1809 Terrain 5 – Religious Landmarks

Religious landmarks were ubiquitous around 1800 and can often be found on Napoleonic battlefields, such as the iconic church and cemetery of Aspern. In the Habsburg Monarchy, Catholicism was the state religion. Several religious minorities, such as Protestants, Greek-orthodox and Jews, existed, and different laws regulated if and how they were allowed to practice their religion in public. Protestants were allowed to have prayer houses, but those could not have an entrance towards the street or a tower. This means that all religious symbols that could be found in public in Eastern Austria around 1800 were Roman Catholic.

In this article, I will focus on three kinds of religious architecture: prayer houses (churches and chapels), cemeteries and small single monuments. I will mention monasteries only very cursory at the end.

Churches and chapels

Churches were representative as well as functional buildings. As functional buildings, they were the place of congregation for the parish and formed the communal centre of a village or town (or town district, in the case of larger towns with several churches). Going to mass was natural for most Austrians around 1800 and only very few people – most from the educated elites – would follow enlightenment religious schools of thought such as deism, which placed no importance on religious rituals (real atheism was even rarer). Incidentally, this was also true of French soldiers, despite their reputation as atheistic heathens!

Churches also had a representative and symbolic function. As such, they followed the architectural styles predominant at the time of their construction. However, they were also continuously modified according to requirements and taste. This means that many older churches incorporated elements from different periods and rarely showed pure architectural styles.

Many Austrian churches are Romanesque or Gothic in origin. Renaissance churches are rare, but baroque architecture is quite common, as there was a veritable building boom during the late 17th century. Many new churches were built to bolster the Counter-Reformation. Those baroque churches dominated the appearance of many villages and towns. The church of Aspern is a good example, being built in 1671.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, many older churches were also supplemented with baroque elements and decorations. Churches continued to be modified and added to during the 19th and 20th century, so it is often difficult to extrapolate how they looked around 1800. Fortunately, due to their importance, they are often depicted in townscapes, so it is often possible to find drawings or engravings of specific churches.

The following image shows Herzogbirbaum (40km to the north-west of Vienna) around 1830. The church, which features prominently in the lithography, is of Gothic origin and was finished at the end of the 13th century. The tower, however, was embellished with baroque elements during the 18th century, as can be clearly seen by the “Zwiebelturm” (onion-domed tower).

The next image is a detail of an image I’ve already shown in the article on villages, namely Mayer’s late-18th-century painting of Groissenbrunn.

This church was finished in 1763 and is a typical example of baroque architecture. Note the walled graveyard surrounding the church and the simple grave crosses, to which we will now turn our attention.


Until the end of the 18th century, the church alone was responsible for the burial of the dead. However, with the government of Emperor Joseph II., state authorities started to intervene to reform the funeral system.

Up until that time, cemeteries were usually around churches, with the whole area being walled in. There was a strict hierarchy concerning the locations of graves: clergymen and very high-ranking laymen were buried inside the church, while influential families or guilds had vaulted graves along the church’s exterior wall. The rest of the population was put into mass graves in the cemetery proper, where individuals were buried in layers.

Cemeteries became incredibly crowded, and bodies had to be exhumed regularly to make space for new ones. The bones of those bodies were kept in ossuaries, which were built near the church. The cemetery at Aspern had such an ossuary, which today houses the 1809 museum.

Image from wikipedia.

However, the exhumation of bodies posed hygienical problems, because they often hadn’t had time to decompose properly. This caused the government of Joseph II. to order the construction of new cemeteries outside of towns. Thanks to the enlightenment regime, Austria was, after France, one of the pioneers in the development of such new communal cemeteries. For example, Korneuburg (where a small battle was fought on 7 July 1809) got a small cemetery outside its city walls in 1785. In those new cemeteries, the deceased were buried in single graves in the order of their date of death – at least in principle, as wealthy families tried to get privileged places.

The new cemetery at Korneuburg. Detail from the Schweickhardt map.

Concerning grave decorations, the old church cemeteries were rather plain. The mass graves very seldom had artwork and mostly were marked with wooden, sometimes wrought iron, crosses. Here is a mid-18th century depiction of the cemetery of the Bürgerspital (hospital) near the St. Rochus chapel in Vienna.

It gives the impression of a pretty crowded hotchpotch of grave markers, most of them crosses, some of which are rather simple, others featuring elaborate carvings. The small roofs were intended to protect the wooden crosses from rain. There are also what looks like wrought iron crosses on stone pedestals and one single gravestone with a figurative relief.

Here are some images of wooden and wrought-iron grave crosses from the Tyrol, the iron ones dating back to the 16th and 17th century. It can be assumed that, despite regional stylistic differences, the overall shape of such crosses would be the same all over Austria (and probably the German states).

Up until the end of the 18th century, the graves inside the churches and the vaulted graves were also often simple affairs, as there was not enough space for elaborate monuments.

However, in the new cemeteries outside town, a new culture of often quite elaborate grave monuments began to emerge, often following neo-classicist models and introducing distinctions of wealth and status into the supposedly egalitarian rows of graves. Obelisks, urns, steles or figurative statues were the most common forms.

Cemeteries were usually surrounded by a wall (sometimes by a fence). In war time, this made them useful positions for the defence of a village, as happened at the battle of Aspern, where the cemetery was fiercely contested.

Scene from the Battle of Aspern. Image from Wien Museum.

It is important to note that at the time, cemeteries were not as important as today as sites of remembrance. The dead were mainly commemorated through prayer, litanies of intercession, days of remembrance and, in Austria, small monuments called “Lichtsäulen”.

Small Monuments

The Lower Austrian landscape around 1800 was dotted with small religious monuments in the form of pillars (many of which can still be found). In the vernacular, they are often called “Marterl”, although historians have remarked that this is an incorrect, pseudo-folksy designation. If anything, a “Marterl” would be an image or sculpture depicting Christ on the cross, something that is predominant in the Tyrol. The predominant Lower Austrian monuments are correctly called “Lichtsäulen” (light pillars) or “Bildstöcke” (image pillars). They are pillars built out of bricks and covered with plaster, topped by a sort of lantern. This lantern originally held a candle but now often features a cross or a small religious image.

Lichtsäule Hohenruppersdorf, Imagine from wikipedia

The “Lichtsäulen” first appeared in the 14th century and originated in France. There are a few that were made by known gothic artisans, following the style of gothic architecture, but most of them were made by anonymous artisans in a local, less elaborate style. They housed a light inside the lantern-like top, whose function it was to commemorate the dead.

Image from Berger: “Die Kultmale des Marchfeldes”

Here are more examples.

Lichtsäule Diepolz, Image from wikipedia
Lichtsäule at the Teiritzberg near Tresdorf. Image from marterl.at
Lichtsäule near Hausleiten. Image from marterl.at

During the 17th and 18th centuries, a new type was developed, the so-called “Bildstock” or “Bildsäule” (image pillar). Commemorating events such as plagues, they often featured elaborate carvings and figures, depicting Holy Mary or saints.

Dreifaltigkeitssäule Weikendorf, image from wikipedia

There were also other types, such as crosses and single statues of St. Nepomuk, a popular saint often found at bridges. However, the most common type was and still is the simple Lichtsäule.

Often, the original meaning of the monument changed over time. For example, after the Thirty Years War, many Lichtsäulen obtained an inscription thanking god for the end of the war. While the original meaning was changed or even lost, the durable monument itself was integrated into the “mental map” of the inhabitants, acquiring a function as a landmark and geographical reference. This is probably why such monuments feature prominently in the wonderful topographical map drawn by Franz Xaver Schweickhardt in 1837.

Detail from the Schweickhardt map.

And to show you that Schweickhardt didn’t just place them there as embellishments, but that his drawings denote real monuments, let’s have a closer look at the rightmost of the three monuments depicted in the map segment. It is located near the Neues Wirtshaus, the site of a battle between Austrian and Saxon cavalry on 5th July 1809. It still exists (it was restored in 2009-2011) and is known since long as the “Weisses Kreuz” (white cross) or “Wampertes Kreuz” (pot-bellied cross), even though its not in the shape of a cross, but in the shape of a Lichtsäule, albeit a very stocky one.

Image from sagen.at

It’s an oddly shaped thing and dates back at least to the 18th century, maybe even to the Middle Ages. For battlefield walks, it is useful as it helps locate the site of the Neues Wirtshaus, which no longer exists.

Abbeys and monastaries

I want to mention them only in passing, as they only played a peripheral role during the Napoleonic campaigns and probably won’t feature on a tabletop. Napoleon visited the most famous, Melk Abbey, in November 1805 and May 1809. At the later date, he witnessed Marcellin Marbot crossing the Danube on a daring reconnaissance mission, as narrated in the memoirs of the then-ADC of Masséna (which we might believe or not).

In 1809, the French also used several Viennese monasteries as hospitals, among them the Minoritenkloster, Augustinerkloster, Servitenkloster and the monastery of the Barmherzige Brüder.

Availability of models

Churches can be found in several terrain ranges. Another option would be to use churches made for model railroads, as they often depict very local styles. Najewitz Modellbau offers very nice stl files of the Aspern church and cemetery. I built mine from scratch:

Period-specific grave crosses, however, are difficult to find, as are Lichtsäulen and other small monuments. Again, model railroad companies offer a small selection, such as a set of “Marterl” by Noch. There are also a small number of stl files on Thingiverse and cults3d, but none of this is great. 

This would be a fine opportunity for someone versed in 3D-sculpting!


Berger, Walter: “Die Kultmale (Bildstöcke, Wegkreuze usw.) des Marchfeldes,” Österreichische Zeitschrift für Volkskunde 79 (1976), pp. 1-72.

Deininger, Johann W. (ed.): Tiroler Volkskunst. Bäuerliche Architektur, Wohnräume, Getäfel, Mobilien, Geräte und Erinnerungszeichen. Innsbruck: Max Schammler 1914.

Fischer, Norbert: Vom Gottesacker zum Krematorium – Eine Sozialgeschichte der Friedhöfe in Deutschland seit dem 18. Jahrhundert. Dissertation, University of Hamburg 1996 (available online at https://ediss.sub.uni-hamburg.de/handle/ediss/155)

Lukasser, K.: Kirchen und Kapellen in Niederösterreich. Matrei in Osttirol: Journal-Verlag 1999.

Plechl, Pia M.: “Gott zu Ehrn ein Vatterunser pett” : Bildstöcke, Lichtsäulen und andere Denkmale der Volksfrömmigkeit in Niederösterreich. Wien: Herold 1971.

Sörries, Reiner: Ruhe Sanft. Kulturgeschichte des Friedhofs. Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 2009.

The Schweickhardt map is accessible online at https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/s/i78ttb

marterl.at is a comprehensive database of small religious monuments in Lower Austria, containing images, exact locations and a short description.

Marbot’s tale of his adventure at Melk can be found in the chapter 14 of the second volume of his Mémoires.