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The Austrian Benedictine Melk Abbey, left, features a wide winding staircase up to the public rooms, one of which is a museum made up of former smaller guest rooms that features a history of the evolution of the church. In St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna, right, was built in the Romanesque Gothic style with a massive south tower rising 445 feet.
Where has 2013 gone? It is December and we are already well into the holiday season. Last year at this time, Dale and I were partaking in the holiday merriment of Central Europe. I have previously told you of the sights, sounds and odors of the Christmas markets and those still linger in my thoughts as I prepare this year for our celebration here at home.
Last year with every day providing a new Christmas market to visit, it was easy to get into the spirit of the season and stay there. Our evening in Bratislava, Slovakia, was memorable for several reasons. We had walked through the market and were on our way back to the boat when we came across an event that was primarily for the enjoyment of the locals.
A temporary ice rink had been set up and red-cheeked children and their parents glided around the ice to lively folk music, while others enjoyed hot chocolate and specially baked goodies. It was the first time we experienced the beautiful tree lights that resembled falling stars.
Although there were many festival-like activities to entertain us, we also visited a number of churches, which reminded us of the real reason we as Christians celebrate this wonderful holiday season.
One of the first places we visited in Vienna was the beautifully ornate St. Stephan’s Cathedral. The church, completed in 1160, was built in the Romanesque Gothic style with a massive south tower rising 445 feet. It sits in the center of the main commercial district with vital activity going on all around it for blocks. Rick Steves has said that the cathedral spire is the needle around which Vienna spins.
It is also reported that Ludwig van Beethoven discovered the totality of his deafness when he saw birds flying out of the bell tower as a result of the bell’s tolling, but could not hear the bells. There are 23 bells in the tower with the heaviest weighing 44,300 pounds, the largest swing bell in Austria and the second largest in Europe.
The most ornate of all the churches was at the Austrian Benedictine Melk Abbey, one of the world’s most famous monastic sites. The main colors of the interior guest quarters we were permitted to view were soothing soft pastels of peach, pink and cream. A wide, winding staircase led us up to the public rooms, one of which is a museum made up of former smaller guest rooms, where we viewed a history of the evolution of the church. In the area which had been the Imperial Rooms, where royalty had been housed when visiting the abbey, there was an interesting room with mirrored walls and ceiling displaying some of the splendid royal gifts to the abbey along with other special artifacts. I love books and the library with its high ceilings and book shelves covering every inch of the walls was one of my favorite areas. They had quite a collection, some 100,000, many bound in leather in the same pattern and many very old and rare. For more than 900 years, monks have lived and worked in the baroque abbey and being the librarian and caring for these books has been one of the jobs. The interior of the sanctuary was overwhelming. Nowhere have I ever seen so much gold. The rich wood, gold statues and ornamentation, and ceiling frescoes created a breathtaking experience. The enormous organ with gold angels and cherubs decorating the pipes was like no other. For people of the Middle Ages who could not read but depended on the monks to tell them of God and heaven, this spot truly must have been a heaven on earth.
The city of Passau, Germany, with a population of around 50,000, has 50 Catholic churches, one of which is St. Stephan’s Cathedral. The thing that sets this beautiful church, with its primarily white plaster interior and colorful ceiling frescoes, apart from the others is its famous pipe organ, which is the largest in Europe. Its gilded decorative presence commands the rear balcony of the sanctuary. It has 17,774 pipes, 233 registers and is actually five separate instruments which can be played from a single console. Before modern billows were installed it required 15 altar boys to pump the billows.
The last cathedral I will tell you about is the one in Cologne, Germany. Its location is historic as there has been a church there for over 1,500 years. The current cathedral was started in 1248, but after 300 years of work they ran out of money. In 1842, the second phase started and it was finally completed in 1880, and was the tallest building in the world at that time with spires reaching 515 feet. This says something to us about our need for instant gratification, doesn’t it?
The idea was to try to connect heaven and earth. For me the most interesting thing was the Shrine of the Three Kings. This is the largest reliquary in the western world and is said to contain the bones of the Three Wise Men. These relics were a gift to the Archbishop of Cologne in 1164. The triple sarcophagus, gilded and decorated with precious gems, was begun in 1180 and completed in 1225. The relics were placed in the sarcophagus which now rests behind the high altar of the cathedral.
Blessings to you this holiday season and may you receive the gifts of joy, peace and love.