Guide To Melk Abbey, Austria's Baroque Blockbuster
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Beaming like a golden halo over the tiny village of Melk stands Austria's prettiest church: Melk Abbey. It's a must see site in Austria, especially if you're on the UNESCO trail. Its elegant yellow buildings form one of the most important landmarks and religious complexes in Europe.
It's definitely Austria's blockbuster Baroque ensemble. I find some of the Hapsburg architecture to be rather dull or, at least, downright unimaginative. After the thousandth identical gold Rococo ceiling swirl ... yawn. But in Melk, Austria got it right.
I had just finished a long and glorious bike ride through the bewitching Wachau Valley (here's my guide). I was dazzled by the tranquil blue-green scenery of the Austrian countryside, tumbling down to the Danube River. But there was no rest for bedazzlement. The resplendent Melk Abbey beckoned and was equally stunning, albeit in a more sensory overload sort of way.
Melk Abbey is an incredible building, both inside and out. Marble, frescos, spiraling staircases, stately royal rooms, and gilt -- oh my! It fulfills the promise of Baroque design to "overwhelm the viewer." But not in an overly gaudy way that the Baroque style sometimes can. And not in a sometimes boring way that the Hapsburgs palaces can. It charms with yellow, pink, and gold sweetbox tones.
enjoying a bike ride through the Wachau Valley with my husband
History of Melk Abbey
Melk Abbey began life as a Roman fortress, as so many historic destinations did. With an influx of Slavs, the town was named Melk, a Slavic word meaning slow moving. This was a reference to the Els River, which flows at a snail's pace into the Danube.
In the 11th century, Melk was ruled by the Babenberg family. They decided to convert the fortress into a fortified monastery, gifted it to the Benedictine monks, and financed its survival. The Babenbergs built new digs for themselves in Klosterneuburg near Vienna.
The Babenbergs also gifted the abbey a splinter from the cross of Jesus, which is now dubbed the Melk Cross. It was robbed twice from the abbey. Legend holds that the splinter returned, quite miraculously, under its own steam. A divine intervention. (Now, the cross hidden away in the treasury, viewable only with special permission.)
aerial view of Melk Abbey
The Benedictine monks are a sect who abjure marriage and devote their lives to God in a closed community setting. St. Benedict wrote the "rules" for the monks, which were exceedingly strict. Legend holds that he was so unpopular that some monks attempted to poison him. Still, his creed persisted and spread throughout Europe.
In 1683, a final sacking by the Turks in the ongoing wars left Melk Abbey in ruins. In 1700, young Berthold Dietmayr was elected as the new abbot. With vision and energy, he sought to raise Melk's profile.
In those days, a grand building did the trick. Dietmayr's ambitious vision was initially greeted with skepticism by the ascetic monks. A florid Baroque building does, on its face, seem anti-monk-like. But then again we know those Benedictine monks grew rather obese, despite the austere nature of the order.
In any event, Dietmayr prevailed. Embracing the tenet of "glory to god in everything," he got busy and launched construction of a lavish church in the Baroque style. Dietmayr hired master builder Jakob Prandtauer. Once the outer shell of the church was completed, he pushed for construction of a new monastery. He became known as the "great construction prelate."
Then, disaster struck again. A fire destroyed much of Dietmayr's lifework. Painstaking reconstruction ensued. But the church, Stiftskirche, wasn't consecrated until 1746.
In the next centuries, the monastery suffered through financial hardship and valiantly staved off the threat of dissolution. Melk Abbey survived both the Reformation and occupation by Napoleon and Hitler. In 1947, the church was damaged by yet another fire and fell into disrepair.
hallway in Melk Abbey
In the 1980s, the exterior was also painted a standout ochre color with white trim. Some art historians criticized the color as too bold and historically inaccurate. I say it looks fantastic. There are plenty of beige buildings in the world.
In the 1990s, a long overdue restoration of the entire abbey began. The complex was decaying from exposure to the elements, mold, algae, and woodworms. The renovation was partly funded by the monk's agriculture endeavors and the sale of the famous Gutenberg Bible to Harvard (which was then gifted to Yale).
But the monks were no dummies. They realized they could make bank through tourism. They built a parking lot, restaurant, gift shop, and imposed an entry fee to tour their architectural masterpiece.
entrance to the Melk Abbey gardens
Now restored to its former glory, Melk Abbey seems almost to glisten, it's so pristine. Melk is the longest running abbey in the world. It serves as a premiere monastic academy, with 900 students (including women, thank the lord). You may well bump into a black robed monk or nun striding through one of the courtyards.
Melk Abbey is found in the Wachau Valley, which was designed a cultural UNESCO site in 2000. In 2008, National Geographic Traveler Magazine named Melk a "Best Historical Destination." Even Umberto Eco hopped on board.
In his medieval whodunit The Name of the Rose, Melk Abbey provides the mysterious backdrop for the novel. Eco even named the narrator and solver of the murder mystery “Adson von Melk.” Adson was a Melk monk who gets involved in murky doings, while visiting an Italian monastery in 1327.
What To See Inside Melk Abbey
There are four key things to see in Melk Abbey: the monastery, the library, the church, and the gardens.
Melk can be reached via a steep staircase from the town, called the "Beggars Staircase." There are signs on the main drag in Melk. If you're driving, there's also a huge free car park.
Right at the entrance, you'll find three thematic wrought iron sculptures, all sending the message of peace. The entrance leads to a large outer courtyard, the Gatekeeper's Courtyard. To the right are the Babenberg Towers, part of the former fortress. To the left is the ticket office.
the elegant eastern facade of Melk Abbey
the abbot's balcony on the eastern facade
The eastern facade immediately grabs your attention. Above the archway is a small balcony, which the abbot used to greet guests. Beneath it is the abbey's coat of arms. You'll also see sculptures of the apostles Peter and Paul.
You pass through the two story Benedict Hall into the Prelate's Courtyard. Before you is the imposing church, the Stiftskirche. The design is relatively simple. But it exudes a quiet grandeur. The center fountain was relocated from another monastery.
facade of Stiftskirche at Melk Abbey
the Prelate's Courtyard of Melk Abbey
a little grubby after our long bike ride, but enjoying the abbey
Imperial Staircase and Corridor
Passing through the archway in the southwest corner, you'll enter a passageway leading to the church and the Imperial Staircase. The stone staircase leads to the suite of rooms designed for the imperial court and other notables, which occupy most of the southern side of the abbey.
At the top of the Emperor's Stairway, pause and look right and left down a long tunnel with the proverbial light at the end. In either direction, the Emperor's Corridor extends seemingly to infinity. It's a 644 foot passageway of vaulted white stone, with richly decorated doors of rare wood.
the Imperial Staircase in Melk Abbey
At the eastern end of the corridor is Dietmayr's Hall. It was originally called the "tiny hall." It was used as a theater for distinguished guests.
At the western end, you'll find the Melk Abbey Museum, with easy-to-read English labels. The museum provides a history of the monastery and its cultural influence. It also houses some of the abbey's most precious art. You'll find a reusable coffin, gilded relics, liturgical instruments, a 3D model of the monastery, and a more modern multi-media display.
the impressive Marble Hall with stucco marble decoration
The Marble Hall
The red and gray Marble Hall is a glamorous room, though the name is a bit misleading. Only the door frames are made of real Salzburg marble. The walls are made of stucco marble, or faux marble, which is actually more expensive (or so I was later told at the Wurzburg Residence in Bavaria.) In any event, the Marble Hall served as the banqueting room or ballroom for the Hapsburgs.
The riotous ceiling fresco is by Paul Troger. It depicts the splendor of the Hapsburg monarchs, who grandiosely claimed to have brought Austria "from dark to light, from evil too good." The fresco has a tromp d'oeil illusion. It appears to curve upward, but actually the ceiling is flat. This effect makes the hall seems taller.
On the way to the library, you'll find a grand open air terrace with a fantastic view of the town of Melk, the Wachau Valley, and the ever-present Danube River. You can also scrutinize the abbey's rich yellow and cream architecture at closer range.
ceiling fresco by Paul Troger in the Marble Hall
view from the terrace outside the Marble Hall
The Baroque Library
The impressive two story library is a bookworm's paradise. It's one of the most important rooms in the monastery. The light-filled library was a great center of learning in medieval times.
It's filled floor to lofty ceiling with over 100,000 books, globes, and medieval texts, including a famed collection of musical manuscripts. Some of the manuscripts date from the early 9th century.
But it's the architecture itself that takes your breath away. It reminded me of the Baroque Joanina Library in the UNESCO-listed Coimbra University in central Portugal. You can't take pictures in the library, though that rule's honored more in the breach.
But it's a gilded room completely encircled with books. On the ceiling is another Troger fresco. The four golden sculptures surrounding the doors represent the four faculties: theology, philosophy, medicine, and law.
the Baroque library of Melk Abbey
Recently, in 1997, a fragment of a famous book was discovered, a transcription of the The Song of the Nibelungs, an epic German poem that tells the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried. It was found in the binding of one of the medieval manuscripts.
A stunning spiral stairway connects the library to the Stiftskirche. It's one of the most photographed stairways in the world. The pink and gold color scheme is unique. On balance, though it was a bit princess-y, I decided it was just so pretty. Though an odd place for monks to tread, even if in the name of god's glory.
the pink and gold spiral staircase leading from the library to the church
another shot of the staircase, which people like to dub the "stairway to heaven"
The Melk Abbey Church, Stiftskirche
The final stop on the tour is the abbey church, a classic example of dramatic high Baroque architecture. There's nothing understated about Stiftskirche. The shiny gold interior is opulent, to say the least. Best of all, it's unexpectedly light filled.
It's the work of Italian architect Antonio Beduzzi. You're swathed in stucco marble and colorful frescos. A nine year restoration was completed in 1987, to keep the colors glowing.
The pulpit is entirely gold. The ornate high altar is made of Salzburg marble, gilded wood, and gold. Above the tabernacle is a tiara on a wooden cushion, symbolizing Christ as the head of the church. The theme of the altar and the frescos above is of a battling, and yet triumphant, church. I'd like a fresco to that effect in my own home, truth be told.
Stiftskirche church in Melk Abbey
pink and gold ceiling frescos in Melk Abbey's church, the Stiftskirche
I thought the best part of the church was the nave. It's so bright and airy. I guess I'm used to the gloom of Gothic churches. The frescos in the nave illustrate St. Benedict's ascension to heaven.
In contrast, the side chapels are rather grisly. They house macabre glass coffins, whose occupants are skeletons dressed up in faded glittery garments. Two altars are dedicated to St. Koloman (more reverently in a stone sarcophagus) and St. Benedict. Some of Austria’s first rulers are also buried in the church, including several members from House Babenberg.
the Melk Abbey park and gardens
Melk Abbey Park and Gardens
Behind the abbey lie the Abbey Park and Gardens. They were only recently created and opened to the public in 2000 (from May to October).
The park was intended as a leisure space for the monks. Designed as a formal English garden, it's got a nice sprinkling of fountains, exotic flowers, and a fancy Baroque pavilion. You have fine panoramic views of the Danube and the Wachau Valley from the garden.
pavilion in the Melk Abbey gardens
pink and gold frescos decorating the Pavilion in the Melk Abbey Park and Gardens
more beautiful pavilion frescos
tiny back alley in the village of Melk