Michaelergruft Face Lift

In the Crypt Under the Michaelerkirche, the Remains of 700 Years

Spring is a time of renewal. Flowers blossom wildly through winter decay, young birds twitter in their nests. Meanwhile underground, dedicated experts too are trying to breathe fresh life into… well, an entourage of skeletons, mummies and coffins, the residents of the Michaeler Gruft beneath the Michaelerkirche in Vienna’s first district. These flowers of civilization have been in the crypt for centuries, arriving through the years since the mid-13th century.

And now, they need help.

In the crypt lies a treasury of 245 original wooden and metal coffins, as well as bones and mummies from the Baroque and Renaissance periods. But as new life sprouts, these artifacts are slowly disintegrating, some into unrecognisable piles of dust due to destructive wood pests—weevils and woodworms—as well as high humidity reaching levels over of 90%. It is clear that something must be done and hopefully funding from the Bundesdenkmalamt will suffice.

One of the mummies found deep in the recesses of the Michaelergruft in Vienna‘s 1st District. | Photo: Andreas Krezman 

Efforts to restore the crypt’s contents began in 2005. Since 2002, Dr. Alexandra Rainer has been giving tours of the crypt.

“She noticed that it was being destroyed and sought help until she found a man who believed in the cause,” said Katharina Kohoutek, the project organiser and climate technician.

Yngve Magnussen, a wood restorer, gave the first hints about how to handle the fragile coffins and remove the dust from their tops without destroying their delicate paintings. Equally important was Erhard Halmschlager, professor at the Universität für Boden Kultur, who first identified that it is in fact a variety of beetles, called weevils, devouring the coffins.

“It’s a mystery why this variety of weevils made its way into a crypt in Vienna. They are originally found in nature in New Zealand, and often in England,” said Kohoutek. Nevertheless, they have burrowed under the floors and invaded the coffins. In the meantime, woodworms are feasting on all but the coffin paintings. Kohoutek held up a piece of wood covered in tiny holes, resembling millions of pinpricks.

“They’ve eaten everything but the paint,” she pointed out, showing that only the original green paintings are still intact.

Destroying the beetles is one of the most pressing challenges. Kohoutek, who works for a Büroklimatechnik company, has built up a system to improve the climate, reducing the temperature to 10-12 degrees Celsius.

At 10 degrees, the beetles enter an artificial state of hibernation and cannot move; they prefer warmth. She is also working on opening up the crypt’s air shafts that were closed off at one time, allowing fresh air to flow inside.

Another major problem is the humidity in the crypt. In the summer of 2005, they measured a record 20°C with 99% relative humidity, pumping out 33,000 liters of water. Humidity is still at 82%. “Summer is especially hard work,” said Kohoutek.

As a result of the dampness, mold is creeping up over the coffins. For now, the solution is moving the coffins onto metal supports so that the air can flow underneath them. Mold does not like airflow.

Even though the crypt is a national treasure, everything cannot be saved. It’s simply too costly. The climate control system needs more electricity than the church can afford in the long run. The most effective method to obliterate the beetles would be fumigation, but this would be the most costly, involving removal of every coffin and mummy from the crypt.

One wooden coffin costs about €5,500 to restore. The restoration requires expertise and much time to test how to best handle the coffins. “The wooden coffins must be cleaned, the heavily damaged paintings on them have to be restored, and missing pieces of wood need to be filled,” explained Mag. Michael Ullermann, an expert in restoration.

Saving all the wooden coffins would cost an estimated €1.3 million. But that is not including the metal coffins—some plagued with tin pest—which are more expensive to restore.

The plan is to restore 40 to 50 wooden coffins in the next three to five years. They will begin with the ones containing mummies, and those in most desperate need of help. The others will have to be left as they are for now. Kouhoutek, who admittedly has her favourite mummy—“The Spanish Man”—regrets that the only way to save them is to improve the overall crypt conditions.

“The Mummies will not be restored. This is a matter of human remains that are not reparable. To protect their authenticity, and out of respect, no aesthetic changes will be made. After all, it is a crypt and not a museum,” emphasized Mag. Ullermann.

Restoration is too costly for the church alone, so some support is expected to come from the Bundesdenkmalamt. “The problem is, funds are not yet there because of slow bureaucratic procedures,” commented Kohoutek. They estimate the project will last 10-15 years, but Kohoutek personally thinks it will take longer “because it is too much money and work.”

Standing in the crypt, she pointed out that there are 1.5 metres of bones beneath our feet.  When the crypt became too crowded, bones would be buried under the floor to make way for new coffins. But what really makes the crypt so unique, is that it has not been changed much.

Some mummies look peaceful, as though they have just fallen asleep. The long black silk dresses with ruching, velvet pants, and leather shoes that have not been destroyed, still have their details. Their hands clasp the rosary beads given to them at death. Some women have hats, men wigs, and the unmarried a Totenkranz, a death wreath.

“Other crypts have mummies, but without clothes. Some have metal coffins but no wooden ones. We have everything,” pointed out Kohoutek.

Particularly special is that visitors can come very close to the mummies. “The crypt was opened to show people the nearness of life and death, and we want to continue that for the future,” said Kohoutek.

Some visitors literally get too close, a potential problem in case they touch the artifacts and cause irreparable damage. The mummies’ clothing is so brittle it can disintegrate at the touch. In the future they might install glass plates over the top to protect the mummies from dust.

Just last year, they even found a new chamber below the front of the church containing one coffin, only accessible through a small hole high up on the crypt’s wall.

Places nearer to the front of the church were more expensive, so it must contain someone important. Currently Kohoutek and colleagues are trying to figure out to whom the coffin belonged through specialised examination of the coffin plate and searches through hospital and war archival records.

With new discoveries and increasing damage, the crypt requires substantial funding that takes months, if not years to obtain, maybe longer than it takes for the insects and humidity to destroy the contents.

“Now more and more esteemed experts are taking care of the crypt, but it remains a race against time, and is very difficult to arrange for financial reasons,” stressed Mag. Ullermann.

It is as though the mummies must die a second time. But it is not even a peaceful death, their weevil eaten coffins disintegrating around them.

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