In the green valleys of southern Austria, near Klagenfurt, is the pilgrimage town of Gurk. Here, a beautiful 12th-century cathedralis packed with the finest examples of religious art and shelters the shrine of Hemma, a beloved Austrian saint.
History of Gurk Cathedral
The Shrine of St. Hemma in Gurk has been a popular pilgrimage destination since the 11th century. Devotion to the sacred site remains strong, especially after Hemma's canonization in 1938 and a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1988.
Hemma (also called Emma) was born of a noble family in the late 10th century and raised at the court of Emperor St. Henry II. By all accounts, she was an energetic and pious woman who was generous with her wealth.
Hemma married Count William of Sanngan, and they had two children together. But before long, tragedy struck when her husband died on the way back from a pilgrimage to Rome. Twenty years later, she had a second heartbreak when one of her sons was killed in battle.
From that moment on, Hemma decided to devote her life to God. She began distributing her large inheritance even more generously to the poor and founded several religious houses.
In Gurk, Hemma built a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which was later enlarged to become Gurk Cathedral. She also built a convent for Benedictine nuns in 1043. Hemma spent her last days in that convent, although it is uncertain whether she actually became a nun herself.
Upon Hemma's death in 1045, she was buried at the church in Gurk. Her tomb attracted devotees almost immediately, for she was widely known for her generosity and religious life. Miracles were soon attributed to her, and the Church beatified her in 1287.
But it wasn't until the 20th century that Hemma received her greatest honors: official canonization in 1938 (with the distinction of sharing her feast day, June 29, with Peter and Paul); and a pilgrimage visit to Gurk from Pope John Paul II on June 25, 1988, during which he celebrated Mass before 80,000 pilgrims.
The cathedral of Gurk was built between 1140 and 1200 on the site of Hemma's church, and the saint's remains were placed in the crypt under the choir. Various additions and embellishments to the cathedral were made in the Gothic and baroque styles.
What to See at Gurk Cathedral
The 12th century Gurk Cathedral is regarded as the most outstanding example of Romanesque architecture in Austria. The flat, austere exterior is dominated by twin west towers (135 feet high), to which onion domes were added in 1682.
The barrel-vaulted porch has a portal dating from 1200. It was enclosed and richly decorated with murals of biblical scenes and stained glass in 1348. The south portal has a sculpture of Christ the Savior and a lion and snake can be found on the east apse. The left wall of the nave is home to the Samson Doorway, from 1200.
The interior is decorated with a magnificent collection of frescoes dating from the 13th century, including depictions of St Christopher (c. 1250), the Downfall of Saul (c. 1380), and the Death and Assumption of the Virgin (c. 1390). There are also six painted wooden reliefs, which depict the legend of St Hemma.
The Episcopal Chapel in the Gurk Cathedral's west gallery is also accessible only by guided tour (daily at 1pm); access is via the staircase in the south tower. The chapel has some exceptionally well-preserved frescoes (c. 1200) of scenes from Paradise (including the Creation of Man), Heavenly Jerusalem, the Prophets, Symbols of the Evangelists and The Virgin Mary on King Solomon's Throne.
The crypt (1174) can be seen only on guided tours. It lies under the choir, has a hundred columns, and contains the beautifully decorated sarcophagus (the Hemmagruft) of St Hemma under an altar of c. 1720.
The Baroque high altar (1626-38) is a sight to behold, adorned with 72 statues and 82 faces of angels. The main altar painting is an Assumption of the Virgin. In Holy Week the altar is covered by a medieval Lenten veil (1458), which depicts 99 biblical scenes. At the end of the nave is a Rococo altar shaped like a cross and a pulpit, both dating from c.1740. The "Pieta" was sculpted by Georg Raphael Donner of Vienna.
Gurk is about 35 miles north of Klagenfurt. By car from Klagenfurt, take Route 83 north, turning left on highway 93 and heading west (11 miles) to Gurk. The nearest train station is a tiny one at Treibach-Althofen, 10 miles from Gurk. Don't be tempted to get off at the larger St. Veit an der Glan station, which is both further away from Gurk and has less convenient bus service. There is hourly bus service to Gurk from Treibach-Althofen train station.
Quick Facts on Gurk Cathedral
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|Coordinates:||46.874905° N, 14.293331° E|
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- Kevin J. Wright, Catholic Shrines of Central and Eastern Europe (1999), 19-22.
- Gurk Cathedral - PlanetWare
- Dom zu Gurk - Official Website (German)
- Diocese of Gurk - Catholic Encyclopedia (1910)
- Photos of Gurk Cathedral - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Gurk Cathedral
Below is a location map and aerial view of Gurk Cathedral. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.