Salzburg's St. Sebastian (Sebastianskirche)

Catholics who find themselves in Salzburg are encouraged to visit the parish church of St. Sebastian. Also known as the Sebastianskirche, this beautiful late Baroque church is connected to the Sebastian Cemetery, a wonderful place for a Sunday visit. The parish is known for their fine choir and choral Masses with orchestra, showcasing a program of music that is known for its beauty and artistry. 

Today the church is looked after by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), which occupies the rectory next door. I was privileged to visit here in 2009. The care and attention given to sacred liturgy here makes a strong impression on all who visit. 

Salzburg is a city where today many choral Masses can only be heard in concert halls. At St. Sebastian's, choral Masses have been faithfully preserved as an integral part of the liturgy, to be heard in the context of sung Mass in the Roman Rite, exactly as the composers had intended. 

Sacred music therefore soars trough the Baroque-style ceiling of this lovely church, with choral masterworks from the Church's treasury of sacred music. This includes works by Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and other great composers. Gregorian Chant is also sung by the parish Schola Cantorum.  

The first church was built on the site between 1500 and 1512 and was consecrated in 1511. At that time it was located outside the Salzburg city walls, next to a cemetery. According to old Roman law, cemeteries were located outside city limits to protect the populace from disease and plague. This is why the church was dedicated to St. Sebastian, who was invoked especially against plagues. 

The church was later rebuilt in 1749-1753 and was reconsecrated in 1754 by the master architect Kassian Singer (1712-1759). He designed a barrel-vaulted structure with a tower that reaches into the sky, crowned by an onion dome with a lantern, symbolic of a candle's flame, a familiar site in Austria. 

The portals on the ground floor of the tower and in the presbytery were designed by Franz Anton Danreiter after 1750. The bust of Saint Sebastian above the main entrance is attributed to Josef Anton Pfaffinger and depicts the saint wounded by golden arrows. 

The figures on the consoles in the nave date from the mid-18th century and represent Sts. Andrew, Peter and Paul. The crucifix in the vestibule and the figure of the Mater Dolorosa are by Franz Seraphikus Nissl from around 1820.

The city fire in 1818 severely damaged the church building, and a large ceiling fresco and central altarpiece were lost, both by Paul Troger. The restoration of the church to repair the fire damage lasted until 1821. During the Second World War the church was damaged during an air raid in November 1944. By July 1945 the damage was restored. 

The iron grating under the music gallery, forged in 1752, is impressive, with a symphony of iron roses, tendrils, vases, and shells all woven together in creative splendor. This was by the artist Phillipp Hinterseer.

The high altar was created around 1750 in the style of Bernini's main altar at Sant'Andrea al Quirinale in Rome. Both resemble each other, with stately marble columns rising up with decorative corinthian capitals, supporting a curved pediment to frame the altar. In the Salzburg version, the capitals are gold and the scene is crowned with a gold-leafed stucco frieze of St. Sebastian in the agony of his martyrdom. 

The altarpiece had to be significantly altered after the great city fire in 1818 when the previous altarpiece of Saint Sebastian was tragically lost. The Baroque statue of the radiant Madonna and child with sunburst behind was created around 1610 and comes from the style of Hans Waldburger.

The altarpieces of the front side altars depict the Holy Family (Johann Michael Sattler, 1821) and Maria Immaculata (Franz N. Streicher, around 1800). The altarpieces of the central side altars  are dedicated to St. Donatus and St. Barbara, works by Sebastian Stief (1848). The rear side altars are dedicated to St. Rochus and St. Florian, painted in 1821 by Johann Michael Sattler.

The pulpit shows a depiction of Moses on the sound cover, which was created around 1820.

The organ is the work of Karl Mauracher (1789-1844), who completed it in 1829. It has a manual and pedal with 12 registers and is almost completely preserved. It is the first organ in the city of Salzburg to be equipped with a chromatic keyboard, without a short octave.

There is an old chapel attached to the church, dedicated to Saint Philip Neri that dates from 1684. This pre-dates the current church. It has its own facade framed by Tuscan pilasters. The chapel's grating dates from the middle of the 18th century. Inside there is a small dome, the fresco of which Wolfram Schöberl created in 1956. Sebastian Stief designed the altarpiece of St. Philip Neri in the years after 1818. 

All who visit here are inspired by the soul-stirring music and resplendent liturgical rites that are carried out with great care amidst the backdrop of the Austrian Baroque of the Hapsburgs. This brings to mind a speech that Pope Benedict delivered on July 4, 2015 at Castel Gandolfo on the occasion of the Doctorate Conference "Honoris Causa" by the Pontifical University John Paul II in Krakow and the Academy of Music in Krakow. This is what he said of his youth in Salzburg, experiencing the rich tradition of orchestral Masses (author's translation):

"I myself grew up in the land of Salzburg marked by the great tradition of this city. Here it was obvious that the festive Masses accompanied by the choir and the orchestra were an integral part of our experience of faith in celebrating the liturgy. It remains indelibly imprinted in my memory as, for example, as soon as the first notes of Mozart's Coronation Mass resonated, heaven almost opened and the presence of the Lord was experienced very deeply."

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