Stephansdom: Giant’s Gate and Heathen Towers

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Giant’s Gate

The main entrance to St. Stephen’s Cathedral is called Riesentor (Giant’s Door or Giant’s Gate in English). It got its name not just by its size, but also by a thighbone of a mastodon that was discovered in 1443 when digging the foundation for the north tower and later hung over the gate.

In the past people believed that giants (not dinosaurs or mastodons) lived on the Earth (which was believed to be flat in that time) before great flood came. As a result, dinosaur or mastodon bones were considered bones of giants and were kept in churches as relics, including the case of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, hence the gate’s name.

Together with the adjacent Heathen Towers (Heidentürme) the Giant’s Gate is the oldest part of the Stephansdom still standing. It was built around 1230 in the Late Romanesque style with unusually rich ornamentation.

Heathen Towers

The two Heathen Towers, also referred to as Roman Towers, were also built in Romanesque style. Their name recalls the fact that they were built from the ruins of old structures built in the time of Ancient Rome. Like the Riesentor the Heathen Towers were parts of the church that occupied the site of today’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the 13th century. Both towers are 66 metres (215 ft) high. Their ground plans are rectangular, but alter to octagonal from the third story upwards.

Heathen Tower Bells

There are six bells hanging in the North Heathen Tower. All of them are still operating and serve as working bells for St. Stephen’s Cathedral. They ring regularly for evening prayers and also ring toll for funerals. Five of the six bells were cast in 1772 and are mostly named according to their original uses: Kanterin (calling the cantors to Mass); Bieringerin (last call at Viennese pubs); Poor Souls (funerals); Feringerin (High Mass on Sundays); Churpötsch (donated to St. Stephen’s by the local curia in honour of the Maria Pötsch icon in the Cathedral); and Feuerin (cast in 1859 and originally used as fire alarm). Several bells used to hang in the South Heathen Tower, but they were destroyed in the big fire in 1945.