Series: Monastic life – then and now
From popular excursion destination to insider tip
Abbeys and seminaries are an important part of Austria’s cultural heritage that has been made accessible only in the last few decades. Twenty-four monasteries and seminaries in Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland have combined in Verein Klösterreich with a view to making these institutions more open to the public. Members include Klosterneuburg Monastery and Altenburg Monastery in Lower Austria.
There are currently 85 men’s orders and 120 women’s orders in Austria. Many open their institutions to anyone who wants to visit a monastery to study cultural treasures or gain an insight into monastery life. Christian Haidinger, abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Altenburg and president of Klösterreich, quotes St Benedict, who said 1,500 years ago: “All guests should be received as Christ.” Monasteries today continue to follow this precept and offer various additional services such as fast cures, herb seminars, painting courses and the like.
Klösterreich’s motto for 2012 is “kunst.werk.statt Kloster” [art.work.shop monastery]. Some of its members are commemorating the 250th anniversary of the death of the Baroque painter Paul Troger with innovative presentations. One of them is Altenburg Monastery, known as the “Troger monastery”, in the Waldviertel, whose exhibition “Idea Form Figure” includes works by Troger.
wieninternational.at took part in the Klösterreich press tour to Klosterneuburg and Altenburg to find out more about the enchantment and mystery of these places for itself.
“Where heaven and earth meet”This is the slogan with which Klosterneuburg Monastery near Vienna is hoping to attract visitors. According to legend, the Augustinian monastery founded in 1114 by Margrave Leopold III was built on the spot where the bridal veil of Leopold’s wife Agnes, which had been blown away by the wind, was found again. However apocryphal the legend might be, the monstrance commissioned in 1714 by the monastery to mark the 600th anniversary of its founding and completed by Johann Baptist Känischbauer, Vienna’s leading goldsmith of the time, can be seen in the monastery’s treasury.
Incomplete buildingIn 1730 Emperor Charles VI wanted to erect the most gigantic of all Baroque monasteries. The monastery and imperial palace were to form a unit like the Escorial near Madrid. Construction was suspended, however, soon after the Emperor’s death in 1740 and it was not until 1834–42 that at least a quarter of the planned complex was completed by architect Joseph Kornhäusel – today’s Klosterneuburg Monastery.
Precious treasuresThe treasury in Klosterneuburg was not open to the public until last year. The showpiece is the “holy crown of Austria”, the Austrian archduke’s ruby, emerald, sapphire and pearl-studded hat, which has been kept at the monastery since 1616. Based on the holy crowns of Hungary (Stephan’s crown) and Bohemia (Wenceslas’ crown) it is a symbol of absolute authority. The most precious treasure and most popular sacral art work in Klosterneuburg is the Verdun Altar completed in 1181 by the goldsmith Nikolaus from Verdun. The fire-gilded enamel panels were originally used on the pulpit and were only transformed into a winged altar in 1330. Other highlights include a seven-branch bronze chandelier donated by Agnes and Leopold before 1136, the Babenberg ancestral chart, the collegiate church with its Baroque organ, and the Sala terrena, which has been preserved in the state it was left when construction was suspended in 1740 and today functions as a magnificent entrance hall.
Insider tip: Altenburg MonasteryA little off the beaten track but just as worthwhile is the Benedictine monastery in Altenburg in the Waldviertel, an hour’s drive from Vienna. Endowed in 1144 and nested in the woody hills of the Kamptal, it went through a turbulent history in the Middle Ages during which it was destroyed and reconstructed. “Come and see!” is the welcoming motto of the Baroque monastery. And there is indeed plenty to see: the Troger monastery, as it is called, has ten frescos by Paul Troger in the church, library, marble hall and prelature, offering the richest collection of monumental painting by the gifted South Tyrolean painter, who died 250 years ago this year. The much vaunted “Troger blue”, which features so prominently in the frescos, is the subject of the current exhibition at the monastery entitled “Troger: blue is not art”. The monks are of the opinion that there is no such thing as Troger blue and that the painter’s genius lay in his technique. A further highlight in Altenburg is the crypt, which was never used as a burial room or chapel but was decorated by Troger’s students with grotesque symbols of our mortality, turning it into an interesting and eerie memento mori.
A monastery under the monasterySince 1983 the old the medieval monastery complex under the Baroque building has been systematically excavated and restored. This makes Altenburg the only Austrian monastery with all major medieval monastic features, from the cloister to the fountain.
Communication between religionsThe gardens of Altenburg Monastery are also worth visiting. Apart from the Cloister Garden, Creation Garden, Garden of Silence and Apothecary Garden, there is also the symbolic Garden of Religions. It consists of five landscaped areas depicting the relationship between the five great world religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Based on the “Nostrae Aetate” of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) it shows the common features and differences between these religions. It also contains the Apple Tree Room, a plant pendant to the cloister in the monastery.
The journey to Altenburg Monastery and even a stay in the guesthouse there are well worth it to enjoy the variety of sights. “Guests are invited to participate in our activities, the midday or divine office, and the meals in the refectory or simply to satisfy the need for peace and quiet,” says Abbot Haidinger.
The monks of Klosterneuburg Monastery live according to the rule of St Augustine and are a charitable order devoted to social welfare, prayer and service to God’s people.
Visitors can choose between the sacral, imperial and wine cellar tour and can also see the treasury, garden and museum.
Summer (1 May to 15 November) 09:00–18:00
Winter (16 November to 30 April) 10:00–17:00
All information at www.stift-klosterneuburg.at
“Idea, Form and Figure – the Highpoints of the Sammer Collection”
Exhibition until 16 November 2012 as part of the museum tour
The monks of Altenburg Monastery are members of the Benedictine order. Benedict of Nursia (c. 480–547) founded the first Benedictine monasteries in Subiaco and Monte Cassino and drafted a monastic rule that has been binding for practically all monasteries at least since the time of Charlemagne and the Synod of Aachen (817). The popularity of the Benedictine Rule is due to its balance: it encourages a search for human integrity (being one) through abstinence and spiritual reflection without the extremes of asceticism and the kind of excesses that characterised monastic life before St Benedict.
1 May to 26 October, 10:00–17:00 (last admission 16:00)
“Troger: blue is not art – the pictures of Altenburg Monastery”
Exhibition until 26 October 2012
Abt Placidus Much-Strasse 1
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