Sunday, July 1, 2012

Melk Abbey

Melk Abbey, or Stift Melk in German, is located on a rocky outcrop
overlooking a tiny arm of the the Danube River in Melk, Austria. 

It is a Benedictine abbey, a Roman Catholic monastic community that observes the rules of St. Benedict. It was founded in 1089 when Leopold II, Margrave of Austria, gave one of his castles to Benedictine monks from Lambach Abbey, also located in Austria. Its library became renowned for its extensive manuscript collection and it was a major site for the production of manuscripts. The current abbey was built between 1702 and 1736, after the older one was destroyed by fire.
 Between 1780 and 1790, while other Austrian abbeys were seized and dissolved under Emperor Joseph II, Melk managed to survive due to its fame and academic stature. 
It survived a threat during the Napoleonic Wars when Napoleon made Melk his headquarters in his campaign against Austria and probably used the abbey for a lookout. It survived the period following the Nazi Anschluss in 1938 when the school and a large part of the abbey were confiscated by the state. 
A more recent restoration project, completed in 1996, was financed by the sale of the abbey's Gutenberg Bible to Harvard. The school was returned to the abbey after World War II and it now has about 900 students, both boys and girls. This visit was not part of our original vacation plans. We had rented a car and were driving to Mauthausen Concentration Camp. As Judy looked through Rick Steve's and read about places we were driving past, she read a glowing account about Melk Abbey and we decided to stop and visit on our way back.  I was surprised when we first arrived at the garish orange/yellow color. It seemed to me almost like a Disney set, completely unreal. It took me awhile to get beyond that. What really turned me was the library, one of the most impressive and beautiful collection of volumes I've ever seen (unfortunately we could not take pictures). 

The rules of St. Benedict are for monks living in a monastery under the rule of an abbot. Each monk must give absolute obedience to the abbot. Moderation in speech is recommended, but not strict silence. Humility is divided into 12 degrees, or steps in a ladder that lead to heaven. They really speak to how the monks are to act: (1) fear God; (2) do God's will instead of your own; (3) be obedient to your superior; (4) be patient with hardships; (5) confess your sins; (6) accept yourself as a "worthless workman;" (7) consider yourself "inferior to all"; (8) follow your superior's example; (9) do not speak until spoken to; (10) do not laugh; (11) speak simply and modestly; and (12) be humble in bodily posture. Wow. Then the monks' days are laid out, with eight daily prayers and three or four nightly prayers, doing recitations of psalms and canticles from scripture. The manner of prayer is specified. Each monk is to have a separate bed and to sleep in his habit to be ready to rise without delay. A graduated scale of punishments is set forth for failure to obey authority. Private possessions are forbidden. All must serve in the kitchen. They are to care for the sick, old and young. They are read to aloud during meals and hand signs are used during meals to avoid interrupting the reading. And LOTS, LOTS more. I would not have survived as a monk.

We had very little time before closing, so we hurried through most of the abbey that was open and spent the balance of our time in the beautiful Baroque church, which is under the dome and two towers which you can see from the outside. That sealed the deal for me.

Inside, looking up at the inside of the dome and the gorgeous frescoes on the sealing surrounding it. 
A closer look at the inside of the dome.
The high altar is below. 
Above the altar is a papal crown which refers to the head of the church.  
In the middle, above that crown, Peter and Paul, the patron saints, shake hands in farewell, apparently just before they are to die. 
To their left are Daniel, Jeremiah and David and to their right, pictured below, are Isaiah, Ezekiel and Gideon. 
The theological theme of the church is 2 Timothy 1:5: "Without a just battle there is no victory." Above Peter and Paul, angels hold a crown that martyrs are to receive 
and to the left and right (out of the picture) are the instruments of their death: for Peter, an upside-down cross; and for Paul, a sword. Above the crown, God the Father sits enthroned on the Earth, 
with (out of the picture) Moses to his left and Aaron to his right. The victorious symbol of the cross, above them, shines above everything. Below, from the back of the church, looking toward the high altar. 
In a ceiling fresco, God the Father orders the archangel Michael to carry out Lucifer's fall. 
A glass sarcophagus containing a "catacomb saint" given to the monastery by Cardinel Crivelli in 1722. 
An altar painting by Johann Michael Rottmayr in 1723, "Adoration of the Magi." 
Overhead is a ceiling fresco with jubilant angels. 
Below, an altar dedicated to St. Coloman. 
St. Coloman was a monk of either Irish or Scottish origin, and of royal lineage, who was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. About 15 miles from Vienna, at a place called Stockerau, he was stopped and accused of being a Moravian spy. He could not speak German, and after being tortured, he was hanged alongside several robbers on October 18, 1012. According to tradition, his body was left to rot for 18 months and stayed incorrupt and untouched by animals. The scaffolding where he was hung took root and put out branches. St. Coloman's remains were brought to Melk Abbey in 1014 (I'm not sure how that works when the abbey was not founded until 1089 - but those are just details). However, several decades later, his body was taken to Hungary. Coloman became the object of a popular cult in Austria, Swabia, Hungary and Bavaria. Sometime later, the relics were taken back to Melk Abbey where they are now contained in the sarcophagus on the altar. 
A gold statue of Coloman kneels on the left-hand side with the insignia of a pilgrim, 
which I believe is the rectangular clay or pewter-alloy canteen, called an ampoule, hanging off his buttocks. He also has scallop shells on his cloak that were worn by pilgrims returning from Compostela. To the right (out of the picture) are his hat, a king's crown and scepter, due to a legend that states that Coloman was an Irish prince. On the left side of the altar is a statue of St. Donatus and on the right a statue of St. Florian. 
St. Florian is the patron saint of Linz, Austria and lived at the time of Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. He was commander of the imperial army in the Roman province of Noricum, which covered today's Austria and part of Slovenia. When the Romans determined to eradicate Christianity, Aquilinus was sent to the area and ordered Florian to offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. Florian refused and accepted the beatings of the soldiers who used clubs, spikes and fire to torture him. He ultimately had a stone tied around his neck and was drowned in the Enns River, a tributary of the Danube in Austria. 

Below, an altar dedicated to St. Benedict, whose rule the abbey follows.
The group of figures below depicts the death of St. Benedict among his fellow brothers. St. Benedict is the man with a beard in the center. 
The empty sarcophagus beneath them bears the inscription: Ent sepulchrum eius gloriosum ("His grave will be glorious" - Is. 11:10). To the upper left (below) is a statue of St. Berthold of Garsten. 
Berthold was a Benedictine monk who developed Garsten Abby in upper Austria and became its first abbot in 1111. He introduced the Hirsau Reforms into Austria, which focused on discipline, obedience, continuous supervision of the monks, and tough punishments for infringements of the rules. He died in 1142. By his inclusion, I would guess that Melk Abbey also introduced the Hirsau Reforms. In the 15th century, Melk was the center of a reform movement which reinvogorated monastic life in Austria and Southern Germany. Above the obelisk, an angel with outstretched arms receives St. Benedict's soul. 
Above that, God the Father is ready to take St. Benedict into his arms. 
On the ceiling above, a fresco, with St. Benedict at the center, 
shows St. Benedict's triumphal ascent to heaven. 
To the right, a closeup of a group of angels, one holding an outstretched arm with a cross, appear to be attacking a demon (perhaps Lucifer) and sending him tumbling.  I suppose that it may be the influence of St. Benedictine which is helping defeat the demons. 
Below, an altar dedicated to St. Nicolas 
has a painting by Paul Troger, in 1746, showing St. Nicolas being led to heaven by angels. 
A fresco above it, on the ceiling, also shows St. Nicolas being led to heaven by angels. 
On the way out of the church, we found another fresco with St. Benedict, up in the air, surrounded by angels. The theme plays out again and again. Good people overcoming difficulties and being led to heaven by angels. 
After leaving, we had dinner in Melk and on our way out caught the abbey in the light just as the sun was going down. The sun on the orange/yellow exterior was breathtaking. This was our final view of the abbey.


  1. I love the 3D effect in the paintings.

  2. I guess all that poverty and self-denial in life led to pretty amazing payoffs for St. Benedict and his friends in heaven, not to mention their recognition here on earth.

    It is a pretty amazing restoration job. I wonder what Harvard paid for their Gutenberg Bible?

  3. Got Melk? My favorite stop on our Danube trip. In my dream house, I plan to pattern the library after the wonderful library in Melk Abby.