Peterskirche, the Baroque Church of St. Peter in Vienna

I usually don’t go out of my way for Baroque architecture, especially where the Baroque is laid over the top of something earlier, and likely better. Still, when in Vienna a visit to Peterskirche is a must. It is Baroque through and through, and often called the best example of the style in a city with many such examples. And even better, there was no need to go out of my way, as Peterskirche is no more than two blocks from the Cathedral of St. Stephen and its adjacent main square.

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Looking from the main square of Vienna

Rumor has it that the site of St. Peter’s is the oldest Christian site in the city of Vienna, occupying the site of a church built in the 4th century. I am unsure whether that has been definitively established, since all of the sources I’ve looked at seem to use speculative language: “it may have been,” “it is said to have been,” and so on. Still, this church would have been at the site of a Roman encampment, which seems plausible for the late 4th century. During Roman times, the city was called Vindobona, and was famously the site of the death of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

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The Peterskirche altarpiece

Certainly a church was built later in the middle ages, “said to have been” much larger than the previous one, if indeed we know anything of the previous one at all. This next church has rumors attached to it as well, namely that it was built by Charlemagne just before the year 800. This church was in the Romanesque style. It was burned in 1661, and the site languished while Vienna suffered through a plague and a siege by the Ottoman army.

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Quite the narrow approach to St. Peter Vienna

Just after the turn of the 18th century, however, another church was built here: the present Peterskirche. It was begun in 1701 and consecrated in 1733. It was the first domed structure in Vienna, and its towers are said to have been inspired by the tents of the Turks during the siege just a few years earlier. It is also a surprisingly large church compared to its small footprint, and the view one gets of the church on approaching it from the west belies its inner size.

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Rottmayr’s dome fresco of the Coronation of Our Lady

Inside there is quite a lot of fancy decorative, not surprising for a Baroque church, and a fantastic fresco in the dome by Johann Michael Rottmayr, depicting the Coronation of the Virgin Mary. One should also check out the tableau of the martyrdom of St. John Nepomuk, martyred in Prague for refusing to break the seal of confession. I’ll write more about this Nepomuk character when I reach the Charles Bridge, whence he was tossed into the Vltava to drown, and St. Vitus Cathedral, where his reliquary stands. On the outside of Peterskirche, there is a relief depicting the supposed founding of the Romanesque church by Charlemagne. You’ll have to walk around the side of the church to see it, on Petersplatz.

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