The Monastery of Melk

Try to ask anybody on a street in Austria, what he or she knows about the monastery of Melk. Everybody knows it. You will get answers, ranging from "yellow" over "pretty, outstanding", maybe even to "baroque building in the Wachau" (Wachau being the area, where it is situated).
Though very few know, that this has been a religious and political centre of early Austrian history. Already before the first millenniumshift of our calender, shortly after the Battle on the Lechfeld in 955, the Babenbergs had built a castle on this spot.
In 1968 fifteen skeletons of the Babenbergs were found, among those the ones of the margraves Adalbert (1018-1055) and Ernst (1055-1075). Even St. Koloman, an Irish pilgrim, who was hanged in Stockerau in 1012, but whose body didn't decay, was buried in Melk in 1014.
The Babenbergs soon started to expand their area of influence. It is believed, that already under Leopold II (1075-1095) Melk only served as a funeral site. Therefore it is not strange at all, that they wanted to build a religious stronghold here. On the 21st of March 1089 the first Benedictines arrived in Melk. Sigibold was the first abbot of the monastery. Leopold III (1095-1136) finally moved his residence to Klosterneuburg.

The history of the monastery experienced ups and downs most of the time. On August 14th, 1297 a fire devastated abbey and church, which almost led to an abolishment of the site.

Objects shown in the exhibition in the museum

In the 15th century the morality in the abbeys in general had sunk so low, that something had to be done against it. The "Reorganisation of Melk" led to better discipline and became a guideline for many monasteries in the German speaking area. This led to an improvement until in the next century the Reformation again contributed to a new decline.
The counterreformation showed the way to a new rise, and when Berthold Dietmayr in 1700 was elected abbot, it was the best that could have happened to the monastery. Dietmayr let rebuild first the church and then the monastery. He engaged Jakob Prandtauer as constructor and so emerged the baroque building, that we know today. Prandtauer led the works until his death in 1726. After that, his disciple, Joseph Munggenast, continued with the building. It was also he, who was responsible for the changes of the towers of the church, after a new terrible fire in 1738 had demolished a big part of the monastery. The frescos in the cupola of the church were made by the well known painter Johann Michael Rottmayr, by the way.

Stift Melk was also an educational centre throughout the years. Up to twenty nine parishes were under its supervision and had to be conducted. But even the profane teachings should be mentioned. This part started, when there was a boys' choir chosen, which should be singing at the masses. But then their education needed to include more than only music lessons. Eventually this became a Latin-school, which was changed into a public secondary school by the Empress Maria Theresa.

Through a front court and a round arch portal in the palacelike eastern facade of the abbey one comes into the "Court of the Prelate", which occupies an area of a small soccer field. The fact, that the court has a slightly trapezoidal form, that is, that it is less wide on the opposite side, the impression of distance is even stronger. Over this view there rises the majestic form of the cupola of the church. The "Well of Koloman", which was built in 1687 and which was situated in this court, is today to be seen on the square in front of the city hall of Melk. Abbot Dietmayr had donated it to the city.
The well, that you can see in the court today, comes from the shut down abbey at Waldhausen.

Via the "Emperor's Staircase" you come onto the second floor, where the museum is placed. In earlier times this was the part that had been reserved for the Emperors, when they came for a visit. On the first landing you find a sculptured group together with the motto of Emperor Charles VI, who held benevolent thoughts of abbot Dietmayr as well as of the monastery. It says: "Constantia et fortitudine", which means "persistance and bravery". Daughter Maria Theresa shall have said in the year 1743: "I would regret it, had I not been here."

The arcades on the second floor are the next delight for the eyes. They extend over the entire southern front of the complex and are almost 200 meters long. On the walls hang portraits of every Austrian ruler, from margrave Leopold I of Ostarrichi until Austria's last Emperor, Charles I.

The paintings from before 1759 were made by the monastery's own house painter at that time, Franz Joseph Kremer.

But we don't walk along the arcades, where there once were the rooms of the servants, we turn instead westwards, where the former chambers of the imperial family today have been converted into a museum. Though the furnishing of the Emperor's rooms, apart from a few tiled stoves, had to be given to Laxenburg Castle. Because of this the museum shows only the history of Melk and some of the art treasures of the abbey.

I won't describe the exhibition in detail, because it would lead too far. Even if it changes eventually, I am sure, that it is worth seeing at any time. This, though I had troubles to understand the form of the moment in the first two rooms with their green respectively violet light.

After the exhibition you enter the Marble Chamber, which was used as dining room, when there were more people present. Then you come onto the terrace, which leads from the Marble Chamber to the northern part of the abbey. Naturally your eyes are cought by the two towers, which terminate the monastery to the west.
As mentioned, those towers got a new design by Joseph Munggenast after the fire of 1738 and show already an influence of the rococo. Between the towers there is a huge statue of the resurrected Christ.

When you enter the northern part from the terrace, you come into the library. But before we talk about this next wonderful institution, I would recommend the visitor to lift the eyes to the ceiling here and there, in order to marvel at the frescos.


The paintings on the ceiling in the Marble Chamber and in the library are works by Paul Troger, other architectural paintings are due to Gaetano Fantis.

The library is an important room for the Benedictines, because they honour education very much. No wonder that you become astonished, not only by the prettiness, but also by the content of this library. There are 1800 handwritten manuscripts, the oldest from the 9th century. Another glorious piece is "The Life of Jesus" by Lady Ava - the first verifiable work in German by a woman. Another treasure was rediscovered only in 1997, a fragment of a copy of the "Nibelungenlied" from about 1300. Most of the manuscripts are from the 15th century, though.
750 early prints from before 1500 are stored in this library, thereafter this figure triples for every century. There are 16000 works kept in this room.

From the library your way leads over a spiral staircase down to the church. A baroque church is not everybody's favorite, because many people think it to be excessively ornamented - but if you take your time to notice details, then the church of the monastery is an outstanding place to do that.

It would go far beyond the limits of this page to show those details in pictures. Therefore I give you a view over the high altar and the two sidealtars.

Antonio Beduzzi signs responsible for most of the concepts in the church design. Thereafter Abbot Dietmayr fetched leading artists to carry them out. The main theme of the church is shown in a cartouche at the main altar: "Non coronabitur, nisi legitime certaverit." This means approximately that there can't be any victory, without rightfully having fought for it. Examples for that are the deaths of Peter and Paul as martyr, a theme that reappears all over the church.
And even if I personally can't accept that maxim, as little as the idea of a monastery, I have tried to separate the part of art history from the religious part in the abbey of Melk. And therefore I assure you, that this is one of the biggest treasures of Austrian culture.

Bernhard Kauntz, 2005 - 2009

Back to or to the of

14.3.2009 by