In the middle of the hall is a statue of Maria Theresa showing the monarch arrayed in her Hungarian coronation robes at the age of twenty-three. Possessed of exceptional energy, Maria Theresa is still regarded as one of the most popular European rulers.
Painted by the Italian artist Gregorio Guglielmi, the ceiling frescos follow a significant programme.
Enthroned at the centre of the middle fresco are Maria Theresa as ruler of the Habsburg Monarchy and her husband Franz Stephan as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. They are surrounded by the personified virtues of a ruler, including justice, clemency and munificence. A modern element is introduced by the genre-like representations of the Habsburg Crown Lands and their products which allude to the programme of reforms initiated by Maria Theresa in the field of administration and the economy.
The western ceiling fresco symbolizes the pax austriaca: at its zenith stands Concordia (Concord), who allows the Crown Lands to flourish. Surrounded by Abundantia and Pax (Abundance and Peace), she stands above the three gods Ceres (tutelary deity of agriculture), Bacchus (god of viniculture) and Mercury (tutelary deity of commerce). A fourth deity, Apollo, stands encircled by the personifications of the arts and science.
The eastern ceiling fresco is an allegory of the military might of Maria Theresa’s armies. At the centre the war god Mars gallops across the skies on a white horse, while a genius commends a group of high-ranking officers on a commanding height to Minerva, goddess of warfare. The latter is simultaneously enthroned as patroness above an animated rendering of an instruction session at the Maria Theresa Military Academy, founded by the monarch at Wiener Neustadt in 1752.
This fresco fell victim to a bomb dropped in April 1945, in the final days of the Second World War. It was replaced with a copy painted by Paul Reckendorfer and Carl Krall in 1947/48.
The light falling through the tall windows is effectively duplicated by the mirrors positioned on the opposite wall. Together with the ceiling chandeliers and wall sconces, the light of their candles reflected in the polished surfaces of the wall, they ensure that this magnificent hall is bathed in light. Central to the décor are the two large carved wooden and gilt chandeliers, which originally carried seventy-two candles. Electricity was installed in the palace in 1898, when the upper row of wall sconces was added. From then on, the Great Gallery was illuminated by a total of 868 light bulbs. During the last comprehensive restoration of the Great Gallery in 2011/2012 an innovative system was installed that is nonetheless in keeping with the historical setting: candle-shaped LED lights with integrated crystals which imitate flickering candlelight.
After the end of the Monarchy the Great Gallery continued to be used by the Republic of Austria as the setting for official state receptions. Accordingly, it was the venue for the reception held following the signing of the Austrian State Treaty on 15 May 1955 at the Upper Belvedere Palace.
The most significant official event to have taken place in the Great Gallery in the international context was the legendary encounter between US President John F. Kennedy and the Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. Today the Great Gallery provides an atmospheric setting for concerts and receptions.