Himmelpforte (St Agnes)
Community ID
 
4986
 
Alternate Names
 
S. Agnes, Himmelspforte, Himmelspförte, Porta Coeli Vindobonae
 
Town
 
Vienna
 
Diocese
 
Archdiocese of Vienna, officially since 1480 (Zak 213). Archbishop Ernst reiterated that the convent fell under the Viennese jurisdiction in 1577 (Zak 107).
 
Medieval Location
 
Himmelpforte stood at the corner of Himmelpfortgasse and Rauhensteingasse.
 
Modern Location
 
Nothing remains of the convent, as the building was demolished long ago to make room for modern housing. The name of the street “Himmelpfortgasse” is the only physical on-site indication of the old convent grounds.
 
Dedication
 
On August 11, 1331, the Himmelpforte church was consecrated by St. Dietrich, Bishop of the Church of Dyonisin. The church was dedicated to S. Agnes and Katharina (Zak 166). The later appended chapel contained an altar dedicated to S. Katharina, and was
 
Date Founded
 
c. 1235 (Zak 143); it was the fifth oldest Viennese women’s house (141).
 
Date Terminated
 
September 28, 1783 (Schimmer 383)
 
Religious Order
 
Praemonstratensian to 1586, then Augustinian to 1783.
 
Rule
 
Augustinian, specifically Premonstratensian (c. 1270); later Augustinian Canonesses. Pope Clement IV instated the house in a Breve; Master Gerhard and Bishop Peter oversaw the sisters’ continued adherence to the rule (150). Zak cites a July 1267 documen
 
Congregation
 
S. Stephan became associated with Himmelspforte through their common benefactor, Master Gerhard. Early documentation shows that the sisters were required to annually present their “mother church” with certain gifts of appreciation, as well as provide the
 
Foundation Information
 

Himmelpforte was founded by Constance (Konstanzia) of Bohemia (1180-1240), daughter of King Bela III of Hungary and sister of Kings Emerich and Andreas II. Her engagement to Friedrich von Schwaben cut short by his death, she married Ottokar I, King of Bohemia, with whom she had twelve children. S. Elisabeth of Hungary was her niece. Other royal relatives were similarly pious – Constance’s father, Bela III, founded many churches and brought the Cistercian order to Hungary. With the passing of her husband in 1230, the royal widow moved to Vienna to live with other holy women. This group, formed between 1131 and 1140, led reclusive lives filled with meditation and other holy practices (Zak 143). Due to political tensions between her nephew Bela IV and Austrian Duke Friedrich II, Constance ultimately returned to Hungary, where she died on December 3, 1240 (144).

In 1320, a second “foundation” of Himmelpforte was led by Queen Agnes of Hungary. The benefactress brought Premonstratensians from her homeland to enlarge the convent’s population, and the church was rebuilt in 1331 in her honor (Schimmer 379).

 
Notable Heads
 

The convent originally answered to the abbot of Geras, though the abbot had a looser relationship with Himmelpforte than he did with the Frauenkloster Pernegg, another women’s house under his jurisdiction (Zak 159). In 1491, by request of Emperor Friedrich III., Pope Innocence VIII. transferred control of the house to the archdiocese of Vienna: the archbishop was to appoint one or two capable and learned priests as the new spiritual leadership of Himmelpforte (217). Within the cloister, leadership was provided by an elected mistress or prioress, who managed many of the communal assets directly.

Adelheid is the first known Oberin of the Himmelpforte convent. The sisters suffered from discontent during her office, disobeying their patron Gerhard, and attempting to replace Adelheid through an illegal election with a nun named Wendla. Consequently faced with excommunication in late 1270, the nuns repented, received absolution from Bishop Peter, and agreed to do penance. Wendla’s election was declared void, and Adelheid resumed her proper post (Zak 156).

Mistress Gertrud headed the cloister during the miraculous Marian apparition, which she reported to Rome (c.1300). In eternal rememberance of this event, the Holy See instituted the convent dedication “zur Himmelspförtnerin” (Zak 140). During her reign the convent also acquired a building lot in December 1272 from Viennese citizen Albert Pipping (160).

Mistress Engel headed Himmelpforte during the acquisition of a Viennese vineyard in June of 1328. During her time in office, the convent also had a prioress, Sister Elzbet, and a subprioress, Sister Gerdraut (Zak 162-163).

Agnes Snaeczel, presumably of the same noble line as mayor of Vienna Hermann Snaeczel, took control of the convent in 1330. She was the daughter of Albrecht I, an Austrian duke who was elected king of Germany in 1298. Prior to her religious service, she was married briefly to Andreas III, king of Hungary (Zak 164-165). Agnes was a woman of extraordinary character and wisdom who since youth enjoyed solitude and rejected decadent temptations often associated with her class (165). Her leadership contributed to a period of expansion and reconstruction for Himmelpforte. This growth included the erection of a church, perhaps the largest with convent affiliation in Vienna, dedicated to the saints Agnes and Katharina (166-167).

Mistress Katharina Maer, widow of Himmelpforte benefactor Peter, took office in 1355. A native of Niederleis, she led the convent with the aid of Prioress Margarete through a dispute with neighboring women’s house Schottenkloster (Zak 177). She also oversaw the addition of a chapel to the S. Agnes church (178).

Margarete Vierdung succeeded Katharina as mistress in 1369. She most likely was of the Viennese Vierdungs, a renowned line that produced several town judges (Zak 182-183).

Sister Kunigund von Grinzing appears in records as the last mistress of Himmelpforte, taking the position in 1370 (Zak 183). With her prioress, Margarete die Andreinn, she purchased for the cloister several plots whose buildings had been destroyed by fire (184).

Margarete Vierdung took control of Himmelpforte once again in December of 1371, becoming the first of a line of prioresses to head the house (Zak 184).

Prioress Kunigunde von Grinzing (189)

Prioress Agnes Maer (189)

Prioress Perchta von Ameis (190)

Prioress Agnes Maer (192)

Prioress Katharina Haweninger oversaw the convent’s sale of several pieces of property, namely houses (Zak 193, 198).

Prioress Elizabeth (202)

Magdelena was prioress during the decision of several important legal matters. On November 22, 1447, the Himmelspforte sisters were granted an exemption to the rules regarding consumption of fish typical of their order. This dispensation was permitted by German papal legate, cardinal deacon Johannes, on the grounds of the cloister’s poverty and the frequency of illness among the holy women. During Advent and other somber seasons, the nuns were permitted to break the traditional fast on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday (Zak 203). Also in 1447, Prioress Magdelena petitioned the cardinal to allow benefices associated with the various altars and chapels of the Agnes church to be incorporated into the convent itself. The cardinal passed this request on to a dean at St. Stephan; the appeal was ultimately ignored (203-204). She also oversaw the purchase of two vineyards in Perchtoldsdorf (205).

Margarete Zeller was prioress when Mayor Ulrich Metzleinsdorfer gave Himmelspforte a property tax exemption in 1465 (Zak 206-207). She also saw the cloister’s 200th jubilee and the donation of vineyards and other generous endowments to the convent (213).

Sister Margarete Strein became prioress in 1493 (Zak 218).

Benedikta Asenpaum (or Asenbaum) served as prioress during the great church visitation of 1543-1544. She indicated that the Landesfürst was the patron and protector of her convent (Zak 95).

Helena Schwarz became prioress in 1550. She and sisters wished to limit the convent beneficiaries to their confessor, who at the time was Father Hertzeberger. Bishop Friedrich recognized this wish on November 12, 1550 (Zak 97).

During the great plague of 1586, all but one sister passed away; the survivor fled to her home in Hungary. To repopulate the empty convent, Archbishop Ernst and Viennese Bishop Caspar brought Augustinians from St. Jakob, and placed both convents under the direction of Dorothea von Buchheim. Pope Paul V. later dismissed this change of leadership, declaring Himmelpforte independent from St. Jakob. The Himmelpforte nuns proceeded to elect their own leader, Barbara Bauhofer (Schimmer 383).

 
Notable Members/Residents/Guests
 

According to Viennese legend, c. 1300 a Sister Maria was so enraptured by a handsome young knight that she fled the Himmelpforte convent and lived in the secular world for seven years, leaving her keys by the Marian picture that she had been charged with guarding. Realizing the error of her ways, the prodigal nun returned to her cloister to her comrades’ surprise, for they had not missed her – during her years of absense, the Virgin Mary herself had filled her shoes (Schimmer 382). The head of the convent reported the miracle to the pope, who declared that the convent should be thusly named in dedication to “Heaven’s Gatekeepers.” This story is so firmly embedded in Viennese culture that it is the basis of many traditional songs and artworks and has been printed in various literature and lore collections throughout the subsequent centuries (Zak 140). (A more spun-out and dramatic version of the story is available in Schimmer.)

 
Population Counts
 

According to records written by Master Gerhard, the population of the convent was never to exceed 25 (Zak 151). The convent was first founded for 12 nuns, but only 11 were in the convent at the time of the 1543-1544 visitation; the 12th was in Prague.

 
Priveleges & Papal Exemptions
 

On November 22, 1447, the Himmelpforte sisters were granted an exemption to the rules regarding consumption of fish typical of their order. This dispensation was permitted by German papal legate, cardinal deacon Johannes, on the grounds of the cloister’s poverty and the frequency of illness among the holy women. During Advent and other somber seasons, the nuns were permitted to break the traditional fast on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday (Zak 203).

 
Visitations
 

On October 26, 1519, Archduke Ernst directed Bishop Johann Kaspar and the convent council to conduct a Himmelpforte visitation (Zak 109).

A 1543-1544 visitation found few official documents in Himmelpforte possession, due to significant losses in wartime and during the 1525 fire (Zak 95). Convent expenditures listed in records from this inspection include payment of an organist, a cook, a washer, a pastoralist, and other hired help (96).

There was a visitation in 1566 (Zak 107).

There was a visitation of Himmelport in 1577, and a notice of the installation of the director (“Vorsteherin”), H. Pannhoffer, in 1608. (Handschriften des Kaiserlichen und Königlichen Haus-, Hof- und Staats, p. 37).

 
Patrons/Benefactors
 

As was common practice with many medieval monastic institutions, the Himmelpforte sisters often accepted gifts of money, land and goods in exchange for prayer, Masses, feast days, and other such services. Many of the extant documents recording these exchanges are notable in that they often name who possession of the property should pass to if the convent fails to meet the specified terms. In several cases, the secondary property recipient is the Viennese citizen’s hospital.

Master Gerhard was an early benefactor of the convent, presenting them with monetary gifts, land tracts, and sacred objects. The house where the sisters resided was a gift from him, as were some vineyards that they owned (Schimmer 379; Czeike 191). He also operated under the names “Archdeacon of Muzon,” “Canon of Passau,” and “papal chaplain” (Zak 145). Since their community belonged to his rectorate, the kindly church leader took the Himmelpforte sisters under his wing after foundress Constance returned to Hungary; thus, he may be considered the convent’s second benefactor and reformer (146). Gerhard also founded a hospital, S. Job zum Klagbaum, for lepers. The holy and benevolent man fell victim to the plague in 1271, willing his beloved sisters a fifth of his goods (152, 158).

As acknowledgement of his generosity and services, Ottokar II., duke of Austria and king of Bohemia, placed Gerhard under his sovereign protection. This security extended to the institutions associated with Gerhard, including S. Job and Himmelpforte. As part of the agreement, the sisters could gather firewood from ducal groves and forests. Perhaps more important, the members of Himmelpforte were declared free of outside jurisdiction, with the exception of capital offenses (Zak 154).

Albert Pippinger donated property in the Rauhenstein and Traibotenstrasse (1272).

In 1337, Viennese citizen Friedrich Gnaemhertel gave the convent a couple of vineyards and several religious books in exchange for two endowed Masses. The books included a Passional, a Mass book, a Matins book, and a bible (Zak 167-168).

While the poverty of the convent had not been dire enough to necessitate the use of Ottokar II.’s forests, Friedrich IV. ensured that this privilege did not die out. Furthermore, he specified that the convent was entitled to thirty-two cartloads of wood annually. To utilize this offer, the royal foresters were to be worked with directly to avoid poseurs from receiving unearned privileges (Zak 199).

 
Social Characteristics
 

The population of Himmelpforte comprised lay sisters, choir sisters, and novices. The sisters were referred to by the locals as Himmelpförtnerinnen (Zak 140).

The women of Himmelpforte wore a habit of white wool with a veil. For choir sisters, the veil was black with a white underlayer; lay sisters and novices donned all-white veils.

A 1525 fire destroyed many of Himmelpforte’s official documents. Prior to this fire, the nuns had provided childcare for the children of nobles and for other women, but the devastation of the blaze prevented this practice from continuing (Zak 95-96).

 
Assets/Property
 

During its existance, Himmelpforte purchased and was presented with several vineyards.

A 1267 document mentions Master Gerhard presenting Himmelpforte with a vineyard at the foot of the mountain Albrechtsgereute, in addition to vestments, books, linens, and monetary donations (Zak 148-149, 151-152). In February of 1271, Gerhard gave the cloister another vineyard, Lembs in Grinzing (157).

Under the leadership of Mistress Engel, the convent acquired a Viennese vineyard in 1328 (Zak 163).

During Mistress Katharina Maer’s time in office, Rector Ulrich of Stetten gave generously to Himmelpforte. Ulrich helped to fund the construction of the Agnes church’s new chapel. In exchange for an eternal mass, he also donated a house across from the convent on Traibotenstrasse, a vineyard in Medling, and various liturgical objects (178-179).

 
Charitable/Work
 

For a time in 1529, the Himmelpforte sisters tended to sick and poor citizens displaced from the city hospital by the threat of Turkish occupation (Schimmer 382-383).

 
Other Economic Activities
 

The sisters were involved in various handiworks, such as weaving, laundering, sewing and knitting. Some of the oldest Viennese financial records and documents mention other ministrations and services that the Himmelpforte sisters personally provided to neighboring households (Zak 187).

 
Litigations
 

In 1270, the sisters attempted to overthrow Matron Adelheid, holding an illegitimate election to replace her. Hearing of their disobedience, Bishop Peter threatened to excomunicate them. The nuns backed down, recognizing Adelheid as their true leader and agreeing to do penance for their misconduct.

During Katharina Maer’s reign, a Grundrecht dispute arose with fellow Viennese convent Schottenkloster. A 1355 decision by Abbot Klemens decreed was to pay their sister convent certain sums on certain feast days for this right (Zak 177).

Duke Rudolf IV. issued several decrees in 1365 reminding religious institutions that they, like secular companies, had to answer to state law in terms of property taxes and the like. Due to these edicts, Himmelpforte suffered a number of losses in their holdings (Zak 181).

In 1370, Mistress Margerete and Prioress Kunigund lodged a complaint in the name of the convent against Johann Snaeczel. Snaeczel was attempting to claim the inheritance of sisters Elisabeth and Christina on the grounds that they were his nieces. Fortunately for Himmelpforte, Mayor Thomas Schwembel and the town council ruled against him (Zak 183).

In 1416, a disagreement concerning patronage rights arose between Prioress Katharina and Chaplain Konrad Maer. It seems that the ruling favored the convent (Zak 199-200).

On November 22, 1447, the Himmelspforte sisters were granted an exemption to the rules regarding consumption of fish typical of their order. This dispensation was permitted by German papal legate, cardinal deacon Johannes, on the grounds of the cloister’s poverty and the frequency of illness among the holy women. During Advent and other somber seasons, the nuns were permitted to break the traditional fast on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday (Zak 203).

Also in 1447, Prioress Magdelena petitioned the cardinal to allow benefices associated with the various altars and chapels of the Agnes church to be incorporated into the convent itself. The cardinal passed this request on to a dean at St. Stephan; the appeal was ultimately ignored (Zak 203-204).

In light of the poverty of the convent and the inaccessabilty of their father abbot, the Himmelpforte women were granted an expansion of their Patronatsrechte by papal legate Cardinal Bessarion in 1464 (Zak 206).

Mayor Ulrich Metzleinsdorfer gave Himmelspforte a property tax exemption in 1465 (Zak 206-207).

The sisters wished to build a shed in their courtyard in 1491, which concerned the chaplains who lived in the neighboring beneficiary house. The nuns desired to have a building to bar their yard from outside view and access, but the chaplains were wary that such a construction might also rob the so-called “Brick House” of its sunlight. A commission was formed of city councilmen and other officials, who met on the first of August with both parties and came to a mutually satisfactory plan for erecting the structure (Zak 215-216).

In 1492, a quarrel broke out between the convent and the widow of Himmelspforte patron Lienhart Rodauners. Mr. Rodauner had willed a mill in Wuerzburg and a Viennese vineyard to the cloister in 1467, but Mrs. Dorothea Rodauner claimed that her late husband had promised to bequeath her these assets in combination with a house in exchange for her dowry. Emperor Friedrich ruled in favor of the women’s house, but ordered councilmen to relinquish an equivalent portion of the inheritance to Dorothea (Zak 217-218).

During the 16th century, the convent endured a period of especially bleak finances. In an attempt to improve the sisters’ situation, Archbishop Ernst and the convent council ruled in 1577 that during the subsequent three years, the convent’s endowment revenue should be rerouted through a superintendent. In return, the superintendent would aid the nuns in using the funds to revitalize their barren vineyards and complete significant repairs to the aging convent building (Zak 107).

During the great plague of 1586, all but one sister passed away; the survivor fled to her home in Hungary. To repopulate the empty convent, Archbishop Ernst and Viennese Bishop Caspar brought Augustinians from St. Jakob, and placed both convents under the direction of Dorothea von Buchheim. Pope Paul V. later dismissed this change of leadership, declaring Himmelpforte independent from St. Jakob. The Himmelpforte nuns proceeded to elect their own leader, Barbara Bauhofer (Schimmer 383; Backmund 386).

Three of the last living inhabitants of the Viennese-Neustadt convent of St. Peter were transferred to Himmelpforte in the 16th century. Bishop Lambert of their previous diocese had pledged to pay them a pension. In 1579, however, the nuns began to petition Archduke Ernst on the grounds that they were not receiving the promised payment. Ernst and fellow Archduke Maximilian relayed this message to Bishop Lambert repeatedly in the following years, who in turn repeatedly tried to justify his continuing denial of the income. By September of 1581, there was only one former St. Peter sister living at Himmelpforte and the matter was still not resolved. Through continued pressure from the sisters, an imperial commission convened in May of the following year and supported the last nun’s claim, but at the end of June, she had yet to receive her pension. Due to lack of extant documentation, the outcome of this dispute remains unknown (Zak 108).

 
Art & Artifacts
 

Artwork and songs depicted the legend of the Virgin Mary’s miraculous substitution for Sister Maria (described above in “Notable Members”). The original image of Mary, known as the “Hausmutter,” can now be found in the Eligius Chapel at the Cathedral of St. Stephan.

Zak describes seals in use by the convent since 1327 or earlier. The stamp used by the mistress featured the standing figure of S. Anna holding flowers, along with a smaller depiction of a praying nun. The other seal features a table surrounded by S. Katherina, a praying sister, and the Virgin Mary with children (173-174).

 
Architecture & Archaeology
 

A fire in 1318 lead to the building of a new church dedicated to St Agnes (Czeike 192); this church was consecrated on August 11, 1331 by St. Dietrich, Bishop of the Church of Dyonisin. The church was dedicated to S. Agnes and Katharina (Zak 166). A couple decades later under Mistress Katharina, the church was expanded through the addition of a chapel. Due to the dedication of its altar, it was often referred to as the Katharina chapel (178).

 
State Of Medieval Structure
 

Nothing remains of the convent, as the building was demolished long ago to make room for modern housing.

 
Miscellaneous Information
 

During the height of the convent’s existance, neighboring houses were often addressed as “bei der Himmelpforte,” or “by the Himmelpforte” (Zak 210).

 
Contributors
 
Christine Smith and Cynthia J. Cyrus