About Me

My photo
Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Danube Journey Day 5: Dürstein and Melk

On a beautiful morning, we set off to climb up to the ruins of the Burg that perches above the little village of Dürnstein. It is a steep but rewarding clamber up hundreds of steps through deciduous woods where wild poppies bring colour to rocky outcrops. This castle has a place in English Plantagenet history because Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned here as he tried to get back to England during the crusades. The view up and down the valley is magnificent. The church presides over the village, its blue and white icing-sugar tower a beautiful foil for the red roofs of the houses that cluster around it. A dirty barge chugs lazily upstream trailing a long wedge of silvery wake in the brown waters. We exchange polite Grüss Gott greetings as we walk, sometimes answered in kind or with a friendly 'Morning'. On the way down, we pause to read the interpretative plaques that line the route. It is very well done. Here is tourism with intelligence. 

The village is one of those show-pieces that set out to please tourists. It draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, many of them on day trips from Vienna. Cruise ships like ours berth there. Every shop sells souvenirs, including jams and liqueurs made from the ubiquitous apricot that is this region's speciality. Purveying olde-world charm is a marketing tactic that always works and it's no wonder that we all fall for it. Durham has it to some extent, Vézelay and Mont Saint Michel even more, so we are used to its devices and desires; yet at the same time it provides employment and livelihood to local people for whom, but for tourism, these remote parts of Central Europe might well be suffering socially and economically, even in affluent Austria.

I go back to the church we called in on before the climb. It is a former Augustinian Abbey, a gem of pure baroque architecture and art. The elaborate decoration is colourful and playful, yet the intimacy of the church keeps the baroque tendency to excess in check. It's a place where you can pray. A walk through the monastic buildings leads to a little terrace on the side of the tower. Here you are in the company of sculpted saints and angels, and of carved cherubs who compete for space to enjoy the beautiful view of the river. While architects and art historians rightly sing the praises of Ottobeuren, Vierzehnheiligen and Melk, this little church shows Baroque at its very best, in its mastery of scale, its theatre of illusion, its focus on detail and its spirituality of joyful celebration.

Melk is our destination on a hot afternoon. It has long been on my list of must-see great churches. There is a splendid vista from the river as we approach this proud, ancient monastery. Like Durham, it is built on an acropolis, 'half church of God, half castle 'gainst the....', or, if not a castle, then a palace for emperors and kings who came here on pilgrimage with their retinues and expected to be treated with palatial honours. This doesn't by itself explain the ambition with which Melk was rebuilt as a masterpiece of baroque in the early 18th century. Its renaissance as one of the most splendid high places of Christendom owes more to the defeat of the Turks, and the aspiration to celebrate the glories of the Catholic Church. This it does with an élan few other places can muster.

Our guide is a young man who cannot be more than 20. He is exemplary, without doubt the best we have had so far.  What makes a good guide? This is something I have pondered in Durham where we have some excellent guides. He or she should: be knowledgable (of course); be enthusiastic about their place; have insight about its meaning, not just its heritage; be a very good communicator (in the case of foreigners like us, this includes fluency in the language); manage the time well and know how to move people through a site courteously but efficiently; and - an elusive skill this - know enough about their guests to intuit how much or how little to convey. In Pilgrim's Progress, travellers must enter the House of the Interpreter if they are to understand the landscape they are passing through. Interpretation is a tricky assignment. But this school-leaver has what is needed, as well as the personal charm that always helps. 

The tour through the monastery begins in an enormous elegant courtyard from which we access the guest quarters where imperial visitors were housed. Everything is on a monumental scale. We reach a beautiful plaster-vaulted corridor fully 200 metres in length, a lot longer than our ship. The state rooms have been converted into an exhibition that presents a time-line of the monastery's history. It begins with St Benedict and the first word of his Rule for Monks: Höre, 'Listen!'. This word is projected on the end wall and is visible the whole length of the exhibition. The first room is devoted to  Benedict and his vision of monastic life, the next to the foundations of Melk in the 11th century and the third to the Romanesque and Gothic periods. The fourth room brings us to the Baroque era and the creation of the present monastic buildings. Here, the exhibits are shown in a hall of mirrors, no doubt a reference to Versailles' Hall of Mirrors. There is a threefold message here: that the Monarch who is honoured here is no mere Sun King but a divine Ruler; that baroque plays with illusion for the sake of truth; and that 'we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face', a text that is displayed as you gaze around the room. 

After an excursus on the Enlightenment, the exhibition ends with the present and the activity of the monastery today. Here, our guide tells us that he recently graduated from the high school that is run by the monks and will shortly go to university at Vienna to study theology. Since he has spoken with such eloquence about the religious life, I ask him whether he is a postulant at Melk. He laughs and says that if he were to opt for the religious life, it would not be in these opulent Benedictine surroundings, but in a more radical order such as the Jesuits. The question we don't pursue is whether the Rule doesn't itself call for a far simpler kind of community life than the 18th century monks at Melk were capable of understanding. What would Benedict make of this wondrously exuberant temple of art and culture? Possibly he would be disturbed by it. But might the same not be said of the great Romanesque Benedictine communities like Cluny and Glastonbury and Durham itself? This was precisely the 12th century Cistercians' quarrel with the Benedictines. Anyone from Durham can't have too easy a conscience about this story. 

Nevertheless, the community here should be given full marks for the way they have told their story. This is far from being a dry record of historical information laced by a surfeit of artefacts. It's clear that someone has thought hard about how to present the spiritual meaning of a community's search for truth: at every turn, the visitor is invited to think about how this place and the investment made in it down the ages can speak to people today. Like the messages carried by Baroque angels and putti on the walls of the church exhorting the worshipper to attend to truth, the exhibition plays on the meaning of that single word Höre from initial invitation to final reflection. Evangelism through art and heritage: I have not seen it done better. 

The ship sets off and enters a lock. The architecture of Danube locks is functional. The lines of the control rooms, hydro-electric dams, sluices and long jetties is severely plain, recalling us to functionalism after an afternoon of Baroque fantasies. You might even call it Cistercian: on this beautiful river, a lock has a job to do and there is no concession to charm. I look back to the east, and there, floating serenely above this brutal symbol of modernity stands the monastery of Melk high on its hill. The western towers and central dome are brilliantly illuminated by the setting sun, like an apparition of Jerusalem the Golden. The vision fades as the ship sails on westwards. Soon, Melk has become a memory. And it is time for dinner. 

No comments:

Post a Comment