Travels & Traditions: Austrian Monasteries - #604

BURT WOLF: As the Danube River runs west from the Austrian city of Vienna it passes through some of the most picturesque scenery in Europe. For over 35,000 years people have been living on these shores. They were originally attracted to the area because of the mild climate and the ideal conditions for farming. The ancient Romans occupied the region and when Christianity became the official religion of Rome the local population slowly gave up its pagan beliefs and built dozens of monasteries on the hills.

But a monastery was not just a center for religious activities. The monks were skilled craftsmen, architects, and technicians. They set up permanent facilities that organized the peasants and showed them how to improve their farming, how to build better houses and upgrade the construction of roads and bridges. When a ruler donated land and money for the creation of a monastery it may or may not have improved the rulers’ value to the Almighty but it was definitely a mighty improvement in the value of the lands that the ruler ruled.


BURT WOLF: The ideal way to pass through this part of Austria is to travel on one of the river boats. They pass up and back between the towns on a regular schedule and are used by commuters as well as tourists.


BURT WOLF: The Klosterneuburg Abbey is just a few miles up river from Vienna and has been home to a group of Augustinian clergy for over 900 years. Starting in the 11th century, they were the first religious order of men to combine the common activities of daily life with their clerical work. 

Herr Clemens Galban was born in New York and joined the Augustinians after working on Wall Street.

HERR CLEMENS GALBAN ON CAMERA: The legend of the abbey is that St. Leopold the Babenburg Margrave who governed this region, he married a woman named Agnes. She was a noblewoman as well and she had all the money actually for the building of the abbey. They went out on the balcony after the wedding, a gust of wind took her wedding veil, which was very precious to her. She brought it with her from Germany. It was part of her dowry. And it blew away and could not be found. About 10 years later, Leopold goes out on a hunt with his dogs, and low and behold his dogs come up to an Elderberry tree and start barking ferociously, and he comes to the tree and Leopold finds in the branches of the tree, Iscot, the veil of Agnes of her wedding. Then of course there is a vision of the Virgin and the Blessed Mother tells him build me a monastery on this spot.

BURT WOLF: Nice story but historically not even close. Legends, however, are not designed to teach historical facts -- they work on a bigger canvas. Legends about the founding of churches and places of pilgrimage often deal with the recovery of something that was lost. This story shows that Agnes played an essential part in the founding of the abbey and that a spiritual force was in control of the events.


BURT WOLF: Klosterneuburg is the home to the Verdun Altar which is one of the world’s most important medieval works of art. The altar was produced by Nicholas Verdun who worked on it for ten years starting in 1171. It represents religious history in three layers that compare similar events at different times. It’s an unusual idea that was probably developed here at the abbey.

There are three horizontal rows. The top row represents scenes from the time before the law, which is seen as the time before Moses. At the bottom are scenes from the time under the law -- the time between Moses and Christ. In the middle are a series of panels with scenes from the Christian age. In the top row Joseph is cast into an empty well by his brothers and left to die -- yet he survives and becomes the savior of his people in Egypt. In the lowest row the prophet Jonah is swallowed by a sea-monster but is then released unharmed to proclaim God’s word. In the center strip, Jesus is entombed only to rise three days later. Three stories with similar themes—entrapment, escape, and a community saved through the will of God.


BURT WOLF: Klosterneuburg is a religious community but from its very beginning it had a close relationship to the rulers of Austria. So close that the emperor kept an apartment in the abbey -- nothing like his big place in town but not bad.

Klosterneuburg was designed as a summer residence for Charles VI -- a place where the royal family would stay for months at a time. This is very different from the royal apartments at most other monasteries which were planned for very short visits.

The detailing is elegant -- stucco ceilings by Italian craftsmen, carved and gilded doors, paintings of the Emperor Charles and his wife Elisabeth Christine. The ceiling on the dining room depicts King Solomon giving a banquet for the Queen of Sheba, a banquet designed to impress her with his wealth and wisdom. The Emperor liked to think of himself as a modern day Solomon.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And this is the Napoleon Room. In 1805, Napoleon I sent word that he would be coming here for a visit. And with that word came a set of detailed instructions as to how he wanted his room to be decorated even though that visit was going to last less than 30 minutes. Clearly an early example of extreme home makeover.


BURT WOLF: The Klosterneuburg Abbey has the largest and the oldest wine estate in Austria. Documents show that the monks here were drinking their own wine as far back as 1136, which happened to be an excellent year for whites but only so-so for the reds.

DI FRANZ REGNER ON CAMERA: This cellar wasn’t built to be a wine cellar. It was built to be the solid ground for the palace which was built by Carl VI. And an Italian builder made a very strong and huge cave and we use it now to store our wines here.

BURT WOLF: The cellars can be visited as part of a special tour in combination with a tasting. Wine is a serious business here.


BURT WOLF: As you travel west along the Danube you will come to the small town of Mautern which was originally founded by the Romans during the first century. Mautern has become well-know among European food lovers because it is the home of the restaurant Landhaus Bacher, which is rated as one of the great restaurants of Austria.

The reason for its outstanding reputation is Lisl Wagner-Bacher who took over the restaurant from her father in the early 80s. She is a self-taught chef who does the shopping and most of the cooking. Her husband Klaus is in charge of the wine cellar which houses an extensive collection of Austrian wines.

We started with her signature appetizer. An egg is soft boiled for six minutes -- peeled -- dipped into flour -- - dipped into egg wash -- coated with breadcrumbs and deep fried for about 90 seconds. A little sour cream goes on a dish. A puree of potatoes. The egg. And a heaping tablespoon of caviar.

Main course was sliced loin of venison and three kinds of celery.

CHEF THOMAS DORFER ON CAMERA: I put the deer in the stove. To caramelize the bread dumplings. Look after the deer. It’s good. These are celery ragu. These are just celery. And celery purée. You get the idea. Cover with the nuts and just cut it. The sauce. White pepper sauce. Just a little bit inside, that's it.

BURT WOLF: And for dessert a cheese soufflé.

CHEF/OWNER LISL WAGNER-BACHER ON CAMERA: And we have there pancakes stuffed also with white cheese. Eggs and white cheese and it’s the modern way of a typical Austrian sweet dish. Bring it here in the hot water for 15 minutes in the oven.


BURT WOLF: Continue down river from Mautern and you will pass the ruins of the castle at Durnstein. During the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, which took place at the end of the 12th century, Richard the Lion Hearted insulted Duke Leopold V by taking down Leopold’s banner during an attack. Not cool.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: On his return home to England, Richard had to pass through the lands of his newly acquired enemy. In order to avoid being detected by Leopold he dressed as a simple peasant, but he forgot to take off the royal ring and was spotted. He was taken prisoner and held in the Durnstein castle until ransomed. A serious wardrobe malfunction.

BURT WOLF: A little further down river and you arrive at Melk, one of the world’s most extraordinary monasteries.


BURT WOLF: The town of Melk was founded as a Roman garrison at the point where the Melk River joins up with the Danube about 50 miles west of Vienna. In the year 976 the Emperor of Germany chose the Babenberg family to rule the neighborhood which they did from a series of fortified castles. The castle at Melk was their most important stronghold and became the cradle of Austrian history.

The Babenbergs decided to bury their ancestors at Melk and to make sure that the family burial site was cared for properly they set up a monastery inside the castle. The Babenbergs ruled for just over 100 years, at which point the castle and the surrounding lands were turned into a Benedictine monastery and Benedictine monks have living and working here ever since.

For centuries Melk was able to support itself with taxes from the local peasants and a profitable agricultural program on its own land. These days, however, the major source of income is tourism. Each year almost five hundred thousand people visit Melk.


BURT WOLF: During the 14th century Melk Abbey was enlarged and fortified and during the 1700s it was rebuilt and turned into one of the finest Baroque structures in Europe.

St. Benedict’s motto was pray, work and read and the physical structure of Melk is designed to serve these functions.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Quite simply because of St. Benedict the world and Europe is a very different place. Benedict lives in the 6th century, the Dark Ages, following the fall of the Roman Empire. And he completely changes what it means to be a monk in the Christian tradition. Up until that time they were hermits living separately in huts and caves. St. Benedict does that for a while but then he decides this should be a community. And so the Benedictine model is to bring men, bring women together and to have a life of holiness that is also at the same time a life of wholeness. He promotes a balanced personality of work, spiritual life of prayer and intellectual advancement. And so the Benedict communities become these oasis of learning within Europe and really preserves the learning heritage and a wisdom of the European tradition.

BURT WOLF: The Rule of St. Benedict requires that nothing be more important than the worship service and the Melk Abbey church clearly reflects that instruction. Work on the church began at the beginning of the 1700s, under the direction of Abbot Dietmayr. Dietmayer decided that the subject matter of the art work should be based on the idea that without a just battle there is no victory. And that theme is reflected throughout the interior.

St. Peter and St. Paul in a farewell handshake as they set off to meet their deaths -- their final battle. Christ crowned with thorns battles through suffering to glory. A panel shows the woman of the Apocalypse who battled the dragon. The entire area around the altar represents one idea -- God’s people battling on the road to salvation. The design reaches its peak in the dome. We see the heavenly Jerusalem -- the great victory that follows a just battle. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: This idea that there is a journey, a struggle, a battle if you will, a spiritual battle in which although Jesus has won the ultimate victory, one individually has to participate and struggle through and so in the Christian tradition there is no room for the passive bystander, one has to be involved, one has to be part of the struggle and one has to, with the Lord's help, overcome.

BURT WOLF: The abbey library is one of the worlds finest with over 100,000 books including many ancient hand written and illuminated manuscripts.

This book was written in the 1100’s and presents elements from the mass.

By the early 1200s Melk had its own writing room which produced hundreds of illustrated books and was probably the inspiration for Umberto Eco’s medieval murder mystery -- -“The Name of the Rose”.


BURT WOLF: In 2001 the Melk monastery museum was built to illustrate the history of the abbey and to help visitors understand the forces that shaped its past.

The most precious treasure and the holiest relic in the monastery is the Melk Cross. It contains a fingernail-size piece of the cross of Christ that was given to the abbey in 1040. The gold screws that hold the two sides of the cross together are the oldest known screws with a right-hand thread which is now the norm.

There is also the lower jaw of St. Coloman. Coloman was the son of an Irish king who was martyred near Vienna in 1012. He was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but because of his strange language and clothing he was suspected of being a spy. He was imprisoned, tortured and hung. Almost immediately a series of miracles began taking place and the local population began to view Coloman as a saint.

The Badenbergs heard about the miracles and had Coloman’s body brought to the castle for a ceremonial funeral. The Badenbergs knew that having the body of a saint in their castle would be considered a divine confirmation of their authority as rulers. Coloman became Austria’s first patron saint.

The museum represents all the periods in the history of Melk -- the good, the bad and the truly bizarre. Some of the more bizarre stuff came in during the second half of the 1700s when everything was being subjected to what, at the time, was considered to be logical behavior.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1784, Emperor Joseph II reached a high point or perhaps a low point depending on your view point in terms of logical thinking. He’d come to the realization that the Lord wanted the human body to return to the earth -- ashes to ashes and dust to dust and that a coffin only stood in the way and so he demanded that all coffins be reusable.

BURT WOLF: This is a model of the reusable coffin he introduced. Once it was lowered into the grave a pulley opened a trap door in the bottom and the body remained in the earth while the coffin was pulled up to be used again.

Now as much as Joe loved his reusable coffin, he didn’t think it was quite right for Emperors.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You see there really weren’t that many Emperors and so it wouldn’t get used that often. And therefore really wasn’t a very efficient piece of equipment – for Emperors.


BURT WOLF: The Melk Abbey museum also contains some of the greatest religious art of the late middle ages. These paintings were produced as works that would teach the bible to people who could not read, which was the case for the majority of the population.

An excellent example is the painting of The Twelve-Year-Old Christ in the Temple. Mary and Joseph are looking for him and find him with the scribes. Jesus is sitting on a ‘teachers chair' on the same level as the highest teacher symbolizing that what Jesus says is as important as what the scribe has to say. In addition, the scribe is using a book. Jesus needs no book -- he is saying what God has taught him. In the lower right hand corner is a scribe who has closed his book. All the scribe needs now is the wisdom of Jesus. Paintings like these were explained to the viewers and thereafter each time they were seen, the message was remembered and understood.

The monasteries of lower Austria are still teaching tools. They can remind a visitor that for thousands of years people have struggled to lead a more meaningful life and their belief in a superior being or higher force has been an essential part of that struggle.

For Travels & Traditions I’m Burt Wolf.