The truth ain’t always black and white …

January 25, 2011

Flipping through our recent posts, it appears that we’ve been having a textile-themed January so far. This wasn’t planned or anything, it just happened by coincidence, but nevertheless I almost feel guilty to change subject now. Anyway, here we go…

While the first half of January has been exceptionally warm around here, temperatures have now once again adjusted to the seasonal norm and brought us frost and snow. So, once again, I decided to take along my camera when I went into town this morning, and once again I took the scenic route rather than a more straightforward one:

What you see in the above photo is one of Vienna’s most picturesque corners, Griechengasse [Greek Alley], complete with cobblestone pavement, a set of medieval houses to the right and some more medieval and early modern houses straight ahead – incidentally, the one with the pyramidal roof is the city’s only surviving late medieval tower house.

A little further along, things get even more picturesque as the age-old walls of the Ruprechtskirche [St. Rupert’s Church] rise on an embankment above the Donaukanal [Danube-chanal]:

St. Rupert’s was, essentially, built during the High Middle Ages: Even though there have been additions and alterations in the late 13th and in the 15th century, a substantial part of the nave as well as the belfry – safe for its uppermost storey – date to the first half of the 12th century. This makes St. Rupert’s Vienna’s oldest piece of architecture still extant above-ground.* A document from the year 1200 even claims that the church had been founded way back in 740 AD and had been the very first Christian church to be built in the city. This oft-repeated story has been perpetuated even in recent times and can still be found in many guidebooks. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly true.

While most scholars now agree that St. Rupert’s institutional history does indeed go back to Carolingian times, they hold that it was only founded in the early 9th rather than the mid-8th century. More importantly, it has been shown that Vienna’s Peterskirche [St. Peter’s Church] was founded even earlier, in the second half of the 4th century, when Vienna – or Vindobona, as it was called back then – was gradually evolving from a Roman military camp to a civil settlement.

The problem with St. Peter’s, however, is that unlike St. Rupert’s it has been remodeled not only during the Middle Ages but also much more recently. In fact, it was completely rebuilt in the first years of the 18th century, so what you see today is a fine Baroque structure by architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668-1745):

While, on paper, it may be Vienna’s oldest church, it certainly doesn’t look the part. Now take another look at St. Rupert’s with its rubble-stone walls clad in ivy and it’s crude mullioned windows in the Romanesque style…

… and decide for yourself to which of the two you’d bestow the title of “Vienna’s oldest church”.

As the philosopher Pratchett once said, “there is the truth and, then again, there is The Truth, in the face of which truth can only shrug and grin.”**

* Things are, of course, different if you go underground: For instance, the foundation walls of an 11th century church have been found underneath the nave of the Michaelerkirche [St. Michael’s Church], and then there’s always the Roman excavations, i.e. the remains of Roman military camp Vindobona.

** Terry Pratchett & Jacqueline Simpson: The Folklore of Discworld, London: Corgi, 2008, p. 40. Yes, I know, technically the quote might just as well be by the philosopher Simpson – but it does sound terribly Pratchettesque, doesn’t it?

3 Responses to “The truth ain’t always black and white …”

  1. I realise that you’re right about St Peter’s but it has a relief of Charlemagne founding the place on its exterior wall! Shurely this is not just The Truth but Holy Writ… or possibly Sculpt.

    • [c] said

      Ah yes, good old Charlemagne… It’s always good to have him take part in your foundation myth, isn’t is, even if the whole story was only made up a few hundred years after the events presumably took place ;-)

      But you’re right, of course: As long as people are willing to believe something’s true just because it’s written in the Daily Mail, they’ll find a big, pompous relief more convincing than the result of historical research and archaeological excavations.

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