Tomb Guardians: Capuchin Monks Guard Austria’s Imperial Crypt
Few people would suspect that the order of Capuchin monks, famous for their humble imitation of St Francis, are special guardians entrusted with the duty of caring for Austria’s imperial crypt.
The Capuchin Crypt [Kapuzinergruft] lies beneath a tiny Franciscan church in Vienna. Beneath the simple wood-furnished church is a vast labyrinth of tunnels and chambers, filled with elaborate metal sarcophagi. The coffins hold the remains of 150 royal family members of the Habsburg dynasty. The Capuchins have continuously cared for the crypt and the sarcophagi, despite the collapse of the monarchy and two world wars.
“The friars are to pray for the deceased and preserve the burial place,” said Peter Grubits, manager of the crypt. Mr Grubits has been manager of the crypt since 2011, a duty he describes as an honour.
Caring for the tombs became a duty of the Capuchins in 1618, when Empress Anna of Tyrol’s last will asked the friars to pray for the royal family and the nation. Empress Anna chose the Capuchins due to familiarity with them and their popularity with ordinary people.
Later in the 1600s, Emperor Ferdinand III decided to bury all royal family members under the church.
The Catholic Habsburgs
“The Habsburgs always have been loyal Catholics. This was part of the legitimation of their claim to power,” said Mr Grubits, explaining that Catholicism was required for leaders of the Holy Roman Empire.
“On one hand, the Capuchin Crypt and its sarcophagi are monuments of faith. The Habsburgs knew themselves to be sinners. This is shown by the variety of symbols of death and vanity,” said Mr Grubits.
Some Habsburgs designed their tombs well in advance, and some sarcophagi are so huge that they had to be assembled on the spot.
One such marvel is the tomb of Empress Maria Theresa, who died in 1780. The immense coffin fills an entire room. On it, two identical figures of the empress gaze at each other as they rise from the grave, depicting the resurrection of her body and soul. The tomb was designed 30 years before her death.
In the past, royal burials were an elaborate ritual. Bodies of the royalty were embalmed and displayed in festive garments for at least three days in public. The nation was required to mourn. The entire city of Vienna was arrayed in the mourning colour of black, with palaces, churches and important buildings draped in black cloth.
The sarcophagi from modern times are much simpler. They follow the basic design of the coffin of Emperor Franz Joseph I, who died in 1916.
Among the later burials are the last Empress Zita of Austria, who died in 1989, and her son, Otto.—By Zita Ballinger Fletcher, CNS
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