Where God whiles …

For those travelling upriver, Krems is the gateway to the Wachau. Opposite the town, on the other side of the River Danube is Göttweig Abbey. Imposing, it is distinguished from the rest of the valley by being built on the top of a hill and flanked on each side by two other hills of similar size. In this way the abbey dominates the landscape and has a commanding view over the surrounding area. „Göttweig“ means „where God whiles“ and raises the question of, „Where is God to be found?“ For the believer, God is everywhere and yet there are places, where over the centuries the presence of something „other“, that is possibly eternal, has been felt more strongly than elsewhere. For those interested in discovering for themselves the churches and chapels that the Wachau and Krems are home to, the initiative „Churches by the River“ provides a printed booklet and an internet site: www.kirchen-am-fluss.at. Only available in German, these resources list 59 churches and chapels according to location, along with descriptions and contact/visiting information. Unfortunately the graphics and layout fail to present the wealth of detail in a manner that is manageable for persons not acquainted with the region. The following picks out a number of highlights, sketches the development of Christianity in the area and ends with a meditation on God and the search for God.

Saint Severin’s cloak, staff and Bible as rendered in bronze at the entrance to Saint Stephen’s Church in Mautern

The origins of Christianity in Krems and the Wachau are associated with the Saint Severin, who is recorded as living a mile from the Roman Castell at Mautern and who is supposed to have owned a relic of John the Baptist. This is confirmed by the fact that the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Hundsheim is exactly a Roman mile upstream from the Castell and as its names implies, is associated with Saint John. This suggests that the church was once a Roman outlook tower, built exactly a mile away from the camp at Mautern.

When it comes to Romanesque architecture, the Church of Saint George at Oberranna in Mühldorf is the most important and largest ecclesiastical building to have survived. First mentioned in the eleventh century, it undoubtedly much older. Though the church is now technically a castle chapel, its size suggests that it was originally a fortified church which catered for the needs of a surrounding parish. With a rounded apse and two side wings, the plan of the church has the form of a cross. On the rocky outcrop, the church occupies the highest position and in order to achieve its full length was built with a slight deviation away from East. Originally built with a tower at each end, now only the eastern tower remains. Surrounded by a moat and accessible via a drawbridge, to the West there will have been some form of smaller defensive structure which over the centuries was progressively enlarged.

It was during an ambitious program of rebuilding during the sixteenth century that the castle finally acquired its current form. These and later modifications resulted in the church becoming absorbed into the fabric of the castle to such an extent that it was divided into numerous rooms and spaces, with the redundant spaces being filled with rubble. The church was thus lost and only identified and restored to its original appearance during the 1930’ies. This restoration work revealed the remains of frescos that hint at just how colourful Romanesque churches could be. Apart from a sizable church, there is also a crypt with columns whose decorations include a hunting scene. Rooms in the castle are available for self-catering accommodation and provide an authentic way of experiencing and getting closer to the spirit of the Renaissance. No longer a consecrated place of worship, the chapel can be visited on payment of a contribution fee for the ongoing restoration work. There is also a Gasthaus which serves simple but excellent Austrian fare. See www.burg-oberranna.at.

Never a place of pilgrimage or a parish church, it is likely that the site of the Church of Saint John the Baptist in Mauerthale was once a place where a pagan water god was venerated, as next to the church there is a spring with a Baroque surround and fittings. With the introduction of Christianity, the heathen shrine was taken over and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist so as to Christianise the site’s connection with water and legitimise the importance that people attached to it.

 

Apart from being associated Saint John, the Church of Saint John in Mauerthale is also associated with Saint Albin who, following in the footsteps of Saint Severin, appears to have wrought many wonders and initiated many good deeds in the area. According to legend, Saint Albin’s good deeds so aggravated the Devil, that the Evil One decided to build a wall across the valley so that the church, the Saint and all the people living upstream would be flooded and drowned. Allowing the Devil to commence his dubious undertaking, God specified that it should be finished before the cock crowed the next day. Labouring all night, the Devil built a dam across the valley, yet as the water began to rise, a cockerel crowed and the unfinished dam was washed away. In frustration, the Devil shot an arrow at the bird and it is this incident that the weather vane on top of the church spire commemorates.

Meanwhile the remains of what is known as „The Devil’s Wall“ are prominently visible as a geological formation on the North side of the river just after Spitz. It is presumably in connection with this legendary event that Mauerthale  derives its name, for Sankt Johann in Mauerthale, means „Saint John’s in the Walled Valley“.

For centuries Saint Albin’s coffin and effigy were displayed in the middle of the church. When however, during the Nineteenth Century, the coffin and statue were moved to the back of the church, great dismay was caused when the coffin was found to be empty. Yet the empty coffin recalls the altar dedicated to The Unknown God that Saint Paul encountered on the Acropolis in Athens and the monument celebrating The God of the Empty Jar found beneath the waves in the harbour at Alexandria. In both these cases, what was venerated was the presence of a presence and this in turn recalls that the opening lines of the Bible, in which God is a presence moving or hovering over the surface of the waters. Despite the lack of a body in his coffin and his complete absence in historical records, the legends associated with Saint Albin show how things can be interpreted in ways that, though rooted in time and place, can reach out to embrace the eternal.

Also on the South bank, between Hundsheim and Mauerthale is Sankt Lorenz. This twelfth century church was built as an addition to what was once a Roman fort. Thus the North wall of the church is the South wall of the one time fortification. This latter was a part of the Limes system of defences that secured the norther boundaries of the Roman Empire. By the twelfth century it appears to have become the residence of a local aristocrat. The church was built with a nave, a choir and a bell-tower. Originally, both the nave and the choir had flat roofs. Although blocked up, the recesses and frames of the original Romanesque windows are visible on the South side of the church.

At the end of the thirteenth century, the tower was made higher and capped with a roof made from slabs of stone placed on a wooden framework. In the choir, the Romanesque windows were enlarged, the roof was vaulted and the interior was painted with murals, fragments of which have been exposed. During the eighteenth century, the nave was vaulted and the four Romanesque windows on the South wall were replaced by two larger windows that let in more light. Although the church’s fittings mainly date from the Baroque and came from a variety of different places under very different circumstances, they are well-combined and present a unity that compliments the simply and yet harmoniously articulated space. Set into the wall at an unknown date, a roughly hollowed out stone dispenses Holy Water and hints at the church’s much older origins.

Bridging the architectural gap that separates the Romanesque from the High Gothic, is the Dominican Church in Krems which took twenty years to build and was finished in 1260. Here, the nave of the church is built in a style that draws from the Romanesque whilst also exhibiting Gothic features. The church is now a part of Museum Krems (www.museumkrems.at).

Meanwhile the apse, which was built some sixty years later provides an example of the High Gothic style.

Further examples of the use of colour in churches and chapels during the Medieval Era are given by the Göttweigerhof Chapel in Stein and the Church of Saint Matthias in Forthof, both of which can be characterised as architectural gems. The Göttweigerhof was an agricultural collecting yard where tithes were delivered and was also where the factor of the estates belonging to Göttweig Monastery lived, with chapel for him and his household. The frescos are important examples of Medieval fresco painting in Austria. Outside, the chapel is crowned by an eight-sided tower, with such towers being a common feature of churches in the Wachau and Krems area. The key is available from Museum Krems.

The so-called „Church of the Our Dear Lady with Six Fingers“ at Maria Laach, offers the visitor an in situ, magnificent example of a Late Gothic folding altarpiece. A masterpiece of fully three-dimensional sculpture, relief painting and woodwork, the work compliments and is complimented by, the Late Gothic vaults and windows that surround it.

The church derives its name from a devotional image that is the centre-piece of a side altar. This shows the Virgin with six fingers on her right hand, the extra finger being seen as representing the clemency and intercession of Maria.

The ceiling of the church is characterised by a kind of Late Gothic fan vaulting where the ribs of the fans intersect to form a web pattern. This kind of vaulting is characteristic of the Late Gothic in Krems and the Wachau region and examples abound.

Where Oberranna was built as a fortified church, other churches was only equipped with defensive structures much later. One such example is the Church of Saint Michael in Weissenkirchen. The oldest part of the church dates from between 1270 and 1290 with additions and expansions continually transforming the building up until the end of the fifteenth century. The church is distinguished by extremely steep rooves, with the pitch of the roof over the tower being 81°. The church was fortified at the behest of Ferdinand I as part of a strategy to counter the all too real threat of a Turkish invasion. This was carried out in two phases between 1500-1530. Inside the church exhibits a mixture of Late Gothic combined with Baroque. Apart from a Baroque organ in green and gold, that is surmounted with playful cherubs, the church has a very fine Madonna. Carved from wood the statue dates from around 1520 and combines Medieval characteristics with realism.

Another example of a fortified church is given by the Church of Saint Michael near Weissenkirchen. This was founded at the behest of Charlemane and like Sankt Johann in Mauerthale, was built on a pagan site. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the church was rebuilt in a Late Gothic style and it is from this period that the defensive wall that encloses the church, was built. This originally included five towers, of which only one now remains. After a fire in 1532, was the tower was castellated with Renaissance style dog-tooth castellations. In 1630, a second fire destroyed the main roof and the nave was re-vaulted in a more Baroque manner. The church is distinguished by a number of Late Gothic sculptures, a Baroque pulpit and an organ that dates from the earlier part of the seventeenth century.

In the region, the church is well-known for its seven, so-called „hares“ which adorn the ridge of the apse roof. These are generally reckoned to represent some form of hunt with a variety of animals being depicted. Five hundred years old, the originals can be seen at Museum Krems and are not without a certain charm.

During the sixteenth century, Krems and much of the Wachau was Protestant. This was encouraged by the aristocracy of the region as in the machinations of court life and politics in Vienna, it gave them a reason for differentiating themselves. It was against this background of intrigue and manipulation that The Agenda, a supposedly officially sanctioned order of service for Protestants living within the Habsburg realm, was printed. See the last part of the Reloading Humanism Alexander Curtis page for the full story. In this context, the church at Maria Laach is of interest due to a Baroque cenotaph that was carved by the Flemish sculptor, Alexander Colin. This shows the aristocrat, Johann Georg of Kuefstein, who as the Counter Reformation took hold, due to his position, was able to resist his countrymen’s requests to return to the Catholic fold. While the deceased is shown in ardent prayer, cherubs with wistfully bored expressions prop up shields and one holds the horn of a narwhal.

The Baroque attitude to death is also shown in the charnel house at Saint Michael near Weissenkirchen, where on the altar there is an array of skulls.

When it comes to the Baroque, the monasteries of Göttweig (www.stiftgoettweig.at), Melk (www.stiftmelk.at) and Dürnstein (www.stift-duernstein.at) all offer imposing displays of Baroque architecture. Here the News and Wachau Tips article, „Dürnstein & Environs“ gives a description of the presentation at Dürnstein Abbey and summarises the activities of Provost Übelbacher who massively shaped both the appearance of the monastery and the environs of Dürnstein. On a smaller scale, both the Church of Saint John’s in Mauerthale and the Church of Saint Michael near Weissenkirchen have opulent Baroque altarpieces and pulpits. Here the gilded surfaces flicker with the fickle movements of everchanging reflections. Yet behind the flowing forms, there is a hidden stability that reaches out to the eternal and the unchanging and it is this that makes the altarpiece at Mauerthale a work of true quality. Unfortunately, the church is only open one day in the year.

Maria Langegg (www.kulturimkloster.at) first became a place of pilgrimage during the seventeenth century, after the factor of the estate at Arndorf (which belonged to the Bishoprich of Salzburg) vowed in front of a painting of the Virgin Mary, to build a chapel dedicated to Maria if his seriously ill daughter were to be healed. Following the child’s recovery, the factor fulfilled his promise and as news of the miraculous recovery spread, the small chapel rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. Due to its popularity, it was enlarged into a modest church and from 1645 onwards, the needs of visitors were catered for by monks of the Servite Order. In 1764, a more ambitious complex was built with a significantly enlarged church, a library and a treasury.

The frescos in the complex were executed by Josef Ritter von Mölk and are painted in the Rococo style, which is lighter and much more playful than the Baroque.  Heavily illusionist, even the backgrounds and surrounds of the church’s various altars are painted. Instead of combinations of black and gold that were prevalent during the Baroque, gilded elements are combined with lighter colours such as pink and avocado green. No longer fitting in, the old black and gold pulpit was transferred to Sankt Lorenz and a new, gold and white Rococo pulpit was installed. Similarly, where Baroque libraries are often dense and heavy, the library at Maria Langegg is lighter and breathes. Meanwhile in the church, there is a splendid Rococo organ made by the Viennese organ-maker Stefan Helmich. This is characterised by a light touch that one can see as being anticipated by the church organ at Weissenkirchen.

Also built in the Rococo style, is the former Servite monastery of Schönbühl (www.kloster-schoenbuehl.at) which stands on a rocky outcrop on the southern bank of the River Danube a short distance before Melk. Here, for many years the remains of a half-completed folly was seen by shippers as being beset by evil spirits. In 1666 however, Graf Balthasar von Starhemberg decided that the rock was the ideal place on which to reconstruct the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem and a year later, Mass was celebrated in a small chapel that adjoined the freshly reconstructed tomb. The tomb was built according to accurate plans that had been drawn up by Franciscan monks in Jerusalem and the idea was to enable people to make pilgrimages to the reconstructed site, as the rise of the Ottoman Empire meant that pilgrims could no longer travel to the Holy Land. Two years later, in 1669, on a raised knoll that was exactly the same height and distance away from the tomb as Calvary is in Jerusalem, sculptures were erected that showed the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves. Between 1668 and 1674, the chapel was enlarged and a monastery was built, with the Servite Order of monks being summoned to care for the place and its visitors. As the tomb is situated behind the altar and stands on the very edge of the outcrop, the altar of the church faces North West as opposed to East.

Catering for the needs of the shippers, a stone staircase was cut into the rock, leading away from the water’s edge, up to the church above. Along the way, an accurate reconstruction of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was carved out along with a copy of the stone cushion on which the Saviour was placed after being born. Meanwhile, in the church above, a Piéta dating from 1400 was installed over the tomb. As at Maria Langegg, much of the Rococo decoration in the church is painted. In the apse, this places much more focus on the Piéta, with the painted surrounds literally fading into the background.

In Krems, the Dominican Church also offers a fragment of an only partially realised work painted in 1736 in the Rococo style which is possibly by Johann Georg Schmidt (known as „Wiener Schmidt“ to differentiate him from Martin Johann Schmidt, who is known as „Kremser Schmidt“). This shows God the Father looking down from among the clouds, whilst God the Son, descends down towards Earth, with the Virgin Mary waiting for him in an in-between realm.

Looking carefully, one sees that while God the Father sits amid the clouds, next to him there are two empty chairs. Above one, the Holy Ghost hovers as a Dove, whilst the other clearly belongs to the recently departed son. The fact that Jesus took on human form in order to die for us, makes it clear that God knows everything there is to know about being human. This raises the question of what do we, for our part, know about God and can we know anything about him?

Theology, is concerned with the nature of God and how the all-encompassing presence that he, she or it represents, may be approached and known. Between Sankt Johann in Mauerthale and the Servite monastery of Schönbühl there is the Aggsbach Charterhouse (www.kartause-aggsbach.at) and as the High Gothic of the Middle Ages turned into the Late Gothic of the Early Renaissance, it was a monk at Aggsbach who became a key player in what is known as „The Controversy of the Doctrine of Ignorance“. This involved a number of theologians in Europe and lasted from 1451 until 1459. This was precipitated by the mathematician, philosopher, theologian and cardinal, Nicholas of Kues, otherwise known as Cusanus (1401-1464). For Cusanus, God could not be known or apprehended through rational means but only once rationality had been dissolved and it had been accepted that when it comes to God and the nature of God, we known nothing. This recognition then enabled God to be approached by other means. The purpose of philosophy was therefore to show that as far as God is concerned, we know nothing. Reminiscent of Socrates‘ claim that the only thing that he knew, was that he knew nothing, Cusanus‘ position is an intellectual position, arrived at through thought and was not the result of a mystical experience or some form of Pauline recognition. Vincent of Aggsbach however, drawing from his experience as a Carthusian monk, denied the relevance of Cusanus‘ arguments, maintaining that Cusanus’ starting point and methods would not lead to God. Largely committed to silence and being alone, in a Carthusian charterhouse, monks known as „hermits“ spend much of their time in their cells, praying, studying and meditating. Their only contact with other brothers (or sisters in the case of nuns) is when they gather together in order to pray or celebrate Mass and once a week, when they eat a meal together in silence and are allowed to go for a long walk, conversing with their brothers along the way. Otherwise eating alone, meals are delivered twice a day through a kind of dumb-waiter known as a „turn“, which ensures that the recipient has no contact with whoever brings the food. This simple way of living, combined with meditative exercises, was designed to lead to a mystical experience of God and his love. For Vincent of Aggsbach, this was a tried and tested method whereas the techniques proposed by Causanus were replete with pitfalls and dangers as a result of having an over intellectualised and clever starting point. After eight years of views being aired in the form of publications, the result of the controversy was that mystical, or contemplative theology was acknowledged as being distinct from the speculative theology, with both approaches being accorded validity. In his last reply, The Refutation, Vincent of Aggsbach said that he did not want to write another word on mystic theology and true to his position, spent the rest of his life in contemplation.

Three hundred years later, such differentiation’s were of no interest to Joseph II of Austria, who in the wake of The Enlightenment, dissolved all monasteries in the Habsburg Empire that did not make a material contribution to society. Where orders that ran schools, prepared medicines or for cared for the sick were allowed to continue functioning, contemplative orders such as the Carthusians were dissolved. After the dissolution of the monastery in 1782, the church was made a parish church and was equipped with Baroque furniture. This came from the churches of other monasteries that Joseph II had dissolved, such as the Dominican Priory in Krems, from whence the pulpit derives. Apart from hermits living in „shared isolation“, at any Carthusian monastery, there are also lay brothers who, following a different daily program that involves more work and less study, carry out the work that is essential for the running of a monastery. After the monastery’s dissolution, the administrative buildings and the buildings where the lay brothers lived passed into private ownership. Meanwhile the complex of houses where the hermits lived was knocked down and the stone used to build a larger tower for the church. Recently the site was excavated and the hermit’s houses were exposed. In order to conserve them, after being surveyed, they were re-buried. Now a garden has been planted, whose paths and beds replicate the layout of the hermits‘ quarters and the cloistered courtyard that linked them together and gave covered access to the church. On the ground floor of each house there was a room for storing and chopping wood and a room for the carrying out of some form of manual work such as carpentry. On the first floor there was an anteroom, followed by a room where the monks ate, slept, studied and prayed. Surrounded by a high wall, every house had a garden in which the hermit could meditate, plant flowers and grow vegetables. Today, enclosed between the river and the walls which screened the monastery away from the outside world, visitors can contemplate sayings that, cut into sheets of steel, attest to the human need to reach out for the something that goes beyond the everyday.

In closing the contemplative orders, Joseph II was denying the possibility that an uncompromising search for God as carried out and experienced by individuals, could be of any relevance to society. Two hundred and thirty years later, one can say that this was the beginning of a process that resulted in the private interests, hopes, fears and aspirations of individuals in society, all too often being ignored and seen as irrelevant, whilst at the same time, expectations as to what life has to offer have been raised to absurd heights by the promises of a consumer culture that tends ever more towards the infantile. While supposedly „the customer is king“, the truth is that to be a customer, one must be a viable economic unit and all too often this means abandoning one’s inner values, true ambitions and real wishes. In economics and political theory, this state of affairs is paralleled by the notion of Homo oeconomicus. The absurdities engendered by this model of what a human being is supposed to be but is clearly not, are analysed and debunked by the economist and political philosopher, Liza Herzog (for a detailed summary of Liza Herzog’s work follow the link given on the  Reloading Humanism „People“ page). In addition to these general observations on where The Enlightenment has lead us, one may directly counter Joseph II’s arguments by saying that the search for God is both an inner search, conducted by individuals and an outer search, in which society, through the activities of a vanguard of people who have dedicated themselves to the task of seeking God, allows itself to connect its values with something greater and more all-encompassing than the events and transactions that constitute daily life. The importance of this, is that it offers the hope that an agreed set of values will one day be underwritten by something that everybody believes in, without the need for a myth of revelation in which laws are written on a tablets of stone and handed to prophets from clouds of smoke. In a not exclusively Christian society, such a van guard of „thinkers and feelers“ should include scientists, theologians from a range of different religions, as well as philosophers such as Alain de Botton, who are prepared to credit human beings with an inner dimension that is worthy of attention (for an introduction to the work of Alain de Botton, see the Reloading Humanism „People“ page). Although artists and musicians should also be included in such an endeavour, it is necessary to remark that their stand point should be such as to be open to such an undertaking. While this might sound obvious, the proviso excludes all artists producing what is known as „contemporary art“, for as shown by Byung-Chul Han, such art is concerned only with surface and formal games that are deliberately calculated to be devoid of content. Embodying the spiritual vacuum of our age, such art cannot stand for anything and cannot acknowledge anything other than surface, vain artifice and pathetic pretension. In his book, Saving the Beautiful (Die Errettung des Schönen — unfortunately only available in German), Han argues that great art endeavours to initiate and engage the viewer in a dialogue with something „other“ that lies beyond the surface of that which is depicted. For this reason, the work of Alexander Curtis is not and can never be „contemporary“ and the artist sees Han’s book as a manifest for the production of genuine art. For more on the contemporary art phenomenon and the officially endorsed hype on which it depends, see the Reloading Humanism page on Germany’s leading art critic, Hanno Rauterberg. With respect to God, given the state of the world and our environment and the deadlock that shackles any willingness to implement change, one might even go so far as to say that if we are to have a future, the search for God, far from being an out of date luxury or an irrelevance, is an endeavour of the utmost importance. The willingness of a society to search for that elusive something called „God“, is a reflection of the extent to which it wishes its moral codes to be conceptually underwritten by an all-encompassing, higher instance. This in turn is an expression of the importance attached to the moral codes and the integrity of the society concerned. Seen this way, the search for God is not so much a search for truth, or a search for an interceding power, as a search for moral certainty and it is this that makes it of overriding importance. In such a search, it should be remembered that it is the spirit in which the search is carried out, that underwrites and this spirit should moreover be something that engages society as a whole. It should thus be an enterprise that leads not to bureaucracy and centralised decrees but away from them by repeatedly returning back to the notion of love: love of life, love of people and a love of the world at large. In this respect it is helpful to recall the conclusion of I Corinthians 13: „Three things are forever — faith, hope and love — and the greatest of these is love“. The central importance of love is confirmed by the monks at Aggsbach and in the garden, in the quotations cut in rusty steel, one sees that a genuine love of oneself reaches out to embrace a love of others and a genuine love of others includes a love of self and reaches out and engenders a love of he, she of that which embraces everything. Of particular relevance for the current age, I Corinthians, 13 begins:

„If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.“