Series: Monastic life – then and now
Monastic Vienna – scholarship and diplomacy
Mecharistengasse is a small side street in the 7th district, and most people who happen across it will be unaware of the rich cultural heritage behind the walls of the Mekhitarist monastery after which it is named. With its precious manuscripts, valuable carpets and even a mummy it is an important depository of the historical and religious heritage of Armenia. This cultural heritage is looked after by a small group of Mekhitarists living in Vienna.
The order was founded in Constantinople in 1701 by Mekhitar (The Consoler) of Sebaste and recognised by Pope Clement XI soon afterwards. The Armenian Benedictines settled on a small island in Venice, but a group soon split away from the Venetian order and moved to Trieste. When Napoleon occupied Trieste the Mekhitarists lost their home and moved to Vienna, where they were granted asylum by Empress Maria Theresa.
Viennese diplomacyThis asylum was less an act of altruism than a political ploy, given the fact that the monks were well educated and spoke several languages, thereby offering a potential asset for the Habsburg dynasty. Their knowledge of Turkish and Arabic facilitated communication between East and West. Hitherto the Armenians had not enjoyed a particularly good reputation in the city as they were often suspected of being spies. At the same time it should not be forgotten that the first coffee house in Vienna was run by an Armenian.
In the heart of the monasteryThe monastery library shows that the Armenians were not only experts at roasting coffee but also in book art. The Mekhiarists in Vienna have the fourth largest collection of Armenian manuscripts in the world with 2,600 items, most of them with magnificent illuminations dating back as far as the ninth century. These colourful testimonies to a historical book art tradition are very well preserved, not least thanks to the amazing fastness of the inks. The red ink was obtained, for example, from a species of scale insect. The remains of the louse were mixed with garlic juice and fig seeds to make them last longer and provide a natural protection against moths. Even today, the books emit garlic fumes and engulf the concentrated scholars in their vapour. In some cases the acquisition of the manuscripts also owed something to luck. One rare item, for example, was acquired when one of the monks bought some grapes on the market that were wrapped in it.
Printing, singing and bittersThe monks also possess considerable knowledge of medicine, not least because the Armenian church allowed dissection. A book about popular diseases, for example, contains interesting information about herbal medicine. There are around 12,000 works in Armenian and 10,000 on Armenian history in the library. The Armenian magazine collection is the most extensive in the world, and the order still publishes a periodical today. Until recently it and other works were printed in Armenian, Latin or Arabic script in the monastery’s own printing works, but technical innovations in printing forced the monks to abandon their traditional printing works, where future Austrian Federal President Franz Jonas once worked as a setter.
By contrast, the refectory with its painting of the Last Supper is still in use. The monastery chapel also has some valuable works of art. Built by Joseph Georg Kornhäusel, it was renovated last year to mark the 200th anniversary of the monks in Vienna. Visitors are invited to attend the sung mass at 11 a.m. on Sundays. Groups of five or more are offered a guided tour of the library, monastery and monastery museum but they need to telephone in advance. The museum contains the privilege granted by Maria Theresa, traditional tapestries and carpets and a mummy donated by an Egyptian diplomat. The Mekhitarist liqueur brewed for centuries by the monks can be purchased during normal business hours at the monastery shop in Neustiftgasse.
Tour of Vienna’s monasteries
In the centre of Vienna on the Freyung is the Schottenstift (Scottish Abbey), one of the most important Benedictine monasteries in Austria. It is named after the order of Irish monks (Ireland was called ‘Scotia Major’ by the Romans) summoned to Vienna in 1155 by Henry II of Austria. In the fifteenth century the abbey developed into an important spiritual and cultural centre. Today the library with its 200,000 volumes and the museum with paintings by Rubens, Brand and de Vos bear witness to its cultural wealth. The monks also run a private Catholic school and a shop with spirits, fruit, cheese and sausages.
The Minorite order founded in 1209 by St Francis of Assisi is the second oldest order in Vienna. The Minorites – also known as Black Franciscans – were summoned in 1224 by Margrave Leopold VI to Vienna, where they founded the Minorite Church and monastery in 1247. While the Minorite Church remains a popular tourist attraction – it contains, for example, a magnificent copy of the painting “The Last Supper” – the monastery was dissolved by Joseph II, and the Minorites were forced to move to the abandoned Trinitarian monastery in Alsergrund, today home of the central library of the Austrian Minorite Order.
Summoned to Vienna in 1226 by Leopold VI, the Dominican order founded by St Dominic in Toulouse in 1216 has also had a turbulent history. The church tower was foreshortened in the sixteenth century during the first Turkish siege of Vienna as the stones were needed to reinforce the city wall. In the seventeenth century the church was remodelled in Baroque style, although the medieval core still survives today.
The Capuchin order, also based on the teachings of St Francis of Assisi, was founded in the sixteenth century. The Capuchin monastery today was established following a request in the will of Empress Anna, wife of Emperor Matthias, to be buried in a Capuchin monastery. In compliance with this request construction began in 1622 and the coffin was transferred in 1633 to the crypt, and now has the illustrious company of the sarcophagi of Empress Maria Theresa, Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth. The Capuchin monks today continue to watch over the empress and her husband.
Vienna has been the home since 1622 of the order of the Teresian or Discalced Carmelites, a sixteenth-century offshoot of the original Carmelites. The present-day monastery is not the original one, which was located in today’s Karmelitenviertel – hence the name – but a new building constructed in the late nineteenth century in Döbling. With its ornamental decorations, the Neo-Romanesque church is without a doubt one of the most elegant in Vienna.
One of Vienna’s most prominent tourist attractions is the Augustinian Church on Albertinaplatz. The Gothic church was integrated into the Hofburg when it was being built, with the result that its exterior is somewhat unspectacular. During the imperial era, the Habsburgs were married in the church of the Augustinian order – originally a merger of several Italian hermit orders. The hearts of members of the dynasty are also to be found in the Herzgruft (heart crypt).
For further orders in Vienna see
Monastic life then and now
Part 1: Viennese monasteries
Part 2: Klosterneuburg Monastery and Altenburg Monastery / Lower Austria
Part 3: Stift Melk and Seitenstetten Monastery / Lower Austria
Part 4: Serbian monasteries
Part 5: The Capuchin monastery in Bratislava
Part 6: The monastery of Divine Mercy in Nové Hrady
Part 7: Pannonhalma: monastery, school and vineyard
Part 8: The Remete monastery in Zagreb
Part 9: Novodevichy Convent in Moscow
Part 10: The Slovenian Stična Cistercian Abby
Part 11: Franciscan Monastery in Sarajevo
Part 12: Stavropoleos Monastery in Bucharest
Part 13: The bulgarian Rila Monastery