Holy Week at Vienna's Oldest Church

This charming Renaissance practice is another reminder of the importance of our senses, as we journey along with Christ during this most Holy of Weeks.

 Peterskirche, Vienna

Peterskirche, Vienna

By Michelle Gress

One of the many great pleasures of living in Vienna is being able to visit the city’s magnificent churches. The beautiful Gothic and Romanesque St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), Vienna’s most famous church, is a true wonder to behold.  Nearby is the giant baroque cathedral Karlskirche, and Votivekirke is a neo-Gothic cathedral that, like the others, takes one’s breath away. Several smaller beautiful churches, too many to name, also dot the city center.   

The church I love most, however, is Vienna’s oldest church: Peterskirche (St. Peter’s). Peterskirche was first built when Vienna was the Roman settlement of Vindobona. Mass has been celebrated daily at Peterskirche for over 1600 years. The current building was completed and consecrated in 1733. In a city full of majestic, imperial architecture, Peterskirche is among the most impressive and beautiful baroque buildings in Vienna.

In these last weeks of Lent, the highly embellished interior is muted with the shrouding of the crucifixes and sacred images, an age-old practice to evoke in us a repentant spirit  united to Christ’s passion, barren of the images of His Glory which is yet to come.

 One of the Four  Fastenkrippen

One of the Four Fastenkrippen

Despite the shrouded imagery, Peterskirche offers a different way to enter into Holy Week: erected at four altars around the church are intricate miniature scenes of our Lord’s Passion, called Fastenkrippen. Loosely translated as “fasting time cribs,” Fastenkrippen are the Holy Week equivalent of the cribs, or nativity scenes, lovingly created at Christmastime. The Lenten Fastenkrippen bring to life the Passion and Crucifixion of our Lord with wonderfully vivid detail. 

 The Last Supper

The Last Supper

Throughout Peterskirche’s four different, complete Fastenkrippen, one can step into various events in the Passion. One scene of Christ's life rolls into another. Among them are:

Jesus being baptized, standing with a camel-hair covered John the Baptist

Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem

The Last Supper

Peter and a rooster at the moment the future pope denies Jesus

Veronica wiping the face of Jesus

Jesus climbing Mt. Calvary under the burden of the cross

The Resurrected Christ

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The practice, which dates back to the Renassiance, isn't exclusive to Vienna. There are other churches in the region that set up Fastenkrippen, including Innsbruck and Salzburg, and pieces to assemble them are available the region’s charming Easter markets. There are also books in German for children and families to use to set up their own modest models at home designed by a noted Fastenkrippen in artist.

Peterskirche is full this week, with daily communicants, pilgrims, and more tourists than usual. People are crowded around the Fastenkrippen, mesmerized by these scenes. Children are excitedly talking about the scenes and peppering their parents with dozens of questions; old ladies are praying; and individual tourists are pausing to take in this striking visual portrayal of suffering, redeeming love.  

The images at Peterskirche are a reminder, much like the more common Nativity scene or Stations of the Cross, that our humanity is drawn to the visual and the tactile. It is easy to forget the importance of our senses in the spiritual life. Gratefully, things like Fastenkrippen are available for us to go deeper than we might if only left to our imaginations. The images remind us of Christ’s suffering love to deepen our own sorrow, increase our repentance, and perhaps spark the heart of unbelievers as they look upon the scenes of His Passion.

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Carrie Gress