Symbols of an Empire

Though I was a studious kid who loved history, my head always reeled when I read about lines of European nobility. I could never remember who had married whom for political reasons. I lost track of the Holy Roman emperors after Charlemagne. And my grasp of European geography before WWII was hazy at best. I am a concrete thinker who needs a tangible connection with the past, and that is just what I got in Vienna. Seeing the Habsburg palaces was like the dust particle necessary for condensing the vaporous historical information floating around my brain. Old lessons came rushing back, complete with flashes of insight about their current relevance. Since I've been home my dreams have been filled with European geopolitics. 

The Habsburg house ruled multiple provinces in central and eastern Europe between the years of 1526 and 1918. Several Holy Roman emperors were elected from the Habsburg monarchs, though the two roles were always distinct and some of the Habsburg lands lay outside the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburg family united their lands into the Austrian Empire in 1804, and later the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which collapsed at the end of WWI.

On our first day in Vienna, we visited the Schönbrunn, the Habsburg summer palace.  The grounds were straight out of a fairy tale, complete with a zoo and labyrinth, fountains and playgrounds.  There was even a greenhouse for exotic cacti.  Being from Texas, we skipped that attraction. Below is a picture of the vast promenade leading from the palace to Gloriette Hill.  From the hill you can see the entire city, and it is stunning.

On the right side of walk, in front of the tree line, you can see several statues.  The statues depict various Greek and Roman heroes and deities. I knew that Renaissance Europe was enamored with classical art so this didn't surprise me.  But the sheer number of the images made me uneasy in a way I couldn't quite pin down.

The next day we visited the Hofburg, the Habsburg seat of power.  In my opinion the palace is not particularly beautiful on the outside, but it is grand on a scale I cannot describe.

At the boys' request we visited the weapons museum which was located on one floor of one small wing of the building, far from the entrance. The building itself was worth the price of admission! So much marble.  So much art "wasted" on fireplace grates and banister scrolls.  Halls so long you could not see the end.  It took us 90 minutes to explore just the hall of weapons, and from there, we could see three other museums in the same wing on the floors below.

This is the boys favorite museum ever. I was unaware of just how many suits of armor were floating around Europe.

This is the boys favorite museum ever. I was unaware of just how many suits of armor were floating around Europe.

Even the horse gallery is made of marble with crystal chandeliers and seating for at least 300 spectators.  Clara loved the dancing horses.

We wish Peggy could have seen this.

We wish Peggy could have seen this.

As we toured the Hofburg, my uneasiness at Schönbrunn returned and crystallized.  Once again, there were statues of war heroes and pagan gods everywhere, but no Christian symbols.  Not one statue of Jesus or a patron saint or an Old Testament patriarch.  None.  I suppose that is not too surprising. It is hard to find many symbols of imperial power in the gospels.

Even so, the Habsburgs were princes of Christendom.  When they served as Holy Roman emperors, it was supposedly their duty to defend the faith and govern the land on behalf of the Great King who would someday return and demand an account.  It seems that the Habsbrugs lost this vision, if they ever held it.

Our tour of the Hofburg reminded me of Tolkien and the Stewards of Gondor. I strongly suspect the Habsburgs, or perhaps the Holy Roman emperors, were Tolkien's inspiration for Denethor - a steward who had lost his hope for the return of the king.  Denethor considered himself the rightful ruler of the chief city of men, and he was not pleased when Aragorn did return.

The grandeur of the Habsburg palaces is amazing and fitting for stewards of a great and coming king.  Beauty is is divine gift, and art is a powerful teaching tool. The problem with the art of the Habsburg palaces is that is self-referential, to borrow one of Pope Francis' favorite terms. It fails to point toward the blessed hope of our faith.   In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that the Son of Man will return and gather the nations before him for judgment.  I fear that  will not be a happy day for many of the Habsburg princes.