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St Charles's Church

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While Vienna is rich in Gothic and Neo-Gothic churches, fully blown Baroque masterpieces are far less common. One such example is St Charles's Church, known as Karlskirche in German, a place of worship designed with unabashed beauty in mind. Located on the edge of the old town not far from the Ringstrasse and opposite the elliptical pond of the Resselpark, this glorious church is easily one of the most impressive buildings in Vienna.

Built between 1713 and 1737, this opulent Catholic church was built on the orders of Emperor Charles VI, who vowed to god that he would erect a palatial church if the deadly plague that was bringing Vienna to its knees left the city. Charles named the church after his namesake, St Charles Borromeo, who was known for tending to plague victims in Milan, and appointed architect Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach to design the church and oversee building works. Unfortunately, von Erlach died before his grand plans could be realised, and it took his son to finally see the project through to completion.

St. Charles's Church's eclectic facade offers a mix of neo-classic and baroque features, with a Greek portico covering the entrance, spires modelled on the Trajan Column of Rome at its flanks and a green-copper Baroque cupola in the form of an ellipsoid crowning the roof. Spiral reliefs on the spires tell the life story of St Charles Borromeo, while bas-reliefs on the portico identify the 4 cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, restraint and fortitude. With such a pastiche of styles evident here, it is a wonder that the whole thing does not appear like an incoherent mess, and it is testament to the architect that the unusual architecture succeeds. It has been argued that the church's wide variety of stylistic elements even reflects the diverse nature of Vienna at the time it was built; for instance, a rear window even features a Hebrew Tertagrammaton, highlighting Vienna's rich Jewish heritage.

The interior of this magical church is a little more conventional, designed in a coherent Baroque manner. Frescoes designed by Johann Michael Rottmayr line the interior of the church's 236 metre high dome, and are amongst the painter's finest works of art. As these superlative paintings are quite high up, a modern elevator has been installed inside the church so that visitors can view the frescoes up close. A hole in the apex of the dome floods the nave of the church with much needed light, and enables visitors to better appreciate St Charles's elaborate and abundant Rococo paintings, murals and sculptures. Altar paintings inside the church feature art from some of the era's finest practitioners, including Sebastiano Ricci and Martino Altomonte, who were brought in from Italy to work on the church.

Perhaps the best time to visit St Charles's Church is at night, when the facade is lit up, highlighting details that can be overlooked in the daylight. An added reason to visit at night is that the whole edifice reflects in the small pond that stands across from the church, making for picturesque photo opportunities. If you visit at this time during the summer, you may even be lucky enough to catch a live performance of Mozart's Requiem.
 

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