The Artemis-Cicerone-Art Guide describes Gurk Cathedral only in superlatives: That it would be a "Gesamtkunstwerk", a synthesis of the arts, which would house the finest pieces of art from various epochs and which would be among Austria's leading art heritage sites of European rank. Everything started in 1043, when Countess Hemma of Friesach-Zeltschach, better known as St. Hemma, founded a nunnery plus a Marian church in the picturesque valley of the Gurk, or respectively in 1072, when Archbishop Gerhard of Salzburg repealed the nunnery founded by St. Hemma, and instead installed at the very same place a bishopric of Gurk and endowed it with the nunnery's former property.
The road ahead to an independent diocese of Gurk was long and winding, because the Archbishops of Salzburg kept the bishops of Gurk on leading-strings. In fact, the Gurk bishops were completely dependent on the Archbishop of Salzburg, who did but install a pastoral substitute without a diocese or a chapter of its own in this isolated spot of his huge Salzburg diocese - at least that was the original plan. Only in 1131 was the Gurk bishop to gain a certain autonomy from the Archdiocese of Salzburg, thus endorsed by the House of Babenberg (the later House of Hapsburg) and the Holy Roman Emperor, but (violently) contested by the Salzburg Archbishops, even in the following centuries.
Who would be surprised to hear that Gurk Cathedral claims equality of rank with the Gurk diocese and its bishop on the basis of the arts? The construction of the High Romanesque basilica with its three naves started in 1140, shortly after Gurk's first steps to independence from Salzburg. The building’s oldest part, the crypt, with its 100 columns, was consecrated in 1174. Around the year 1200 all the exterior works were complete and the church became dedicated to the Virgin Mary's assumption.
The sumptuous prelude to the cathedral is located in the west, between the stairwells of the two church towers that embrace an exterior vestibule. It includes a high Romanesque stepped portal with 7 recessed pairs of columns and, on its side walls, frescoes from the 14th century, depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament. Parts of Romanesque tendril ornaments are preserved at the wings of the door. The Bishop's chapel with rare frescoes, painted after 1264 in the so-called "Zackenstil", a style derived from its zig-zag forms, a transitional style between the Romanesque and the Gothic era, is located above the vestibule (entrance only as part of an extended guided tour).
Once inside the pillar basilica, the first glance falls on the cross altar by Georg Raphael Donner, cast massively from Carinthian lead in 1740. It shows Mary who, supported by an angel, mourns the death of her son Jesus, while two smaller angels kiss Jesus's stigmata. The group of figures is arranged softly and fluently, it plays with the Rococo motive of the rocaille and yet it is composed in a simple, almost classic triangle. And indeed, Georg Raphael Donner was early recognized as a forerunner of Classicism. Another art work from the year 1740 is the pulpit, which depicts the victory of faith by overcoming heresy, symbolized by a falling Lutheran priest. The pulpit was designed by the theatre architects Giuseppe and Antonio Galli-Bibiena, and crafted by local masters, supplemented by lead reliefs from Georg Raphael Donner.
The slightly elevated upper church - which was exclusively reserved for the clerics - is dominated by a multi-figured Marian high altar, carved from wood by Michael Hönel between 1625 and 1632 and gilded in 1654 by Johann Seitlinger: In its very center the apostles gather around the empty deathbed of the Virgin Mary who, surrounded by numerous angel's heads, ascends into heaven, where she is received by the Holy Trinity and St. Kunigunde and St. Hemma.
The event is flanked by the four larger-than-life-sized figures of the Evangelists, who, together with the four figures of the Fathers of the Church, are the foundation of this altar, as well as of the church itself. Behind, in niches, are figures of the Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich II, founder of the diocese of Bamberg, and of Count Wilhelm II of Friesach-Zeltschach, husband of St. Hemma. Further up there are more saints and finally, on top of the altar, the Archangels expel the devil from heaven.
Both side altars - the one to the left is dedicated to St. Stephen, the one to the right to St. Peter – were also carved by Michael Hönel in 1637 and 1638. Multi-stored, multi-figured altar retables, like the Gurk one, were highly fashionable in the early 17th century in the Catholic regions of the Holy Roman Empire, and Michael Hönel got to study this fashion whilst an apprentice at the workshop of Michael Schwenke in Saxony. The Gurk altar was Hönel's first own realization of this early Baroque art form, the first example in Carinthia after all, and, of course, a good recommendation for commissions to follow in the region.
Also notable, in front of the Marian high altar, is the old, Romanesque altar with mosaics in the Cosmati style: The Cosmati were a family of marble decorators, active from the 12th to the 14th century, and the Gurk mosaic is one the few Cosmati marble works outside of Italy.
This list of the art works from Gurk cathedral is far from complete and could undoubtedly go on. To conclude, it should be pointed out, that the bishops of Gurk - who over centuries took residence at Straßburg, a castle in the vicinity of Gurk - moved to Klagenfurt in 1787. It is since then that Klagenfurt cathedral has been the main cathedral of the diocese of Gurk, while Gurk cathedral holds the title of a co-cathedral.
It’s good to know:
Stift Gurk/Cathedral chapter of Gurk
Information about guided tours: