Building of the Karlskirche Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Karlskirche, a votive church commissioned by Emperor Charles VI, represented the supreme architectural achievement of Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, who set his distinctive mark upon the Kaiserstil(the imperial style) of Baroque Vienna.

Summary of Event

Toward the close of the seventeenth century, Vienna Vienna, Austria was a small, congested capital, huddled behind massive walls and bastions, fearful of a Turkish onslaught. When the onslaught came in 1683, however, the Ottomans were soundly defeated, and the Ottoman Empire’s frontier shrank southward as a result. The emboldened Viennese expanded their city beyond its walls and into its suburbs, where the nobility initiated an extravagant building boom. [kw]Building of the Karlskirche (1715-1737) [kw]Karlskirche, Building of the (1715-1737) Karlskirche, Vienna [g]Austria;1715-1737: Building of the Karlskirche[0480] [c]Architecture;1715-1737: Building of the Karlskirche[0480] Fischer von Erlach, Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, Josef Emanuel Charles VI

The boom, begun under Leopold I (r. 1657-1705), gathered steam under his son, Joseph I (r. 1705-1711). As an eleven-year-old, Joseph had been tutored in architecture by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, who was newly returned from Bernini’s Rome with a budding reputation as a polymath in architecture and the decorative arts. When Joseph became emperor, he promoted Fischer von Erlach to superintendent of imperial buildings; the architect and his patron anticipated a long and fruitful collaboration. Soon, Fischer von Erlach was preparing designs for an extraordinary palace to outrival Versailles itself, but the scale of his plans overreached the financial resources of the monarchy, and the palace remained a pipe dream.

Joseph’s premature death led to the accession of his younger brother as Charles VI. Charles was morose and taciturn, and not particularly competent as a ruler. His residence in Spain, where he had been a claimant to the throne, had led him to cultivate Spanish formality, fashion, and manners. Nevertheless, where the arts were concerned, he could be munificent and imaginative. At his accession, he had inherited Fischer von Erlach as his superintendent of imperial buildings, and he was quick to appreciate the latter’s immense talents, giving him some of his greatest commissions. In 1713, Vienna was devastated by plague, Plague and Charles VI vowed to commemorate the city’s recovery by building a votive church dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo, Borromeo, San Carlo the Counter-Reformation saint after whom the emperor was named. The result was the Karlskirche, built between 1715 and 1737.

Significantly, the site chosen for the Karlskirche lay outside the ramparts of the old city, on the outskirts of the Wieden suburb, where noble families were beginning to erect summer palaces and where Fischer von Erlach would own two houses. Nearby, construction was underway on a palace for Prince Heinrich von Mansfeld-Fondi, imperial seneschal, by Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. Hildebrandt, Johann Lucas von When the prince died in 1715, the unfinished palace was bought by Prince Adam Franz zu Schwarzenberg, who promptly replaced Hildebrandt with Fischer von Erlach. His son, Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach, took over the project after his father’s death, completing the Palais Schwarzenberg Schwarzenberg Palace, Vienna in 1732. Thus the Palais Schwarzenberg, not much more than a stone’s throw from the Karlskirche, mirrored its architectural history.

Meanwhile, Charles VI ordered a competition among architects for his votive church. The three finalists were Ferdinando Galli da Bibiena Bibiena, Ferdinando Galli da (1657-1743), best known for his theatrical designs; Hildebrandt, Fischer von Erlach’s younger rival; and Fischer von Erlach himself. Strangely, although models survive of Baroque buildings throughout Europe, none have survived in the Imperial Viennese style, Imperial Viennese style of architecture Architecture;Imperial Viennese style including these three submissions. In any case, Charles opted for Fischer von Erlach’s plan, which had aroused widespread interest.

Fischer von Erlach’s friend and correspondent, the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm (1646-1716), who visited Vienna during 1713 and 1714, was especially interested in imperial iconography. Another friend of Fischer von Erlach, the Swedish antiquarian and numismatist Carl Gustav Heraeus, Heraeus, Carl Gustav wrote in September, 1715, to Leibniz regarding the two columns in front of the church, which were the most remarkable aspect of Fischer von Erlach’s design. Both men thought that these columns should illustrate the deeds of the emperor’s ancestors, Charlemagne and Saint Charles, count of Flanders, symbolizing the virtues of steadfastness and fortitude. These images would eventually give way to scenes in the life of San Carlo Borromeo.

Fischer von Erlach seems to have taken the better part of two years to complete his design. This is confirmed by a letter from Heraeus to Leibniz on December 5, 1715, stating that the emperor had made his choice on the previous day and that Fischer von Erlach had been looking at the site outside the Carinthian Gate (Kärtnertor) and not far from the Trautson Palace, where he was already engaged on another of his indubitable masterpieces.

The Karlskirche is not a cathedral—the home church of a bishop—but a votive church, a church built as an offering; its design makes it seem more imposing than it is. Its unique—and most immediately eye-catching—features are the two immense columns on either side of its entrance portico. The columns were most likely inspired by Trajan’s column in Rome, depicting Trajan’s triumph over the Dacians, a monument familiar to Fischer von Erlach from his Roman years. Symbolic significance has always been attached to the Karlskirche’s columns: In addition to Leibniz’s and Heraeus’s ideas mentioned above, they were said to represent the two columns Boaz and Jachim in Solomon’s Temple. They were also said to symbolize the Pillars of Hercules (that is, the Straits of Gibraltar), evoking the legend of Hercules’ exploits in Spain and thus the Spanish monarchy, which Charles still held to be rightfully his.

Imperial commissions on the scale of the Karlskirche were, of course, invariably collaborative endeavors: Christoph Mader supervised the work on the columns, although the stone reliefs were done by Jakob Christoph Schletterer. The Italian Lorenzo Mattielli was originally commissioned to collaborate with them, but his work was deemed technically unsatisfactory (he cut too deep into the stone), and he was therefore made responsible only for the eagles and crown that topped each column’s lantern.

It was characteristic of Fischer von Erlach’s work that he always placed great emphasis on his buildings’ facades. That of the Karlskirche was especially striking. The two great columns were flanked by elegant, three-story towers to provide proportion and harmony and to frame the columns. The towers also served a practical purpose: They allowed carriages to draw up beneath them in inclement weather, whence two side entrances and a long walkway led into the body of the church. Typical of the architect with his strict Roman training, he placed between the two columns a large Roman portico supported by six columns, on which rested a pediment with reliefs by Giovanni Stanetti Stanetti, Giovanni illustrating the sufferings of the people of Vienna during the 1713 plague and crowned by Lorenzo Mattielli’s statue of San Carlo.

Passing though this portico, a visitor would enter through a square vestibule into the body of the church, a longitudinal oval at right angles to the facade. Above this central oval was the dome drum, on which rested the great copper dome and lantern. Beyond the oval, a foreshortened choir led to the apse of the high altar, which was flanked externally by two small domed towers. On the ground floor, oval and choir opened into side chapels, while above, a broad ambulatory incorporated decorated glazed boxes, from which the scene beneath could be viewed.

The Karlskirche was not Fischer von Erlach’s only commission at this time: He was also working on the Hofbibliothek Hofbibliothek, Vienna (imperial library) on the Augustinerstrasse, as well as the emperor’s winter riding stables. When he died in 1723, his talented son, Josef Emanuel, was left to complete them, finishing the stables in 1723 and the library in 1737, the same year he finished the church itself.

The elder Fischer von Erlach knew exactly how he wanted the finished church to look, engaging some of the greatest painters of the Austrian Baroque as his collaborators, including Martino Altomonte, Daniel Gran, and Johann Michael Rottmayr. Alberto Camesina painted San Carlo Borromeo ascending to heaven for the high altar, but the painting was overwhelmed by F. M. Prokoff’s immense halo amid clouds and descending rays of sunlight. Rottmayr painted the great dome with the apotheosis of San Carlo between 1725 and 1730, while Gran and Altomonte worked on other frescoes. The final dedication of the Karlskirche took place in 1738, just two years before the emperor’s death and fifteen years after the architect’s.


The Karlskirche, with its extraordinary combination of grandeur and grace, must be regarded as one of the most original and satisfying products of the Kaiserstil, Kaiserstil the imperial Viennese Baroque style, Viennese Baroque architecture Baroque;architecture of which Fischer von Erlach was the supreme exemplar. In the Baroque period, the florescence of artistic talent in the Holy Roman Empire and the Danubian lands produced a dazzling array of artists from self-taught serfs to military engineers and aristocratic amateurs, but among them all, Fischer von Erlach was unique. Leaving an indelible stamp on the Vienna of his day, he was no mere master craftsman. With far-ranging intellectual interests and boundless curiosity regarding his art, he was that very rarest of professionals, a kind of “philosopher-architect,” appropriately enough for the friend of the greatest German mind of the age. Leibniz’s conception of a “Divine Mover” became for Fischer von Erlach the concept of the architect as the interpreter of a transcendent cosmos of harmony and order, grace and nature.

Not long before his death, Fischer von Erlach published a lavishly illustrated history of architectural design, Entwurff einer historischen Architektur (1721; A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture in the Representation of the Most Noted Buildings of Foreign Nations Both Ancient and Modern, Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture . . . , A (Fischer von Erlach) 1730), expanded from a manuscript that he had originally dedicated to Charles VI in 1712. It was translated into English in 1730 and was to be one of the most influential architectural treatises of the eighteenth century. In a sense, the Karlskirche was the embodiment of the high ideals expressed in the history over which he had ruminated for so long.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aurenhammer, Hans. J. B. Fischer von Erlach. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. The only English-language work on the architect.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blunt, Anthony, ed. Baroque and Rococo: Architecture and Decoration. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. An excellent discussion of the Karlskirche.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fergusson, Frances D. “St. Charles’s Church, Vienna: The Iconography of Its Architecture.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 29 (1970): 318-326. Essential for studies of imperial iconography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millon, Henry A., ed. The Triumph of the Baroque. New York: Rizzoli, 1999. An indispensable reference to the Baroque style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sedlmayr, Hans. Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach. Vienna, Austria: Herold, 1956. The definitive study of the architect. In German.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wangermann, Ernst. The Austrian Achievement, 1700-1800. London: Thames & Hudson, 1973. Introduction to Austria’s Golden Age, placing Fischer von Erlach’s career in historical perspective.

Ottoman Wars with Russia, Venice, and Austria

Treaties of Rastatt and Baden

Construction of Istanbul’s Nur-u Osmaniye Complex

The Antiquities of Athens Prompts Architectural Neoclassicism

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i>

Charles VI; Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach; Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt. Karlskirche, Vienna

Categories: History Content