Otto Wagner's Kirche am Steinhof

The Kirche am Steinhof, technically the Church of St. Leopold, sits on the grounds of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Penzing, Austria, just outside Vienna. Designed by Otto Wagner (1841–1918), it was built in 1907 and is pleasingly simple in design, with flat white walls minimally decorated in gold. Four golden angels with upward-swooping wings adorn the facade over the door, in front of a flat frieze of golden wreaths and crosses. Above them rise a golden dome and a cupola set with a cross. Two towers at the corners are topped with statues of the patron saints of lower Austria, Leopold and Severin, both seated, not standing. In style and design, the church is closely akin to the Sezession building in Vienna, the flagship of the artists of the New Art, Art Nouveau, who declared themselves in secession from the academic art world of the traditional academies.

Beginning in the 1880s, Art Nouveau was a revolt against what the young architects of the movement saw as the hidebound historicism of both Neoclassicism and Gothic Revival, as well as the strictures of academic study. They championed the integration of all the arts and of modern materials and building methods into their buildings, and like the other artists of the movement, they emphasized organic form and curving line; theirs was an art of youth, beauty, and exuberance.

New in Concept & Design

Otto Wagner’s Art Nouveau church is set at the top of a hill and is approached by a zigzag path that connects a series of small, domestic-scale hospital buildings and houses for the patients. This was an era of new kinds of medical treatment in Vienna, particularly psychiatric medicine under the tutelage of Dr. Sigmund Freud. For one thing, the hospital is set outside the city, in the exurb of Penzing in the Vienna Woods, a setting thought to be calming. The small scale of the buildings, and of the church, marked a shift from the grand institutional asylums of the nineteenth century to a more normalizing atmosphere. Furthermore, Wagner’s flat white surfaces, simple decoration, and, above all, the welcoming posture of the seated saints, reduce any visual agitation that might disturb the composure of its users.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of A Thousand Words: Reflections on Art and Christianity (St. James Press, 2023). She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland. She is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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