Whereas the two previous articles I have written on Royal Tombs have been in richly adorned buildings that also house palaces and libraries, the Kapuzinergruft could not be further from that on the outside. The Kapuzinergruft is the Imperial Crypt of the Habsburg Royal Family situated in Vienna. But rather than in a magnificent building, it spreads out from underneath a Capuchin Church and monastery adjacent to the Hofburg Palace. Its guardians are a dozen Capuchin Friars who look after the crypt alongside their other pastoral work throughout the Austrian capital.
The idea for the crypt came from Anna of Tyrol, nearly five hundred years ago in 1518, as a burial vault for her and her husband, Emperor Matthias. Both passed within three years and although the foundation stone was laid in September 1522, delays caused by the Thirty Years’ War meant it was July 1532 before the chapel was dedicated and the bodies of the Emperor and Empress were transferred to the Founders Vault with great ceremony the following Easter.
Over the centuries, many of the Emperors and Empresses that followed made their own extensions to both the crypt and the accompanying chapel at ground level. This includes an extension in the 1750’s by Empress Maria-Theresa below the monastery garden which includes a domed roof that allows natural light to flood in. Later in the mid-nineteenth century, the monastery was in a poor state of repair after two hundred years of use. The Chapel was left intact, however, the monastery was pulled down and rebuilt, and, as part of these works, more vaults were added to the underground crypt.
The last major works to the crypt were completed in 1960, and some of the ancient sarcophagi were showing signs of deterioration. It was realised that works needed to be done to control heating, ventilation, and humidity within the crypt. Included within those works were the creation of two new vaults which added some 20% to the area of the crypt. In 2003, some minor works were done to ease disabled access, and added air-conditioning to help stem the deterioration of the tombs.
The Imperial Crypt is now a complex of ten inter-connected vaults, which contains over one hundred and forty nobles of the Habsburgs from Emperor Matthias and Empress Anna, whose concept this was, through to Archduke Otto who lived from 1912 – 2011. The latter was the son of Karl I of Austria. Perhaps the most unusual “rulers” of the Habsburg dynasty, he was voted a member of the European Parliament by German voters and holds the record for the longest period of continuous service of a Parliamentary member.