The Gurk cathedral is amongst the most popular cathedrals in Austria, also known as the Austrian Basilica in Carinthia. It was built in the town of Gurk city of Carinthia, in the green valleys of southern Austria during 1140 to 1200 where it still stands today. The architecture of the structure clearly reflects the high Romanesque style present during those times and is considered to be among the most important Romanesque churches in Europe. This beautiful 12th century cathedral is full with the finest examples of religious arts and houses the shrine of Saint Hemma, a beloved Austrian saint.
GURK CATHEDRAL: THE SHRINE OF SAINT HEMMA
The Gurk cathedral is amongst the most popular cathedrals in Austria, also known as the Austrian Basilica in Carinthia. It was built in the town of Gurk, city of Carinthia, in the green valleys of southern Austria during 1140 to 1200 where it still stands today. The architecture of the structure clearly reflects the high Romanesque style present during those times and is considered to be among the most important Romanesque churches in Europe. This beautiful 12th century cathedral is full with the finest examples of religious arts and houses the shrine of Saint Hemma, a beloved Austrian saint.
West front of Gurk Cathedral - Photo by cdaros
Brief History of Saint Hemma
The Shrine of St. Hemma in Gurk has been a popular pilgrimage destination since the 11th century and the devotion to the sacred site remains strong, especially after the canonization of Hemma in 1938 and a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1988.
Hemma (also called Emma or Gemma) was born of a noble family in the late 10th century and raised at the court of Emperor St. Henry II. Hemma was an industrious and pious woman who was very generous with her wealth.
Hemma married Count William of Sanngan, and they had two children together. But not very long, tragedy struck when her husband died on the way back from a pilgrimage to Rome. Twenty years later, she had a second sorrow when one of her sons was killed in battle. From that time on, Hemma decided to devote her life to God. She began distributing her large inheritance even more generously to the poor and founded several religious houses.
In Gurk, Hemma built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which was later enlarged to become Gurk Cathedral. She also built a convent for Benedictine nuns in 1043. Hemma spent her last days in that convent, although it is unknown whether she actually became a nun herself.
On Hemma's death in 1045, her remains were buried at the church in Gurk. Her tomb attracted devotees almost immediately, for she was widely known for her generosity and religious life. Miracles were soon attributed to her, and the Church beatified her in 1287.
But it wasn't until the 20th century that Hemma received her greatest honors: official canonization in 1938 and a pilgrimage visit to Gurk by Pope John Paul II on 1988.
The Gurk Cathedral
The cathedral of Gurk was built between 1140 and 1200 on the site of Hemma's church, and the relics of Saint Hemma were placed in the crypt under the choir. Various additions and decorations to the cathedral were made in the Gothic and Baroque styles. The 12th century Gurk Cathedral is regarded as the most outstanding example of Romanesque architecture in Austria.
The flat and simple exterior is dominated by twin west towers, to which onion domes were added in 1682. The barrel-vaulted porch has a portal dating from 1200. It was elaborately and richly decorated with murals of scenes from the Bible and stained glass in 1348. The south portal has a sculpture of Christ the Savior, a lion and snake can be found on the east apse. The left wall of the nave is where one can found Samson Doorway, from 1200.
Frescoes in the cathedral - Photo by Markus Schroeder
The interior is adorned with a magnificent collection of frescoes dating from the 13th century, including depictions of St Christopher (1250), the Downfall of Saul (1380), and the Death and Assumption of the Virgin (1390). There are also six painted wooden relief which features the legend of St Hemma.
At the west galley of the cathedral is the Episcopal Chapel which is accessible only by guided tour; access is via the staircase in the south tower. The chapel has some exceptionally well-preserved frescoes (1200) of scenes from Paradise (including Creation), Heavenly Jerusalem, the Prophets, Symbols of the Evangelists and The Virgin Mary on King Solomon's Throne.
Gurk Cathedral Crypt - Photo by Österreich Werbung/Trumler
Access to the crypt (1174) can be seen only on guided tours. It lies underneath the choir, has a hundred columns, and contains the beautifully decorated sarcophagus (the Hemmagruft) of St Hemma under an altar dating back 1720.
The Baroque high altar (1626-38) is a sight of enchantment, decorated with numerous statues and faces of angels. The main altar is a painting of “Assumption of the Virgin.” Every Holy Week the altar is covered by a medieval Lenten veil (1458), which features immense biblical scenes. At the end of the nave is a Rococo altar shaped like a cross and a pulpit, both dating from 1740. The "Pieta" was gracefully sculpted by George Raphael Donner of Vienna.