The Abbey Museum


Room   1

Listen with Your Heart

Room   2

A House for God and Man

Room   3

The Ups and Downs of History

Room   4

The Wood of Life

Room   5

Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror … (1 Cor. 13,12)

Room   6

Heaven on Earth

Room   7

In the Name of Reason

Room   8

The Whole Person

Room   9

The Path to the Future

Room 10 - Part 1

To Glorify God in Everything

Room 10 - Part 2

The City on the Mountain

Room 11

Motion Is a Sign of Life

Marble Hall



Abbey Church

Coloman Courtyard

Room 1  back

Listen with Your Heart

The Roman Empire had outlived itself. It was only a matter of time until decadent Rome could no longer maintain itself.

Community table in which the 3 vows of the Benedictines have been engravedYoung Benedict left Rome, repulsed by the immorality of the city, and lived in the mountains of Subiaco as a hermit. He found his way to an experience of God step by step: the loneliness of the cave, contact with people looking for direction. At each level he had to learn through experience to recognize the will of his God. Legends describe his life, and his rule for the monks clearly shows his development from a strict ascetic to a wise father of monks. In 529 AD: the foundation of Monte Cassino.

Oldest manuscript of the rule in the monastery--10th/11th centuryBenedict died in the middle of the 6th century. He continued to write his monastic rules until the end of his life.
These were to become  the  rule of the early Middle Ages.

In his monastery Benedict founded a school to serve the Lord: In the same way that he sought God all his life, the first thing his monks should try to do was to recognize God’s will. For Benedict the most important criterium for a good monk is that he truly seek God.

Room 2  back

A House for God and Man

Room 2 with a view of room 3Room 2 with a view of room 1The Babenberg family had received the Eastern Marches from the Roman-German emperor to protect the German Empire from the insecure east. Melk was one of the principal residences of this family, who expanded the Eastern Marches further and further to the East and the North.

As Vienna increasingly became the center of the Easter Marches, Leopold II founded a Benedictine monastery in Melk in 1089. Leopold III then secured the financial basis of the monastery through grants of property on what was then the periphery of the Eastern Marches (letter of donation 1113). The Babenbergs definitely wanted prayers to be said at the tomb of their ancestors in Melk, but they also recognized the cultural and missionary strength of the Rule of St. Benedict.

Beinkassette aus dem 15. JahrhundertIndividual Babenbergers gave the monastery important relics and works of art: the corpse of St. Coloman, a piece of the Cross of Christ, a portable altar. The legend of the theft of the Melk Cross, which was suddenly found in the Schotten monastery in Vienna, clearly shows that Melk had become countryside and Vienna was the center of the Eastern Marches. Melk’s importance as a monastery may be reflected in the fact that the cross did come back to Melk in the end.Swanhilde's portable altar--11th century

Room 3  back

The Ups and Downs of History

Room 3 with a view of rooms 1 and 2Gothic chalice made of Danubian gold

In room 3 the ups and downs of history are shown

The monastery of Melk was founded in the time of the Conflict of Investitures and experienced a time of great prosperity after the Concordat of Worms (1122). With the decline of the papacy the monastery’s fortunes also declined.

The Council of Constance (1414-1418) brought a reform for Austria’s monasteries, which began in Melk: the Melk Reform (15th century). A return to a strict adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict through emphasis on ascetic and discipline was the goal. 

 In the 16th century the Reformation also affected Austria and its monasteries, which were on the verge of being closed. Using the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555), the Habsburgers called for the Counterreformation. Melk was soon once again an exemplary model of monastic discipline. The external expression of this upswing in Melk was the Baroque reconstruction of the monastery (1701-1736).

Room 4   back

The Wood of Life

late romanesque crucifixWe live in this world in the ups and downs of our personal existence, in the ups and downs of constantly changing times and circumstances. 

We live in this world from birth to death, and in between life occurs with joy and sorrow, success and failure, love and hate, beginning and end.

There once was a man. He was born like us, in the same way he lived in the ups and downs of this life: God’s son. Jesus Christ. Through him it became clear that this life is not everything, that although we die we will rise again to new life. His death on the cross made God’s love clear. We are taken into death, but also into resurrection and new life.
We worship you, Lord Jesus Christ, and praise you. For through your holy cross you have saved the world.

Room 5  back

Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror … (1 Cor. 13,12)

Mirror Room with baroque impressions Mirror Room with baroque impressions

Detail of the "Amalie Monstrance"--a gift from the imperial widow Wilhelmine Amalie

The Catholic Church had recovered during the Counterreformation. There was still a very strong institution, but also a very strong inner faith that ran deep and alive beneath this institution. They lived in the firm belief that God was a living God. And they wanted to bring this living God down to Earth, they built him large audience chambers, in which men worshipped and praised God, in which they brought their problems and requests, in which they could also give thanks. Nothing was beautiful and wonderful enough; great joy and earthly piety tried to express themselves adequately. Everything shone, man reflected himself in a beautiful world and was deeply happy in his faith. And this faith gave him support and strength. “Now we are seeing a dim reflection in a mirror; but then we shall be seeing face to face.” (1 Cor. 13,12)

Room 6  back

Heaven on Earth

Dietmayr vestmentsDietmayr vestmentsIn the 17th century the Austrian Church was once again strong. Only in this way were they able to thwart the great Turkish threat (in 1683 outside of Vienna). A very lively faith had brought strength and was able to develop after having proved itself. The people of this time were happy to know the proximity of their God. Since they also knew about human suffering and had to endure it, they tried to bombard their God: an almost physical piety (brotherhoods of prayer, cult of relics, pilgrimages). Man had something he could hold on to.

Vestments belonging to Abbot Berthold DietmayrBaroque mitreMonasteries had become important crystallization points of spiritual, cultural and church life: science and art flourished. An art form developed that on the one hand was very human: it showed joy in splendor, in large forms, in color, in everything that was simply beautiful and good. On the other hand this art wanted to glorify and be like that which was the living center of the lives of these men.

Room 7  back

In the Name of Reason

A Baroque enjoyment of the pleasures of life led to the achievement of wonderful works and man clung to his God in the ups and downs of his personal life with a strong faith occasionally expressed in a very human way. At the same time, a new school of thought came into our country from the West. Rationalism and the Enlightenment began their triumphal march.Reproduction of a service coffin from the time of Joseph II

Deep, sometimes very physical piety (cult of relics) came to be considered suspicious by many thinking people. Popular piety became excessive, and in the monasteries exaggerated, irrational asceticism was often practiced. Some had joined the monasteries for the sole purpose of meeting their daily needs. The new movement was directed against all of this. It could already be clearly felt under Maria Theresia (1740-1780), and became dominant under her son Joseph II. (1780-1790) in the movement which was named after him, Josephenism. This new intellectual movement may have ignored some human values, but it brought much light in to some of the darkness. Many positive values of this development brought great progress, but others impoverished important spheres.

Reason and faith, both together in and with each other, is a path our human existence can take.

Room 8  back

The Whole Person

The freeing of peopleOnce again one-sidedness, in this case the emphasis on human reason, was to start processes which were intended to separate something integral. There are so many aspects to human beings that are all important. Faithful inwardness gave way to a well-organized devoutness, which, however, could not stand up to an increasingly atheistic and secularized world. These thoughts penetrated deeply into Austria’s monasteries, which, contrary to German developments, had not all been closed. The number of monasteries was reduced, but many continued to exist.

a contemporary sculpture group made of fired clayIn Austria’s monasteries the 19th century was characterized by a deeply liberal position; monks had become men of the monastery. New life was able to come into the monasteries only slowly and with great difficulty. It became clear that living faith fulfills the reason and heart of man, that institution must be supported by inwardness, that the whole human being is more important than individual aspects. This whole person in his ups and downs lives from faith, fulfills his duties, is culturally effective, and sees his economic and social relationships. He knows his limits, knows he has not achieved his goal, but perceives himself as on the way to this goal. He is open to his God.

In 11 steps, the nearly complete image of a human body appears gradually in this room. The 12th step, which is man in his entirety, is the visitor himself.

Room 9  back

The Path to the Future

Jörg Breu's late gothic winged altar with the cross by Arnulf RainerIn the revelation of the Old and New Testaments it became clear that there is a God who is there, who lives, who is with man on his journey. Through Jesus Christ it became clear that this God is a merciful God, who guides man on his way, is near him in joy and sorrow, who always gives a new beginning. The church has spread this joyous message through the centuries. There have been right and wrong ways, times of well-being and disaster. Yet again and again we realize: God is a God of life, a God who wants human well-being, who is with him on his way, who walks with him. Jörg Breu (1502) and Arnulf Rainer (1966): the Middle Ages and the present, today and tomorrow. In this way the Benedictine community in Melk has continued on its way for 900 years. In this way they move down the path that the Lord shows them. It is the path of faith, that looks for God in everyday life, and through which this community has sought to live for over 900 years.

Annunciation The Flight to Egypt 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple Judas' Kiss Jesus before the High Priest Caiaphas Coronation of Thorns and Mocking of Christ ecce homo--Pontius Pilate presents Jesus to the People Pontius Pilate washes his hands of guilt

Room 10 – Part 1  back

To Glorify God in Everything

In the chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict about the monastery’s manual workers (RB 57) the following sentence can be read: Everything in the monastery should happen in such a way that it is all for the glorification of God, even the worldly concerns.

On March 21,1089 Benedictine life in prayer and work (ora et labora) began in Melk. The Babenbergers had established a monastery in the castle, the burial site of their ancestors, and given it an economic basis: Land and property, feudal rule.

Hammer and trowel used to lay the foundation stone in 1702In the ups and downs of history there have been high points in the monastery’s economy, but there have also been stark declines. It is conspicuous that in times of active spiritual life the economy flourished, whereas in times of a decline in monastic life the economy stagnated as well.

Initially the monastery lived from the proceeds of feudalism and only in a limited way from their own land. After the reforms ending feudalism in 1848 the economy had to be restructured: Interest from the buildings in Vienna and increased use of the monastery’s own property provided the necessary means. In the last decades the proceeds from forestry and agriculture have steadily decreased. Now the monastery lives primarily from the income from tourism.

Proceeds from the work on the monastery’s property are used to maintain the secondary school, but also to maintain the building itself, carry out necessary restoration work in the 23 parishes, and enable the fulfillment of other duties. Jobs are provided for many workers in the various areas.

Room 10 – Part 2  back

The City on the Mountain

Benedict of Nursia built a monastery in Monte Cassino in 529 – on a mountain: the city on the mountain, which cannot remain hidden. He states in his rule that the monastic community should live in a fixed place, clearly defined and fenced off. The Benedictines have their own vow, that of „stabilitas loci“, constancy of location.

These monasteries with churches, libraries, guest wings, and working and living quarters for the monks soon became artistically highly valuable buildings through the monks’ work.

Detail from the treasure chestInstead of the castle there was soon a Romanesque building, which was then replaced by a Gothic monastery. Then Abbot Berthold Dietmayr (1700-1739) began with the current Baroque building. The abbot worked towards his goal with great cleverness. In this way he was able to build the entire monastery in a uniform style. All earlier buildings were brutally destroyed, in exchange for which the new uniformly Baroque building came into being.

Work began with a plan to alter the church in Baroque style, but soon the decision was made to completely rebuild (reconstruction plan). When the frame of the church was finished they began to rebuild the entire monastery step by step (from 1711) following a new monastery sketch plan. As the crowning final touch the interior design of the church was carried out.

Jakob Prandtauer and, after his death, Joseph Munggenast were the leading architects, but for the interior design of the church Antonio Beduzzi definitely was involved in the planning.

The total concept monastery – park as artistic and natural counterparts was not possible until the construction of the monastery had been completed, but today creates a wonderful unity.

Room 11  back

Motion Is a Sign of Life

Model 1:100 by Dipl. Ing. Helmut HütterWhen I am in motion I see only one side, one aspect. Some things are unclear; I see only parts, not the whole.

When I am in motion, on my way, I am continually reaching new shores, getting to know the world, other people, and myself. I always have a new goal.

Being on the move causes unrest, but this unrest enables me to move, lets my heart grow wide.

Being on the move has a great destination. As long as I am moving towards this destination I am looking in a mirror and see only a dim reflection. When I arrive at my destination I shall be seeing face to face. “Now I only perceive incompletely, but then I will realize through and through, as I will also be realized through and through.” (as per 1 Cor. 13,12)

Although I do not perceive the whole truth when I am on the way, this very lack of perfection is a sign that I am still alive.

My staying in motion brings God’s spirit to me: The spirit is what brings life.

Marble Hall  back

The ceiling fresco by Paul Troger (1731) shows, in the center, Pallas Athena on a chariot drawn by lions as a symbol of wisdom and moderation. Hercules can be seen to her left, symbolizing the force necessary to conquer the three-headed hound of hell, night, and sin. Both Pallas Athena and Hercules allude to Emperor Karl VI, who liked to be celebrated as a successor to the Roman emperors in the Hercules legend. The guest is shown the essence of the House of Habsburg: The ruler brings the people from dark to light, from evil to good.

The inscriptions over the doors are quotes from the Rule of St. Benedict. They indicate the purpose of the room: “Hospites tamquam Christus suscipiantur” (Guests should be received as Christ would be) and “Et omnibus congruus honor exhibeatur” (And to each the honor given which is his due). The room served as a dining hall for the imperial family and other distinguished guests, as well as a festival hall. 

The doorframes are made of genuine marble from Adnet and Untersberg (in the province of Salzburg), whereas the walls are of stucco marble.

The architectural painting on the ceiling fresco is by Gaetano Fanti.


Marble Hall: Detail from the ceiling fresco by Paul Troger     The Marble Hall

Terrace  back

BalconyThe terrace is the balcony connecting the Marble Hall and the library. From the terrace you have a wonderful view of the Danube, the scenery of the Wachau valley, and the town of Melk.

Library  back

LibraryIn the order of importance of the rooms in a Benedictine monastery, the library comes second only to the church.

The artistic, valuable decoration shows the high regard the monks had for their library. The ceiling fresco by Paul Troger (1731/32) shows, in contrast to the secular scenery of the Marble Hall, a symbolic depiction of Faith. In the center a female figure is recognisable; the allegory of Faith. She is surrounded by four groups of angels, who stand for the four Cardinal Virtues: Wisdom, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. The four wooden sculptures are depictions of the four faculties: Theology, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence.

Detail from the abbey libraryBaroque globe of the heavens by Coronelli

The library of the Melk abbey consists of a total of twelve rooms containing about 1.888  manuscripts, 750 incunabula (printed works before 1500), 1700 works from the 16th, 4500 from the 17th, and 18.000 from the 18th century; together with the newer books, approximately 100.000 volumes in total. About 16.000 of these are found in this library room. They are organized by topics: beginning with editions of the Bible in row I, theology (rows II to VII), jurisprudence (row VIII), geography and astronomy (row VIIII), history (rows X to XV), and ending with the baroque lexica in row XVI.

Small Library Room  back

Door to the abbey libraryThis room contains mainly historical works from the 19th century onwards, which testify to the interests of this time period.

The spiral staircase with Roccoco grate leads to other rooms of the library, which are not open to the public.

The ceiling fresco by Paul Troger shows an allegorical portrayal of Scientia (Science).

Spiral staircase to the abbey church

Abbey Church  back

A masterpiece of high baroque art The Melk abbey church

The high point of the baroque monastery is the church. Following the wishes of the abbot and monastic community, this is intended to make the religious purpose of the entire construction and its orientation towards God clearly visible. The leitmotif “ABSIT GLORIARI NISI INCRUCE” (Glory is found only in the cross) is found in the inscription over the Benedict Hall at the beginning of the tour, and continues through the abbey to the church, in whose splendour the glory of the cross is clear.

High altar of the abbey church with the patron saints, Peter and PaulOriginally only a Baroquization of the abbey church was planned. However, after 1701, at Abbot Berthold Dietmayr’s instigation, a complete reconstruction of the church took place following plans by Jakob Prandtauer.
The men acquired for the artistic decoration of the church were prominent masters in their fields: Antonio Beduzzi (interior design, sketches for the frescoes), Johann Michael Rottmayr (frescoes, altar paintings), Paul Troger (altar paintings), Giuseppe Galli-Bibiena (designs for the pulpit and high altar), Lorenzo Mattielli (design for the sculptures), and Peter Widerin (sculptures).

The left side altar in the transept contains the skeleton of St. Coloman in a sarcophagus. The altar to the right is dedicated to St. Benedict but the sarcophagus is empty.


Abbey church looking towards the organCeiling fresco by Michael Rottmayr in the abbey church

The large abbey organThe meaning of the Melk Abbey Church can be seen in the inscription on the high altar: “NON CORONABITUR NISI LEGITIME CERTAVERIT” (“Without a legitimate battle there is no victory”) (2 Timothy 2,5). The battle which leads to victory is embodied on the high altar through the martyrdom of the apostles Peter and Paul, and further depicted by that of St. Coloman (Coloman Altar). It is most strongly expressed by the monk’s battle for virtue, the theme of the nave fresco, in a depiction of St. Benedict. The victory in this battle is portrayed on the one hand by the large victory crown on the high altar and the dome frescoes, in which the heavens open, and on the other hand by the victor’s laurels over the monk, who has achieved spiritual fulfillment, in the nave fresco.

The ten year long restoration of the abbey church, financed with help from the state and federal government, was finished in 1987.


Detail from the ceiling fresco by Michael Rottmayr with the Benedict CrossDetail from the ceiling fresco by Michael Rottmayr--angels carry Benedict's attributes: the mitre and the rule with the openeing words "ausculta o fili, praecepta magistri"--"Hear, o son, the instructions of the master"



Coloman Courtyard  back

Coloman, according to legend a king’s son from Ireland on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, was martyred in 1012 in Stockerau, near Vienna. In this dangerous border area he was suspected of espionage. He came under suspicion because of his strange language and clothing, and was then imprisoned, tortured, and finally hanged from a dead elder tree.

The miracles that then occurred soon caused the local population to venerate Coloman. Heinrich I become aware of Coloman through these wonders, and had his corpse brought to Melk in 1014. A ceremonial funeral was held on October 13, 1014 in the St. Peter’s church on the castle cliffs in Melk.

St. Coloman: Sandstone sculpture in Coloman's Courtyard in the evening lightOne reason for Coloman’s translation to Melk may have been a desire on the part of the Babenbergs to enjoy the mercy of the saint in life and death. Having a saint in their castle was seen as a sort of divine confirmation of the rule conferred upon them by the emperor, and was intended to promote the inner stability of their realm. Next to Coloman’s grave the Babenbergs could now establish a burial site worthy of them. The existence of this burial site was probably also one reason why Leopold II made a Benedictine monastery out of the Melk castle in 1089. The Benedictines in Melk have kept the memory of St. Coloman alive.

Numerous churches in Austria, Bavaria, Swabia, and elsewhere are dedicated to St. Coloman. Coloman was also Austria’s first patron saint. The Babenberg margrave St. Leopold III was not made patron saint until 1663.

St. Coloman is still the patron saint of the town and monastery of Melk. Every year in Melk monastery a mass is celebrated on October 13th to honor St. Coloman. Since 1451, his saint day has been celebrated on this day in the town with a big fair.

St. Coloman is venerated to this day. In our times, where listening to each other has become increasingly difficult, he can be seen as a contemporary saint, as he, stranger in a strange land, was not understood. Whoever is different, looks or speaks differently, makes himself suspicious, causes fear, and can easily become the victim of prejudice.