When you’re cruising one of the great rivers of Europe, you can get tired of visiting medieval towns with a castle on the hill. So the third stop on my Viking river tour on the Danube was a bit of a change: a medieval town with an abbey on the hill. Melk Abbey was one of the great religious centres of Central Europe, and it’s still a major attraction, with an amazing history and some eye-popping sights.
Like a lot of medieval castles, Melk Abbey stands on a rocky outcrop above the town it once dominated. And in fact, it once was a castle. But in the year 1089, the Babenburg family that ruled the local district decided to move out, and ceded it to the Benedictine monks. And more than 1,000 years later, they’re still there, administering a complex that’s part monastery, part school and part tourist attraction.
The abbey they built has been transformed several times, from a Romanesque building to a Gothic one and finally to the Baroque monastery that exists today. And I’m sure most of us didn’t really know what to expect when our bus climbed the hill to the massive abbey, which towers over the town of Melk. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how massive it is without seeing an overview; here’s a model displayed as part of the tour.
For a group of humans to carry on in one place for almost 1,000 years seems almost impossible. But indeed, the monks have tended their duties here through the ages, thanks partly to the Benedictines’ pledge: each monk vows to remain and serve in one place. Thirty of them still live in the abbey, perpetuating the tradition.
Once the tour began, we found ourselves entering the strange, sometimes bizarre world of medieval religion, where Catholicism and mysticism merged into a weird cavalcade of practices and beliefs. The abbey’s exhibits are organized in a continuum, based on the evolution of religion through the ages, but it wasn’t long before we came across some of the esoteric artifacts that marked medieval Catholicism.
The abbey was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and when nobles visited – as they often did – they left behind a gift. This display consisted of a few of them: a portable altar, surrounded by a quartet of boxes supposedly containing fragments of bone from saints.
Among the gifts given to the abbey were the corpse of Saint Coloman, an Irish Christian executed as a spy in the 11th century, as well as a purported piece of the original cross of Christ, now embedded inside another jewel-encrusted cross. It’s held in a private room, away from the public eye.
The abbey is also famous as a repository of ancient books and manuscripts, a few of which were on display in the first exhibits. This manuscript — illuminated in both the formal and the electronic sense – colourfully showed some early theories of theology.
The next major room showed off more of the abbey’s treasures accumulated over the centuries, and they were dazzling, to say the least: gold, silver, precious jewels, and some masterful artwork. The abbey’s treasures rivalled the government’s – but then, the Catholic church was the next-best thing to government in much of Europe during the middle ages.
Then, an example of the artwork that served to instruct the parishioners on their catechism when the average person couldn’t afford books – or read them, for that matter. This diorama illustrated the passion of Christ in pretty gruesome terms, with Pontius Pilate and the other players wearing medieval costumes. According to our guide, only parts were shown at most masses – I guess it was too much for a general audience.
Next, the marble room, used for gatherings of noble guests. And this huge, ornate meeting and dining room rivalled the ones I’ve seen in royal palaces. The marble floors and door frames were only an introduction to the real attraction: a spectacular ceiling adorned by frescoes depicting the goddess Athena on a chariot drawn by lions, a symbol of wisdom and moderation. The fresco, executed by the artist Paul Troger in 1731, also includes characters like Hercules. You can see it at the top of this post.
The marble room led onward to a terrace that afforded great views of the town below, looking like a painting in the bright, morning sun. Then, a walk through the heart of the abbey — the church, with its grand interior, replete with marble, precious gems and more ceiling frescoes.
Despite its impressive decoration, though, what sets the abbey church apart are its side altars, with dramatic paintings of the saints — and some very strange glass cases. Ensconced there are real human remains, the skeletons of “catacomb saints”, dressed up and decorated as objects of veneration.
What are catacomb saints? Beginning in the 16th century, the powers that be stripped Catholic churches of their relics and other religious treasures, in an effort to stamp out idolatry. In retaliation, the church pulled skeletons out of the catacombs of Rome and sent them to churches throughout Germany, Austria and Switzerland as new symbols of faith.
In truth, no one knows who these people were, though a few may have been early Christian martyrs. But the churches spared no expense decorating them and giving them a splendid setting. And there they lie, a symbol of the strange religious practices of the middle ages. The one pictured here, dubbed Clemens, is wearing what looks like a suit of armour, and holding a plume, for reasons unknown.
The final stop on our tour was the celebrated Melk library, home to about 100,000 volumes, including 750 manuscripts written before the year 1500. Unfortunately, there’s no photography allowed, so I can’t show you what it looks like inside. In fact, only a fraction of the library is on display, and anyone wanting to use one of the books has to take it to a separate reading room in order to prevent any harm to the collection.
The walk back to our ship, the Viking Freya, took us through the charming, sleepy town of Melk — still waking up in the late morning — and then a lovely patch of woods beside the Danube. Listening to the bird songs and looking at the green forest, I could almost forget about the unseasonably cold weather that had been haunting us … well, almost.
I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
The photos in this post were taken with the Panasonic DMC-G7 and Sony DSC-WX500 cameras.