The Magnificence of Melk
You can smell wisdom in the library of the Melk Abbey.
More than 100,000 volumes including manuscripts are included in this remarkable section of the centuries-old church in the heartland of Austria.
Imposing? Certainly. Inspiring? Without a doubt.
In the order of importance of the rooms in the Benedictine monastery, the library comes second only to the church.
It’s hard to get your head around how vast it is and what it means to civilisation. The sheer number of volumes and documents accumulated over such time bears testament to the inquisitive mind.
The library comprises 12 rooms containing about 1888 manuscripts, 750 incunabula (printed works before 1500), 1700 works from the 16th, 4500 from the 17th, and 18,000 from the 18th century.
Just think of the knowledge and wisdom that has been passed on through time from that resource.
The elaborate artistic decoration of the rooms show the high regard the monks had for their library.
The ceiling fresco by Paul Troger (1731/32) shows spiritual images that portray science.
You could feel the significance of what had been read in these rooms, what had been discovered through the ages.
In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose, the author, names one of the protagonists Adso of Melk as a tribute to the abbey and its famous library where he did much of his research.
It is an historical murder mystery set in an Italian monastery in the year 1327 and formed the basis for the 1986 movie of the same name that starred Sean Connery as William of Baskerville and Christian Slater as Adso, the Benedictine novice.
Despite the fact the abbey was about the power and the glory of the catholic church, it is the library that leaves the biggest impression, no matter how bizarre that may seem.
To stand in the alcove where so many other great minds had stood, reading and writing incredible scriptures and surrounded by walls of hugely historical texts. You didn’t want to leave that library. All the while overlooking the sweeping valley and ocean of green.
Perched above the village that is on the banks of a branch of the Danube River, Melk has played an important role in the region since Roman times.
It was then a fortress built on the promontory overlooking the tiny arm of the mighty Danube.
Mention the name Melk and so many people say they have been there.
The rock-strewn bluff where the abbey now stands was the seat of the Babenbergs, who ruled Austria from 976 until the Hapsburgs took over.
Known for its wine growing area, the Hapsburgs ceded it to the Benedectine monks in 1100 and it remains a working abbey to this day.
It is a church, not a museum. This is despite it housing some of the greatest riches of the Roman Catholic church.
And the Benedictine monks are very contemplative, right up to this day.
It was St Benedict’s vocation.
A humble person, much like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, he was discovered by shepherds living in a cave and they asked him to found a community.
“Listen, with the ears of your heart.’’
That, apparently, was among the first writings in his Book of Rules from the 1300s.
“Be impressed by the quality of listening.’’
And you cannot help but be moved by the imposing setting and the sheer grandeur of the abbey.
You approach the village through fields of grain and vineyards. Then all of a sudden this golden dome appears as you get closer to the river valley.
It hangs above the village for all to see.
There are wine gardens everywhere. The product of the grape has been made here 2000 years. And the monks still make wine.
We are at the abbey as part of a tour through Central Europe by the Sunshine Coast Oriana Choir from Queensland, Australia.
The choir is to give a recital in the church as part of their Cathedral Dreaming tour of Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
We knew Melk was significant but even so were not prepared for the sheer grandeur.
Research before you go. And, like all good journeys, expect the unexpected.
It’s easy to find yourself getting busy – packing, planning and simply being excited about a European trip. Yet making the time to better understand the history and significance of Melk would have made the visit even more meaningful.
Despite the abbey attracting between 400,000 and 500,000 visitors a year we are reminded it is a sacred place and photos or phones are not allowed in the sacred areas.
For this reason we did not take videos or photos of the choir’s performance in the elaborate church itself.
Silence is important – just as in music. It can say so much.
The Stiftskirche (Abbey Church) has an astonishing number of windows and is richly embellished with marble and frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr with help from Troger.
We were reminded that the treasures within the abbey are not reflecting the lifestyle of Jesus but the glory of heaven.
The relic cross is the most beautiful of many treasures.
It’s the same in the outer chapels with ornate arches and frescoes.
The Austro Hungarian empire at its peak had more than 40 languages throughout 15-16 countries.
The abbey was founded in 1089 when Leopold II, Margrave of Austria, gave one of his castles to Benedictine monks from Lambach Abbey.
The Kaisergang (Emperors’ Gallery) stretches for 198 metres (650 feet), and is decorated with portraits of Austrian royalty.
Its influence and reputation as a centre of learning and culture spread throughout Austria.
There were 100 monks at the abbey 100 years ago. Today there are 30. It shows the changes in 1500 years of monastical tradition.
Yet in many ways the ebbs and flows through history of the monastery reflects the ups and downs of everyday life.
Among the treasures we are shown is a travel prayer book from 14th century.
It’s the size of a smart phone, but thicker because of the number of pages.
The treasures are not reflecting the lifestyle of Jesus but the glory of heaven, we are told by a practising monk who is acting as our guide.
The monks pray nine times a day.
“Praying is a very important part,’’ the guide tells us. “Benedictine monks are very contemplative.
“The church is on a pilgrimage … one day we will die even though we push it far away.
“What should people feel when they come in?
“That God is good, that heaven is open. It is a feast of joy
“There are 789 angels surrounding you.’’
The black-robed Benedictine monks still stroll amidst the marble sculptures and frescoed walls.
It is now also a co-ed monastery school with more than 700 students.
There are fine views of the river from the abbey’s terrace, that Napoleon probably used as a lookout when he made Melk his headquarters in his campaign against Austria.
The name melk is from a Slavic word for “border’’.
The area around the village was given to Margrave Leopold I in the year 976 to serve as a buffer between the Magyars to east and Bavaria to the west.
In 996 mention was first made of an area known as Ostarrîchi, which is the origin of the word Österreich (German for Austria).
The town of Melk sits below the abbey and is a beautiful place to wander, to enjoy a cup of coffee at the bakery or the many bar-cafes.
Otherwise try some of the locally-made apricot liqueur or enjoy a glass of chilled sparkling wine with the fabulous cheeses and cured meats.
To sit there in the cobbled streets with flowers hanging from the window boxes on such a sparkling day.
Through it all, you are reminded of the importance of listening, understanding.
It is often what is not said that is the most powerful. It’s the same with what you can be read between the lines.