Crypt photos: the only untouched imperial tomb of Europe was investigated

A very unusual message in the current stream of scientific news: it does not contain a word about everyone's favorite advanced research methods - neither about DNA, nor about isotopes, or even about X-ray fluorescence spectrometry with some kind of simple radiocarbon analysis. Austrian experts talked about a “secret” study based solely on photographs.

Crypt photos: the only untouched imperial tomb of Europe was investigated

 The result, according to scientists, is sensational.  And the intensity of emotions - comparable to the time of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, for two reasons.  Firstly, the deceased studied was even a higher rank - Frederick III, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  Secondly, of the 14 known tombs of medieval kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, only this tomb in the Vienna Cathedral of St. Stephen remained untouched - for 500 years no one dared to disturb the peace of the founder of the future Habsburg empire.

 In the photo below - the imperial tomb itself in the Cathedral of St. Stephen.  Her story deserves a small separate story, since the available encyclopedias provide only the most general information: the author is Nikolai Gerhaert van Leyden, the material is red marble, the burial time is 1513.  However, this information is not entirely accurate.

 Tomb of Frederick III at St. Stephen's Cathedral.  Photo: APA / KHM-MUSEUMSVERBAND

 It is enough to check the dates: Nikolay Leidensky died in 1473, Frederick III - in 1493, and the tomb appeared only in 1513.  How so?  And red marble is not marble, but red limestone from the famous Ardet deposit near Salzburg, which is very difficult to process.

 The explanation of these “inconsistencies” has been preserved in historical records.  Frederick III (1415 - 1493) lived and ruled for a very long time, under different titles.  In 1452 he became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire - the last of the crowned in Rome and the first of the Habsburg clan on this throne.  It seems that Frederick himself did not expect that he would live a long life: he tried to order his own tomb back in 1463, thirty years before his death.  He turned to one of the best sculptors of his time, Nikolai Gerhart Leiden.  He was busy and was able to start work only in 1468, after the second persistent appeal of the emperor.

 Gerhart developed the most complicated design of the tomb (240 figures and 32 coats of arms are only those elements that can be counted) and chose for her, as luck would have it, a very laborious stone, that same red Ardet "marble".  In 1473, Gerhart died, having managed to finish only the tombstone with the image of the customer, sleeping forever.


 The customer, apparently, was satisfied with his posthumous image, and the work of the approved project was continued by the Viennese craftsmen Max Walmet (he owns the side reliefs) and Michel Tikhter, the court "undertaker".  Tikhter created a girdle balustrade and supervised the installation of a two-meter tomb in St. Stephen's Cathedral.  By the way, from the height of human growth, the tombstone of the work of the great Nikolai Gerhart cannot be seen, but steps are provided for those who are especially close from the back of the balustrade.

 And now a little about the deceased.  Frederick III died in August 1493 in Linz, at the age of 78.  The emperor was buried three times - or in three stages, it is difficult to find the right expression.  After his death, his heart and internal organs were walled up in the parish church of Linz, where they remain to this day.  The son of Frederick, Maximilian I, did not have time to say goodbye to his father: he was delayed by the Turkish invasion of Carinthia and Kraina.  Only in December 1493, the remains of the emperor were able to be transported to Vienna and placed in the "ducal crypt" of St. Stephen's Cathedral.  A leg was amputated to the body, amputated shortly before death - Friedrich probably suffered from arteriosclerosis (not to be confused with atherosclerosis), and there is a reasonable assumption that it was the extensive surgical intervention at the age of 78 that killed him.

 20 years after his death, in November 1513, the remains of Frederick III (including the leg) were buried as solemnly as possible for the third time - in a new tomb, the creation of which stretched for 45 years.  Since then, the monumental tomb has stood untouched.

 In November 2019, Austrian researchers suddenly announced that they had been studying the contents of the tomb for six years, and in December the sensational results of their many years of work will be presented.

 The reason why scientists and museum workers in 2013 decided to "penetrate" the imperial tomb is not reported.  We believe that everything is explained by indestructible scientific curiosity: as already mentioned, the tomb of Frederick III is the only burial place of a medieval monarch, never once disturbed by wars, revolutions, robbers, or scientists.  And in 2013, probably managed to get funding on a round date: the 500th anniversary of the completion of the tomb and the final burial of the remains of the emperor.  But as a result, the work dragged on for six years and, as it turned out, was carried out in secret from the general public.

 The result of a six-year study was ... photos.  Numerous pictures of the inner space of the tomb, taken through a tiny hole using a video endoscope.

 “We could not open the tomb in 2013, and it is unlikely that such an opportunity will appear in the near future.This outstanding work of art has gigantic weight (its individual parts weigh several tons) and a complex structure, therefore, any attempts to open the tomb can damage the sarcophagus and its contents, ”the researchers explain in a press release on the website of the Vienna Museum of Art History.

 By the way, in 2016, Format4plus conducted an external 3D scan of the tomb ordered by the restoration workshop at St. Stephen's Cathedral, but it is unclear whether this was part of a large “secret” study or a separate project.  The images obtained make it possible to fully appreciate the skill of medieval sculptors and carvers.
 Scanning the tombs of Frederick III.  Photo:

 One of the obtained images (bottom of the tombstone) with an accuracy of 0.5 mm.  Photo:

 Until recently, scientists were not so categorical in their unwillingness to harm precious artifacts: by and large, they did not have much choice, because modern technologies - contactless, non-invasive, wireless, miniature - simply did not exist.  Researchers recalled that in 1969 their predecessors were already trying to look into the tomb of the emperor.  Then rumors spread that the monumental tomb was actually empty (as one of the two tombs of Frederick's son, Maximilian I), and the specialists had to conduct the first "secret operation", as Franz Tsechetner, archivist of St. Stephen's Cathedral, put it.  In other words, they simply drilled a small hole in the wall of the sarcophagus and with the help of a system of lamps and mirrors received visual confirmation: inside are human remains and some funeral gifts.  For obvious reasons, they could not take any photographs of the contents in 1969, and it was forbidden for outsiders to tell the participants of that “barbaric” operation.  “In 1969, no further details were publicly disclosed,” said Franz Zechetner.

 However, information about the work done has been preserved in the memory of its participants and in the cathedral archives.  Researchers in 2013, learning about the existence of a secret hole, could not help but use it.

 As a result of an almost medical operation, the scientists managed to push inside the video endoscope, as well as “pinch off” and extract a small fragment of the sarcophagus lining and a tiny piece of tissue, but “basically all our knowledge about what is inside the tomb is based on the analysis of photographs taken in 2013  year, ”the press release said.  Researchers acknowledge that with this method it is impossible to get answers to all questions, however, new data are of extreme interest to historians.

 Miter crown made specifically for burial.Photo: APA / KHM-MUSEUMSVERBAND

 In the photo above - one of the most significant discoveries: the oldest surviving copy of Mitrenkrone, the “Miter Crown”.  A similar type of crown was strongly associated with the Habsburg house until the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806.  Art historians have already built a direct succession: the crown from the tomb of Frederick III can be considered the forerunner of the most famous example of the “mitra crown” - the personal crown of Emperor Rudolph II of Habsburg, created in 1602 and in 1804 becoming the crown of the Austrian Empire.

 A similar mitra crown crowns the head of Frederick III on a tombstone (created, as we already mentioned, no later than 1473), as well as on a portrait of 1468 and its more famous 1500 copy of the work of Hans Burgkmire.
 Portrait of Frederick III by Hans Burgkmire from the original 1468.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

 The massive funeral crown of Frederick III is apparently made of gilded silver.  In addition to the crown, the researchers found other symbols of imperial power next to the body: the scepter and power.  Obviously, these regalia were made specifically for burial and were probably a copy of the sacred originals.  This discovery was a surprise to researchers, and this detail says a lot about Maximilian I, the famous son of Frederick.

 “For the sake of his father, Maximilian went to great expenses and arranged an extremely high-profile funeral at the highest level.  The most striking evidence can be considered imperial regalia, made, in all likelihood, after the death of Frederick and intended exclusively for burial.  After death, they should have indicated the status of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and some details directly reproduce the funeral traditions of the ancient Roman emperors, ”says Franz Kirchweger, curator of the Vienna Museum of Art History.
 The Miter Crown and orb discovered in the tomb of Frederick III.


 Researchers call, in particular, commemorative coins discovered in the tomb, minted specially for the solemn celebration, as a direct reference to ancient traditions.