History of the collection
A document from the year 1337 informs us that, at that time, all treasures of the Habsburgs was kept in the sacristy of the Imperial Chapel. Only in the mid-16th century did Emperor Ferdinand I have the Treasury moved from the sacristy and into a newly equipped treasury vault near the Schweizertor (Swiss Gate). Not everything, however, was moved there: a core collection of monstrances and chalices, chasubles and all sorts of church silver remained in the sacristy and under the direct care of the Imperial Court Chaplain.
Around 1585, the northern area of the Hofburg grounds was used for the construction of a new wing in which top floor the Treasury was then housed. Plans from the years 1640 and 1641 tell us that, during the reign of Emperor Ferdinand II, the Treasury had already been divided into sacred and secular parts that adjoined each other spatially.
The oldest still-existing Ecclesiastical Treasury inventory, which dates from the year 1758, lists nearly five hundred objects that were housed into nine display cases. This display cases, fronted in glass and made of darkly stained oak wood, were ordered made by Charles VI (who ruled from 1711 to 1740). Precious, jewel-studded relics and monstrances, as well as small enamel-ornamented home altars, received the most attention among the ecclesiastical treasures of the House of Habsburg. During the reign of Maria Theresia (ruled 1740–1780), the objects could be seen in a publicly accessible display collection. Up to seven individuals were allowed to share the high admission fee of 25 gulden.
A short while later, the opportunity to see the Ecclesiastical Treasury ended abruptly when, following Maria Theresia’s death, her son—the enlightened church reformer Emperor Joseph II—had the entire inventory of the Ecclesiastical Treasury transferred to the care of the Court Chaplain. In the wake of this, the items in the Ecclesiastical Treasury were united with the furnishings from the individual Court Chapels. This sacred treasury was then once again stored in the sacristy of the Imperial Court Chapel and remained virtually inaccessible to the public up to the end of the monarchy. Following 1918, the reorganisation of the former imperial collections saw the Ecclesiastical Treasury attached to the Kunsthistorisches Museum and connected administratively with the Secular Treasury.
In 1921, a further former group of Habsburg sacred treasures was united with the inventory of the Ecclesiastical Treasury: the imperial treasures of the Capuchin Monastery. The Viennese Cappuchin Monastery was founded by Empress Anna, wife to Emperor Matthias, in 1618 (which was to be the year of her death); Empress Anna also donated her important collection of preciously set relics and liturgical implements to the monastery. In order to respect the vow of poverty taken by the Capuchins, these sacred treasures were stored at the monastery but remained in imperial possession.
During the period between the two World Wars, the Ecclesiastical Treasury was set up in the former lodgings of the Court Chaplain. One of these rooms, the so-called “Old Ecclesiastical Treasury,” is used today for special exhibitions of the Treasury. The desire to present the Ecclesiastical Treasury in spatial connection with the Secular Treasury, on the other hand, is why since 1954 the Ecclesiastical Treasury has been on display in those rooms which housed the Secular Treasury until the end of the monarchy. The fifth and final room of the Ecclesiastical Treasury was added upon the enlargement and alteration of both Treasuries, which were reopened following the conclusion of this project in 1986.