their love for each other is symbolised by how their sculptures look each other in the eye.
The last Holy Roman Emperor and first Emperor of Austria, Franz II/I (first and fourth photos) lie in the middle of the Franz Crypt, surrounded by the coffins of his four wives. His grandson the Duke of Reichstad, aka Napoléon II, was also buried there until he was transferred to Paris in 1940.
In the adjacent New Crypt is the coffin of Empress Marie-Louise of the French (fifth photo), the faithless second consort of Napoléon I and mother of Napoléon II. Just across from her is her unfortunate nephew Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, who was executed in 1867 (sixth photo).
Visitors tend to be drawn to the Franz Joseph Crypt (second photo), where several floral tributes are normally to be found at the sarcophagi of Emperor Franz Joseph I, whose 68-year-reign spanned the times from Metternich to World War I, the restless Empress Elisabeth, who was assassinated in 1898, and Crown Prince Rudolph, who committed suicide at Mayerling in 1889.
Burials in the Imperial Vault did not cease altogether with the fall of the Astro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 (Archduke Karl, the current head of the house, actually proposed to his wife during a visit to the vault, asking her how she would like one day to be buried there!).
While the last Emperor, Karl I, is still buried where he died in 1922, his widow Zita was taken to Vienna and buried in the Imperial Vault when she died in the momentous year 1989. Her coffin is to be found in the Crypt Chapel, where her son Otto, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, will be laid to rest by her side on Saturday, nearly 95 years after he walked between his parents in the funeral procession of his great-great-uncle Franz Joseph in November 1916.
Perhaps this will be the last time that the ceremony of three knocks on the door to the vault will be carried out. This was how it was done for ex-Empress Zita in 1989:
At the first knock at the door, the Capuchin custodian would ask: “Who requests entry?” The master of ceremonies would announce: “Her Majesty Zita, by the Grace of God Empress of Austria, crowned Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria, Queen of Jerusalem etc., Archduchess of Austria, Grand Duchess of Tuscany and Cracow, Lady of Lorraine and Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Krajina and Bukowina, Grand Duchess of Transylvania, Margravine of Moravia, Duchess of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Auschwitz and Zator, of Teschen, Friaul, Ragusa and Zara, knighted Countess of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Görz and Gradiska, Lady of Trent and Brixen, Margravine of Upper and Lower Lausitz and in Istria, Lady of Hohenembs, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenberg etc., Countess of Trieste, of Catarro and on the Windish March, Great Voyvod and Voyvodship of Serbia etc., etc.”. “We know her not”, the custodian would reply.
A second knock. “Who requests entry?” “Zita, Her Majesty the Empress and Queen”. “We know her not”.
A third knock. “Who requests entry?” the custodian would call again and the master of ceremonies would reply: “Zita, a mortal, sinful human being”. “So come here in”, the Capuchin would say and open the gate.


  1. What a glorious morality-play the three knocks are. Andhat a list of titles Zita had! Auschwitz really was a dukedom?
    Question: were the etc's added by you, or is that how they did it?

    Christopher Brown, Oslo

  2. It is indeed an excellent ceremonial way of showing that everyone is equal in death. I have used the official guide book to the Imperial Vault (English version) as a source for the title and it does indeed include the "etc"s, so they are not something added by me.


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