A church for the madmen (and women) of Vienna

September 29, 2007 at 7:15 pm | Posted in Art | Leave a comment
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Today we saw what is allegedly the only Jugendstil (art nouveau) church ever built, located in the 14th district of Vienna: St. Leopold am Steinhof. Steinhof is the vernacular name of the mental hospital that it is part of – the most astounding institution, built in the years 1904-07, with Jugendstil design and architecture apparent all over the premises, including a theatre right in the centre.

St. Leopold am Steinhof

It is not open during weekdays, but they offer an approx. 1 hour tour every Saturday at 3 pm and throughout the year. The place was PACKED during today’s tour (people can also join the services on Sundays at 9 am, but since the inpatients are of course also there, I suspect that the tours are more popular). The tour itself was actually a lecture, but very interesting indeed. It seems as if authorities were not particularly keen on having the church 100 years ago – Otto Wagner, the architect, was renowned and respected, but marrying Jugendstil and religion was seemingly considered outrageous at the time, and the pun went around that crazy people might as well have a crazy church:-) To this day, this church is not part of or run by the catholic church, but by the City of Vienna (who therefore also had to pay for its renovation in 2002-2006 which cost almost € 12 million).

I have not found a single picture that halfway conveys the atmosphere that you find inside the church – the most surprising thing is the fact that it is so bright inside. Not like anything that you normally expect from a church. The explanation was simple: Mentally ill people (just as much as others) are more comfortable in bright rooms. There are many other design features in the church that cater for the needs of the residents (it was, for instance, one of the first churches with a toilet built in, right below the pulpit; the pulpit is not accessible from the main aisle of the church to avoid that wandering patients would ascend it, etc.), too many to sum them all up.

St. Leopold am Steinhof

N.B. This is the only picture I could find from the interior – those red chairs that obviously ruin the impression are not normally in there, the picture must have been taken right before the re-opening ceremony after the renovation.

And since this church (in spite of the number of visitors today) is not even mentioned in most travel guides: This is a must see in Vienna, not to check it off on your list of must-sees, but in order to experience the atmosphere of an environment that is in all its aspects designed to further the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of people.

Lest I forget: The tour is not available in English, but it’s the only opportunity to see the church outside of a service – unless you come in a group of at least 10 and phone them beforehand: +43-(0)1- 910 60/11204 (admission charges are at most € 4, less without the lecture; services are free of course).

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