Image Courtesy of Wikipedia and David Monniaux
My husband, Doug, and I looked at each other in utter amazement. We weren’t prepared for this…we felt overwhelmed, uplifted, humbled, inspired and awed, all at once. No, it wasn’t a rock concert, an excellent book, or even a rousing motivational speech. Quite simply put, it was the mere act of walking into the church at the Monastery at Melk, along the Danube River – a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site – and I should have known!
Let me backtrack a bit. I majored in Architecture at Penn State University, back in the early 80’s. I took Art History as a requirement, and one of my classes was studying historical European architecture. I vaguely remember examining old engravings of this monastery and other churches and cathedrals of the Baroque period, jamming notes into my head that I had written in class in preparation for an upcoming test. Though I could spit out all the facts: the date of construction, the architect, the style and other noteworthy tidbits of information, this really didn’t convey the real purpose these people, these monks, these artisans, these nameless laymen and workers that toiled for years and years on this edifice, all joined together in unison for a single purpose. The exteriors of many of these churches hardly give away any of the secrets of their opulent interiors. They are strong, forceful, proud, and stoic, with just a hint of undulation…gentle little curves in stone that maybe, just maybe reveal a hint of what is in store within.
Then, all at once, when you walk into the cathedral at Melk, it hits you with such force, as you enter the chamber of the church inside. There is an explosion of color, echoing in shades of gilt-work, cast in precious metals of gold, copper and bronze. A symphony of marbles, granite and other exquisite stone all playing together in concert for the Glory of God. You enter and your mouth drops wide open. Your eyes wander everywhere…to the nave, the floor, the ceiling, the altar, the organ, the chapels and balconies all dripping with carvings and gilt. There is way too much here to absorb all at once, on every surface, every conceivable nook and cranny everywhere! The feeling you get when you gaze upward is hard to describe in words. In fact the only word that comes to mind is…transcendent.
Quite purposely, these pious monks were deceiving us all along. We believe they lived such simple, austere lives, chanting Gregorian chants that echo in what you think may be hollow empty halls above, while quietly brewing strong, throat-burning spirits in their darkened basements below. And yet, the Benedictine monks at Melk worship on a cliff soaring high above the Danube River in regal splendor. I know that perhaps today we may be tempted to judge them by current standards: why couldn’t they have used all this money to help the poor and downtrodden of their time? I cannot answer this. But after visiting the temple of their worship, I better understand their attempt at holy expression: to capture a tiny glimpse of what’s to come, what might await us all after death here on earth. Perhaps the indescribable detail and beauty was their way of preparing us for heaven to come.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the Cathedral of the Monastery at Melk. Even the obligatory gift shop sold no photos of its inner workings. My guess is that this was purposeful too, and I dutifully respect their decision. For no one, once they enter the gates of heaven, is ever allowed to come back and tell us mortals what immortal treasures await beyond. And so they leave us a timeless church conveying their sense of a wondrous secret. Perhaps that is their lasting legacy, carved in earthly stone and cast in precious metals at the Monastery at Melk.