Cathedrals, Abby’s and Castles 4/7

Written by Harold McNeill on April 13th, 2012. Posted in Travelogue

Entrance to the Benedictine Abbey in Melk, Austria (hdm).

When preparing stories for the Travelogue Section, a question often arises in discussion between Lynn and me as to how much “social comment” or “opinion”, would be appropriate within the context of the story.

For example, when travelling through Steyr or Linz, Austria, our travel guide told a story about a 15,000 seat church built in a nearby city back in the 16th or 17th Century. It took 70 years of sacrifice by the 20,000 residents of the city to pay for the structure as no fund assistance was forthcoming from the Monarchy (the Hapsburgs). It seemed to me that many of the poor would have dedicated their entire life toward the building of that single structure, a structure that would sit largely empty over the centuries. 

The building of hundreds of Churches, Abbey’s, Castles and ‘Summer Homes’, each of which exceeded the previous in grandeur, was the standard of the day. In this regard, one cannot help but be struck by the immensity of the religious and political forces that shaped and re-shaped society and which provided the absolute power needed collect the money and manpower at will. Most of the structures wre designed for the benefit of a few in the privilaged class.

Sketch (from Web) Melk Abbey (de:Stift Melk) before its renovation by Jakob Prandtauer. The abbey was founded in 1089 when Leopold II, Margrave of Austria gave one of his castles to Benedictine monks from Lambach Abbey.

A monastic school, the Stiftsgymnasium Melk, was founded in the 12th century, and the monastic library soon became renowned for its extensive manuscript collection. The monastery’s scriptorium was also a major site for the production of manuscripts. In the 15th century the abbey became the centre of the Melk Reform movement which reinvigorated the monastic life of Austria and Southern Germany (Wikipedia).

The name of the Benedictine Order was derived from the name of a monk who was born much earlier, about 480 AD and 520 founded “the famous monestary of Monte Cassino, where he drew up the the orders for ‘Benedictine’ rule. This order was adapted to Western climates and demanded less austerity than had been common among Egyptian and Syrian monks.  The Abbot was given great power; he was elected for life, and had (within the Rule and the limits of orthodoxy) and almost despotic control over his monks…” (Western Philosophical Thought, Bertrand Russell, p.374 ff).

It was not until we entered the Abbey that we were presented with the nearly overwhelming grandeur. It is difficult to imagine the immensity of the wealth needed to complete the original building, then to complete a massive renovation within the first half of the 18th Century by a group Benedictine Monks whose vows include (taken from Web):

Conversion in the way of life

These vows were the basis of the rule of St. Benedict and the life of the Benedictine monks. By the tenth century the Benedictine Rule prevailed everywhere in western Europe including England.

The word monk (monos) means single, and both celibacy and poverty went without saying. The Benedictine rule specified that monks should own nothing (if that is what poverty is) but this was not incorporated as a vow. In the modern understanding of Benedictine monks, poverty and celibacy are included in the vow of obedience as Benedictine monks are obedient to the rules and regulations of the order and of particular congregations and monasteries.

The vows of Poverty and Celibacy were a much later addition to the thinking and rule making of the church. These are required of the later religious institutions such as Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits.  The Benedictine Rule was already in place for 500 years before these other orders were established. 

The Abbey Church, the centre piece of the complex and of the Order, presents a glittering array of gold plated columns and statues, Frescos, Baroque architecture and decorative works that can only be described as stunning in their grandeur. When you first walk into the church you will need to sit for a few moments just to catch your breath and assimilate what you are seeing.

As you continue from the church you will enter another room nearly as stunning, the Central Library. Book shelves, rising for thirty feet from floor to ceiling, contain some 16,000 manuscripts dating back a thousand years. Above the books is an immense Fresco.

Similar rooms, filled with all forms of statues, paintings, sculptures and other precious memorabilia, are sprinkled throughout the Abbey which, over the past few hundred years, was often home to fewer than fifteen Benedictine Monks.

Pristine tiled hallways, one of which stretches for more than six hundred feet, connect the various sections of the complex which is situated some 130 feet above the Danube River and overlooking the city.  Today, the structure is home to ten Monks and some 900 High and Junior High students in regular attendance.

The following pictures provide a small glimpse into our tour.  If you ever pass by Melk, make sure to spend a few hours at the Abbey.


Courtyard Entry Abbey Church (hdm).

It is difficult to capture the immensity of this glittering gold, wood and marble structure.

Walking forward and looking up, the full size of the Fresco became evident. It appeared to be suspended in space by gold encrusted column toppings.

This gilded, spiril staircase is partially an optical illusion as mirrors are used to create an added sense of depth within the structure (hdm).

Gilded life sized statue reflected in a glass lined wall.

Gilded ornaments in glass enclosure. You can see the reflection of the Fresco in the glass. This gives a sense of immensity of the artwork that fills each room.

Sculptures emerging from wall.  I never did figure out the meaning.

This spacious room, as with many similar rooms, display large Fresco scenes in the massive coved ceilings (hdm).

This is one-half of one hallway within the Abbey (turn around and it extends for an equal distance in the other direction).  Each hallway is lined with priceless pieces of artwork (hdm).

Photo (from Wikipedia).  I could not capture a photo that properly lite the library walls and the bright Fresco ceiling. I believe Esther has a couple of photos that show the age. This photo shows only part of the some 16,000 books held within the walls of the Abbey.

Glass enclosed model of the main Abbey structure. The Abbey courtyard at the far end and the Abbey Church, centre forground.

Twin Abbey spires with clocks and bells taken from balcony overlooking the the Danube and Melk (next photo).

View of the Danube and Melk from the curved balcony near the entrance to the Church. We did not spend much time on the balcony as the wind came up and it turned very cold.

Esther Dunn has a number of excellent photos which will be
added as an album to this post.

Three further posts are in the works: Vienna, Prague and a final post on considerations before booking a river cruise.


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Comments (2)

  • Don
    April 27, 2012 at 5:32 am |

    It looks like only travel agents & their husband could afford to go there????

  • April 27, 2012 at 6:20 pm |

    Hey Don, it certainly helps but we have long since learned that travel is something you can make almost as inexpensive as you wish, although long gone are the days of “Europe on $5,00 a Day” (remember the book?). Even at that, kids can still backpack the world within a range that is affordable to most! So,just think, if youngsters can do that, imagine what older youngsters like ourselves with all that experience can/could accomplish!

Leave a comment



  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold

  • Yvonne (Couture) Richardson

    March 7, 2019 |

    I enjoyed your story. I too, lived in Pibroch in 1951, as my parents owned the hotel there. I was a very close friend of Bonnie Murfitt at the time. I moved to Edmonton in 1952, however, and have not seen her since. I would like to be in touch with you to talk about your story. My email is listed above and my phone number is 780-475-3873.

  • Laureen Kosch/Patry

    March 5, 2019 |

    I grew up in Pibroch and would not trade those years for anything. “ Kids don’t know how to play anymore” Never was a truer statement made. During the summer we were out the door by 8am, home for lunch, and back when it got dark. For the most part our only toys were our bikes and maybe a baseball mitt. I will never forget the times when all the kids got together in “Finks field” for a game of scrub baseball. Everybody was welcome, kids from 8 to 18. I didn’t know it then but I guess I had a childhood most dream of. Drove thru town last summer. It all looked a lot smaller.

  • Harold McNeill

    January 13, 2019 |

    Well, my dear, it’s that time again. How the years fly by and the little ones grow but try as you may you will have a hard time catching up to your Daddy. Lots of love young lady and may your day be special
    Love, Dad

  • Harold McNeill

    January 5, 2019 |

    Guess what? My response went to the Spam folder. Hmm, do you suppose the system is trying to tell me something?

  • Harold McNeill

    January 5, 2019 |

    Thanks, Terrance. Your comment came through but went to the Spam folder. Have pulled it out and approved. Can you send another on this post to see if you name is now removed from Spam? I’m not sure why it does that. Cheers, Harold