Wiener Pestäule or Dreifaltigkeitssäule:
Vienna Trinity or Plaque Column

The Pestsäule or Trinity Column - said to help against plague, certainly also against Protestants

The Wiener Pestäule or Dreifaltigkeitssäule can be found in the centre of Vienna′s most exclusive shopping street, the Graben. The word literally means "ditch" and refers to one that ran along the lane during Roman Times. Today, it is a rather strange blend of Gründerzeit villas with boutiques, tons of tourists, and a few Baroque remains.

Apart from a Baroque Palace and the Peterskirche Church, the most central Baroque eye-catcher is a sculpture that many foreigners find very unusual: The Pestäule or Dreifaltigkeitssäule (meaning: Plaque- or Trinity Column) is a tower of clouds, saints, angels and Habsburgs (not necessarily in this order). It is the most important example of an entire genre of sculptures all over Central Europe.

At the base - which is triangular in its outlay - you find a kneeling Emperor Leopold I, easily recognizable by his enormous (and enormously ugly) chin. The Vienna Trinity Column is the most famous and oldest piece of a whole genre of columns that can be found in various cities mostly in Austria, Bohemia and Bavaria.

The Origin of the Trinity Column in Vienna

According to legend, its erection is directly linked to one of Vienna′s last really nasty plaque epidemics in 1679. As usual when things turned bad, the Emperor (Leopold I in this case) left the city immediately. But he promised to come back and erect a column to commemorate the events as soon as the plaque would cease. The reasoning was probably something like this: If god really wants a fancy column to his glory, he will stop bugging the Viennese with disease sooner than normal.

I don′t know to what extent this would hold up to contemporary theological concepts, but I do know that even art historians have difficulties with this explanation. In fact, trinity columns were a common tool for the Habsburg propaganda of the counter-reformation. They were built to impress and educate common people: About the glory of (the Catholic) god and why he is directly linked to the Habsburg family.

Back to the original story: Once the plaque had ceased, there was indeed a column erected in 1679. However, it was a very plain wooden one and nothing compared to the Trinity Column you can now see on the Graben. It wasn′t until the end of the Second Turkish Siege in 1683 and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire that the Emperor decided to built a proper Trinity Column as a memorial for the Holy Trinity, to commemorate the plaque, the Turkish defeat and his own glory. This was a costly enterprise: Plaque, Turks and Protestant wars (such as the 30-Years-War until 1648) had prevented the Habsburg from accumulating too much wealth.

Pestsäule Vienna: Mother of all Trinity Columns

Between 1683 and 1693, various important artists of the Austrian Baroque worked on the design - most notably Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Paul Strudel. The core of the column was made of brick, but the sculptures and relief structures on the outside are made of (often guilded) marble from the Untersberg in Salzburg. Only the statue of Emperor Leopold I is made of a different kind of marble from South Tyrol. Since the "opening" in 1693, innumerable PhDs were written on the Trinity Column and its implications for the Baroque age and the Habsburg Society.

The Trinity Column of Vienna became an iconic model for many similar projects in other cities of the Habsburg Empire. They are usually dedicated to the virgin Mary - partly because she is the patron saint for times of crisis, but also because the adoration of Mary is a typically Catholic feature. In the days of the counter-reformation, a pro-Mary statement was always anti-Protestant. The Vienna Trinity Column was renovated recently and is now a shiny landmark at the heart of the city just as it was in the 17th century.

Attractions nearby include the Stephansdom Cathedral, the Michaelerplatz and the Hofburg, the Albertina, the Staatsoper, the Minoritenkirche, the…well, it is in the centre of Vienna, so approximately 80 percent of the city′s attractions are within walking distance.

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Further Reading

Official website of the Vienna Tourist Information

Wikipedia on the Pestsäule

Wikipedia on Trinity Columns