Melk’s newly restored Baroque abbey beams proudly over the Danube Valley. The abbey is one of Europe’s greatest sights. Established as a fortified Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, it was destroyed by fire. What you see today was rebuilt and redesigned in the 18th century by Baroque architect Jakob Prandtauer.
The abbey has a 200 foot tall dome and symmetrical towers which dominates the complex, emphasizing its sacred importance with the people. Freshly painted and gold-gilded throughout, it’s a Baroque dream come true. The grand restoration project, financed in part by the sale of the abbey’s Gutenberg bible to Harvard in America, was completed in 1996 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the first reference to Austria in literature.
Imagine the abbot on the balcony greeting you as he used to great important guests. Flanking him are statues of Peter and Paul and the monastery’s coat of arms. From the balcony you can enjoy dramatic views of the Danube Valley, the town of Melk, and the façade of the monastery church. The huge statue above everything is Christ with cross in hand victorious over death.
For 900 years, monks of St. Benedict have lived and worked here. Maintaining Christianity and culture in the region was their primary task. During the reformation, only 8 monks lived here. Napoleon made his headquarters here in 1805 and 1809. In 1938, when Hitler annexed Austria, the monastery was squeezed into one end of the complex and nearly dissolved. Today, the four modern frescoes gracing the courtyard were paid for by agriculture and tourism.
The 640 foot long corridor, lined with paintings of Austrian royalty, is the spine of the abbey museum.
In the ceiling of the large dining room is a large fresco painted by Tirolean artisan Paul Troger in 1731. In it, the Habsburgs are portrayed as Hercules and Athena. They also are represented as angels fighting the forces of evil, darkness, and brutality.
For the Benedictine monks, the library was – except for the church, of course – the most important room in the abbey. In the Middle Ages, monasteries controlled information and hoarded it in their libraries. At a time when most everyone else was illiterate, monks were Europe’s educated elite. The beautiful inlaid bookshelfs, matching bindings on books, and another wonderful Troger fresco combine harmoniously to create one of the most beautiful libraries in Europe. The ceiling shows a woman surrounded by the four cardinal virtues – wisdom, justice, fortitude, and recycling. The statues flanking the doors represent the four traditional university faculties – law, medicine, philosophy, and of course theology.
The grand finale to the abbey is the church. With its unique architecture, ceiling frescoes, stucco marble, grand pipe organ, and sumptuous chapels adorned with chubby cherubs, the Melk Abbey makes a theological point – A just battle leads to victory. The ceiling shows St. Benedict’s triumphant entry into heaven on a fancy carpet. In the front below the huge papal crown, the saints Peter and Paul shake hands before departing for their final battles, martyrdom, and ultimate victory. And high above, the Holy Trinity is surrounded by saints of particular importance to Melk, all happily in heaven.
Video from our visit: