St. Stephen’s Cathedral at the heart of Vienna houses important examples of the art of medieval stonemasonry. Six of its most impressive sculptures, the famous figures of rulers from the west façade and High Tower, are on display at the Belvedere Palace Stables. They date from the period around 1359 to 1365, when the cathedral was extended under Duke Rudolf IV. During the cathedral’s restoration in the years 1858 and 1870/71, they were replaced by copies and transferred to Vienna’s municipal museum. Today they are key works in the collection of Wien Museum and are on loan to the Belvedere while this is being renovated and expanded.
The artistic qualities of these tall, fashionably attired figures include their sensuous presence and lifelike traits as they are shown, elegantly poised, standing on symbolic lions. No ruler of Austria prior to the young, ambitious Duke Rudolf IV had shown such an ability to use art for the purposes of self-display. He is the thematic focus of this ensemble of figures, together with his wife Catherine of Bohemia, accompanied by their parents Duke Albert II and Johanna von Pfirt, Emperor Charles IV and Blanche de Valois.
This grouping with his Habsburg forebears and an imperial father-in-law resident in Prague is a clear demonstration of Rudolf’s political ambitions. The pointed crown he “invented” distinguishes him as holding the rank of archduke, which he conferred on himself through the forged document known as the Privilegium Maius. When he died at the age of twenty-six, after a seven-year reign, the extension of the nave and the south tower of St. Stephen’s were only in the initial stages. Whether the figures were actually intended for the positions where they were to stand for centuries is therefore an unresolved matter.