Throughout the Middle Ages in the west, monastaries, more than any other institution, were the great repositories of knowledge and learning. Across Christian Europe, monks devoted their lives to the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, creating the forerunners of universities and maintaining great libraries. Few were greater, or more famous, than the magnificent Melk Abbey. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Danube River, Melk Abbey and its library were among the wonders of Central Europe. Established by Benedictines, this abbey has not only miraculously survived the ages, but has grown to such spectacular proportions that is has become a must-stop visit on any tour of the Danube valley. Melk Abbey was an inspiration for Umberto Eco’s famous mystery novel, The Name of the Rose.
The Benedictine order was among the most prolific of the various monastic societies that were active in Europe at the height of the Middle Ages; this was particularly true in Central Europe, where they founded a large number of great abbeys and monastaries. Many, if not most, of the monastic institutions that can be found throughout Austria and Southern Germany even today were first established by the Benedictines.
The founding of Melk has an interesting backstory. In the late 11th century, Europe became embroiled in the Investiture Controversy. This conflict centered around the right to appoint church officials. On the one hand was the Papacy, and on the other was the Holy Roman imperium. In the 1080s, Leopold II, Margrave of Austria, his lands caught between those of the Church and the Empire, sided with the Papacy. In order to cement his relationship with the Church, and to strengthen the Papacy’s strategic position on the Danube, he gifted one of his castles to the Benedictine order.
In the end, Leopold’s choice to side with the Pope was a strategic disaster. He died a few years later, his lands much reduced. However, his legacy survived in his gift to the Benedictines. In 1089, a number of monks arrived from Lambach, and began transformed the castle into the first incarnation of Melk Abbey. By the late Middle Ages, the monastery’s scriptorium was one of the most prolific in Europe, and its library collection among the largest north of the Alps.
By the 18th century the abbey had grown to immense proportions, and a completely new baroque structure as spectacular as any in Christendom replaced the old medieval buildings. Melk Abbey became a national treasure, and for this reason it managed to survive the ravages of the occupation of both the forces of Napolean and the Nazis. It remains to the present day active both as an abbey and as a school, and is one of the most popular tourist stops along the Danube.
The Abbey of Melk may be the most beautiful baroque-era church ever constructed. Standing on a tall hill thick with green forest, the breathtaking gold and white walls of the abbey absolutely shine down like the sun over the waters of the Danube River below. The complex is in fact more like a palace, with the towering copper-domed cathedral in the middle flanked by two long wings that could easily have been designed as annexes for Versailles. An exquisitely rendered marble statue of Jesus carrying the Cross and flanked by two angels crowns the façade.
The cathedral interior is magnificent as any imaginable. Walls and columns of marble are generously adorned in massive quantities of gold leaf, which despite its beauty has been considered something of a scandal for the monastic order. The ceiling consists of massive frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict and his ascension to Heaven. However, for history buffs and fans of the Name of the Rose, the real treasure of the Abbey is its massive library collection, highlights of which now on permanent display in vast galleries.
Melk Abbey is located in the very heart of Austria, about fifty miles west of Vienna and easily accessible by road, rail or river. It is open year-round from 9:00am-4:00pm (later hours in Summer). The cost of admission is E11.50. Web: www.stiftmelk.at (official website)
Central Austria is rich with Catholic history, with countless churches and monasteries dotting the landscape. Not too far away, in Lambach just to the west, is Lambach Abbey, who provided the monks who founded Melk. For those interested in World War II history, it also provided the education for a young Adolf Hitler.