Croissants, Cappuccinos, and the Virgin Mary

Today’s entry in the Roman Martyrology (12 September) contains, primus inter alia, this:

Festum sanctissimi Nominis beatae Mariae, quod Innocentius Undecimus, Pontifex Maximus, ob insignem victoriam de Turcis, ipsius Virginis praesidio, Vindobonae in Austria reportatam, celebrari jussit.

The feast of the most sacred name of blessed Mary, which Innocent XI, Supreme Pontiff, commanded to be celebrated, due to the famous victory over the Turks at Vienna in Austria, through protection of the same Virgin.

This feast of this day commemorates one of the landmark events in the history of Western civilization, a point of pride for the Polish people, and one of my favorite stories of all time. Each year on this day, I take a cappuccino and croissant breakfast to commemorate the anniversary of this fortuitous and providential occasion.

Vienna, a strategic city in the center of Europe, had always been a target of the Ottoman Empire. It was the gateway between the Holy Roman Empire and Italy, while its location on the Danube meant that it could control navigable commerce and travel from Germany to the Black Sea. In late 1682, the Ottomans declared war on the Holy Roman Empire, and beginning in March 1683, its forces undertook a blistering invasion of Europe, reaching Vienna’s gates by the summer. From 14 July to 12 September, around 15,000 Hapsburg soldiers along with 8,700 Viennese volunteers defiantly defended the besieged city from an Ottoman army numbering close to 300,000. Innocent XI, knowing the Ottomans a mortal threat to the Church and to Western civilization, earnestly exhorted the Christian princes of Europe to form a Holy League, under Blessed Mary’s protection, to drive out the Saracen invader. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, bound by treaty to the Hapsburgs and by faith to Rome, responded decisively. King Jan III Sobieski, leaving his nation almost entirely undefended from Cossack incursions from the east and Hungarian raids from the south, assembled a relief force of nearly 40,000 Poles and marched to Austria. Charles V of Lorraine, Georg Friedrich of Waldeck, and John George of Saxony– all nobles of the Holy Roman Empire– also marched their contingents from Germany toward the beleaguered city.

By September, suffering the fatiguing effects of siege warfare, parts of Vienna’s defense began to buckle. Turkish sappers had successfully breached and occupied two bastions and one ravelin on the city’s outer wall by 8 September. The Viennese, fearing the worst, prepared for a close and brutal fight within the city; the relief force needed to act quickly. When tense negotiations had at last placated the usual German-Polish rivalries, the Imperial nobles ceded overall command to Sobieski (a sovereign in his own right) who contributed the largest contingent, including 3,000 “Winged Hussars”, the Commonwealth’s famed heavy cavalry.

After a Mass attended by Sobieski and the Polish nobles, early on 12 September, the battle began at 4 AM with an Ottoman attack against Vienna itself, in an attempt to sack the city before the relief could assemble and engage decisively. The Holy League then advanced toward the Turks: Charles of Lorraine held the left flank, John George of Saxony and Georg Friedrich of Waldeck held the center. Polish infantry launched a massive attack on the right flank, wresting the high ground from the Turks after twelve hours of vicious combat. Meanwhile, Sobieski and the entire Holy League cavalry observed the infantry battle for the whole day from the heights above Vienna while the Turks hemorrhaged precious manpower; Vienna’s stalwart defenders violently thwarted repeated Turkish attempts to breach the inner walls as Holy League infantry bled the Saracen horde from without.

Finally, around 5 PM, Sobieski led the 3,000 Winged Hussars, followed by 15,000 mounted Imperial troops, in the largest cavalry charge in history; descending ferociously from the Kahlenberg into the rear of the Turkish formation, the Polish king completely trampled the awestruck invader and irrevocably rescued the rest of Europe from the specter of Ottoman dominance. Vienna, and indeed Western civilization, was saved. The Turks were eventually chased to their original borders, beginning a period of constant decline which ended with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

It did not take long for the news to reach the Old World’s furthest corners, for which Sobieski was dubbed Europae salvator. But this devoutly Catholic gentleman, who before the battle called upon the assistance of Mary under the title of Our Lady of Czestechowa, famously adapted Caesar’s pithy phrase by declaring: venimus, vidimus, vicit Deus. The Pope, who months before had implored the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary that Vienna be delivered, attributed the stunning Holy League victory to her maternal protection. Thus, Feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary (hitherto celebrated only in Spain) was transferred to 12 September and extended to the Universal Church.

In some apocryphal legends, the croissant and the cappuccino owe their roots to this battle. During that dark period in which Vienna lay besieged, her defenders would have seen, in every direction, the fluttering flag of the crescent moon– the symbol of Islam. With the Saracen defeat credited to the Virgin’s intercession, one could not but recall the woman described in the book of Revelation (12:1):

“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.”

In the “pains of labor”, the defenders saw a parallel between the plight of Vienna, the danger to the Church posed by the Turks, and the sorrows of the Virgin Mary (which, in the old calendar, was celebrated only three days later). But in the end, the woman stands with the moon at her feet; she emerges triumphantly. The Church, through Mary’s intercession, stands gloriously upon the tattered banner of Islam. The bakers of Vienna celebrated the victory by confecting a pastry in the shape of a crescent, which, like the Cross, was a symbol of oppression transformed into a sign of victory. The Viennese origin of this pastry is known even by the French, who number it among the types of confections called “viennoiseries”.

For the story of cappuccino, let us return to Sobieski’s dramatic coup de grace: the frightful sight of 18,000 Holy League cavalry, all charging at full speed, struck such ineffable terror into Ottoman souls that thousands of them fled in wild panic, leaving all their belongings in the camps. When the battle had ended, chaplains entered the captured Ottoman camps to tend to the wounded and to prisoners. One such chaplain, a Franciscan, happened upon an abandoned Turkish coffee pot and some cups of coffee– a drink unknown to most Europeans at the time. The servings were small but very strong and bitter (what we would call “espresso”). Intrigued by the flavor, the friar offset the bitterness by adding steamed milk. The result was more palatable to Western tastes, and since the beverage’s “inventor” was a Franciscan of the Capuchin branch, it was given the name “cappuccino”.

Some may see as providential that, one day after a devastating attack by Islamic terrorists upon a nation emblematic of Western culture, we find a feast which commemorates a decisive triumph of the West over a Muslim invasion. This connection is certainly not lost on me. On 11 September 1683, as Ottoman sappers threatened to breach Vienna’s final defensive line, a breathless Europe teetered over the abyss of annihilation, waiting for the Polish warrior-king to break the horizon. 318 years later, we found our faith and our culture faced with another abysmal enemy, thrust into a new fight that cannot be won simply by the mere efforts of men. Now, as in 1683, we need the intercession of the Virgin. With the defenders of Vienna, and indeed with all generations of Christendom, let us piously sing this hymn, the most ancient of all Marian prayers, so that by the most holy name of Mary, a new September 12 may dawn upon us.

Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genetrix;
nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus,
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta! 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply