Grey Room

The Giant’s Door of St. Stephen’s

Alois Riegl

Friedrich Schmidt. Project for the renovation of the Giant’s Door, 1880. From Wiener Dombauvereins-Blatt, no. 10 (1882).


It all happened over twenty years ago, it is true—but for this writer those were times of war, so to speak, spent as a student in the art history section of the Institute of Austrian Historical Research [Institut für Österreichische Geschichtsforschung], and certain events from those days have therefore remained stuck in his memory with an indelible freshness, as if they happened yesterday. The architect then in charge of cathedral works [Dombaumeister], [Friedrich] Schmidt, had just made his proposal for the restoration of its Giant’s Door [Riesenthor] known to the public, when Prof. Moritz Thausing, professor at the aforementioned art-historical school, launched a bitter battle against it. While Thausing fulminated against the Phylloxera renovatrix in the pages of the Neue Freie Presse, his students crowded the usually fenced-off hall in front of the portal in order to study each of its sculptures. For months on end the portal was the constant object of their methodical exercises. The literary fruit of those efforts appeared in early 1883 from the pen of a young Northern German art historian later known as a Leonardo scholar, in a monograph on the Giant’s Door of St. Stephen’s, wherein the historical premises underlying Schmidt’s project were supposed to be thrown out the window. The public, however, came to regard this dispute essentially as a quarrel between artists and art historians, and its concrete outcome—the rejection of Schmidt’s project by the authorities in charge—as a victory for the art historians.

Today, after a twenty-year lull, this old controversy has been rekindled, because the current Direction of Cathedral Works [Dombauleitung] has pulled out Schmidt’s project and now wants to realize it.