Church of St. Charles Borromeo

The Cemetery Church of St. Charles Borromeo is the most significant Art Nouveau church building, together with Otto Wagner's Church of St. Leopold at Steinhof, in Vienna. After approximately three years of construction work, the church was inaugurated in 1911. It underwent comprehensive renovation work between 1995 and 2000.


Right from the very beginning, there were plans to erect a church at Vienna Central Cemetery, with place for a chapel having been set aside. The architect Max Hegele created a design for the entire development and its most important buildings: from the pylon gate with the two adjacent morgues to the church flanked by columbaria (crypts) arranged in a segmented arch form. Hegele incorporated the existing brick buildings of the covered footpath crypts into this design. These had been constructed in 1880/81 according to plans drawn up by the architects Mylius and Bluntschli.

During the Second World War, the church bells were melted down for military purposes. The roof was destroyed by a bomb. The dome, with its mosaic design, was also badly damaged. The stained glass window on the western side of the church portraying the revival of Lazarus was lost. Aside from these losses, the original Art Nouveau design remains unchanged and intact.

Church architecture

The impressive domed structure reaches a height of 58.5 metres and, with its three flights of steps, covers an area of 2,231 square metres. Three imposing pillared archways lead into the interior of the upper church with eleven-metre wide, 22-step staircases. The lower church and the crypt chapel can be accessed through the entrances at both of the corner towers on the front facade.

The building is flanked by a total of four corner towers. The back two serve as clock and bell towers. The clocks have letters instead of numbers, which create the phrase ‘tempus fugit' (time flies). The twelfth hour is marked by a small cross.

The central domed area has a diameter of 22.7 metres and reaches the impressive height of 39 metres. Public displays have also been taking place here since 1979.

In the lower church, which is more modest in design than the upper church, the crypt chapels follow on from the central room, separated by pillars. These chapels contain a total of 38 crypts.

The crypt of Karl Lueger is located in the main chapel directly beneath the high altar. The mayor, who passed away in 1910, was interred in the lower church after having been provisionally buried in the family grave. It was at this time that the church also became known as the Karl Lueger Memorial Church.  

Interior design

The church interior was designed by a number of renowned Art Nouveau artists. The atrium is decorated with two reliefs by Georg Leisek and Hans Rathausky. Leopold Forstner was responsible for the impressive, colourful windows and mosaics. Anton Kaan, Franz Klug, Karl Philipp and Adolf Pohl created the valuable marble works of art seen on the high altar. The portrayal of the Last Judgement above the high altar was designed by Hans Zatzka.

Covered footpaths and columbaria (crypts)

The covered footpaths and columbaria are on either side of the church, fanning out in a semi-circle. These were built in 1906/07, so before the church was erected. In addition to the 70 covered crypts and two mausoleums, each with eight crypts, there are 768 columbaria niches.

The term ‘columbarium' originates from Roman times and means ‘dovecote'. This was the term used in Roman times to describe walls in to which many small niches were carved. Urns containing ashes were then placed inside these recesses. However, sarcophagi are now stored in the columbarium niches at Vienna Central Cemetery. Occupied niches are closed off with a concrete slab and are given a marble plaque with an inscription.

Renovation of the church

The church had been badly affected by subsidence caused by structural shortcomings and penetrating damp. The renovation work was carried out in three separate phases. Firstly, any historically valuable elements such as steps and lights were inventoried and numbered. Then, these elements were taken away while the building underwent restoration work and, once this work was complete, they were refitted. The interior of the church was also badly damaged. Around 40 percent of the tiled floor was cracked, metal and brass parts were covered in rust and the murals unrecognisable.

The building's valuable basic structure and artistic décor were restored in consultation with the Austrian Federal Monuments Office and according to strict regulations to preserve the integrity of the building.