Abbey Church

The centrepiece of the Baroque Melk Abbey complex is its Abbey Church, or Stiftskirche. In keeping with the wishes of the abbot and the monastic community, the church makes tangible the complex’s religious purpose and orientation towards God. Initial plans only envisaged a “Baroquisation” of the original church. However, in 1701 Abbot Berthold Dietmayr initiated a complete reconstruction of the building based on plans by Jakob Prandtauer. Abbot Dietmayr managed to recruit the most prominent masters of their disciplines to decorate the church: Antonio Beduzzi (interior architecture, 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 (designs for the sculptures), and Peter Widerin (sculptures).

The church is a barrel-vaulted hall with side chapels and galleries topped by an imposing 64-metre-high dome and cupola. In the ostentatious interior, lavishly adorned with gold leaf, stucco and marble, the colours gold, ochre, orange, green and grey predominate. The theatre architect Antonio Beduzzi provided the main ideas and designs for the construction. More down-to-earth artists realised his plans. The inscription on the high altar sums up the Melk Abbey Church: “NON CORONABITUR NISI LEGATINE CERTAVERIT” (“No-one shall be crowned unless he has striven lawfully”).

A symbol of this victorious struggle is visible in the enormous golden crown hovering above the apostolic princes, Peter and Paul. This signifies the martyrdom of the two church patrons as a victory for the Christian cause. The two apostles are surrounded by sculptures of prophets from the Old Testament. God the Father sits enthroned above them, beneath another symbol of victory – the cross. This motif of the church victorious is continued in the grand frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr on the ceiling of the Presbytery depicting various allegorical scenes. The ceiling frescoes in the nave from 1722 are also by Rotmayr, based on designs by Beduzzi: the “Via Triumphalis” of St. Benedict into heaven. Rottmayr’s paintings on the dome (1716–1717) depict the “Heavenly Jerusalem” with God the Father, Christ and the Holy Ghost high up in the cupola. They are surrounded by apostles, Mary and a host of saints who have particular importance for Melk.

The two altars in the transepts are arranged symmetrically in relation to one another. They are based on designs by Beduzzi and are dedicated to the two main saints of the Abbey, Coloman and Benedict. The left side-altar houses a sarcophagus containing the remains of St Coloman. In order to maintain the symmetry, the right side-altar, dedicated to Benedict, has a cenotaph. The arrangement of figures on this altar depicts the death of St Benedict amid his brother monks. On the opposite side, there is a sculpture on the Coloman altar showing Benedict in prayer. Beduzzi was also responsible for designing the side-altars in the nave. These are dedicated to the saints Sebastian, Nicholas, John the Baptist, Michael, the Magi and Leopold. Rottmayr painted the altarpieces for Michael and the Magi in 1723, and that for the John the Baptist altar in 1727. Paul Troger painted the images for the Sebastian and Nicolas altars in 1746. The oldest altarpiece, that on the Leopold altar, is from 1650. Georg Bachmann painted it on a tin plate.

In 1976, the installation of a “People’s Altar”, arranged so the priest now faced the congregation, paid tribute to both the modernising impulses of the Second Vatican Council and the Baroque ideal of creating something new. The Viennese architect Helmut Hütter constructed an altar podium in the crossing using geometric figures, a common device in church interiors, especially on the floor. By choosing a form that blends in with the stalls and the floor tiles, he harmonically incorporates this unique object into the Baroque whole.

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