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Report 1988: Yes, Zig Has Written About our Bavaria Trip!

By Zig and Georgia from Kentucky, Spring 2010

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Page 20 of 30: Saturday May 29 - Klosterneuburg

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inside the church

Today we took a day-trip along the Danube to the ancient Abbey Church of Klosterneuburg. It, of course, was at the very top of a long(!) flight of stairs from the little bus station. Is it any wonder that we eat like pigs on these trips and come home weighing less?

The church and cloister are massive - built in the 11th century in a stark and severe Gothic style - but tempered by wonderfully warm limestone and green slate roof tiles. Stone bas-reliefs are carved right into the walls and the grounds have lovely plantings of flowers and trees. There was also an inviting stone patio with tables and chairs where waiters and waitresses in black slacks and crisp white shirts served sandwiches and coffee.

While waiting for our tour to form we went exploring in the surrounding out-buildings. One looked like it might have been a stable hundreds of years ago but was now enclosed to make a very charming chapel. The main part didn’t have stained glass, but there was a lovely swirling abstract panel mounted in a utility room wall on the opposite end of the building. I peeked into the room and saw a blue glow coming from behind a drawn screen. After a few minutes search I managed to find someone who could tell me its provenance. It had been removed from another chapel in the region that was being torn down. The glass was thought too lovely to smash, so Klosterneuburg rescued it. I hope they can someday find a better place to display it than a large broom closet. Lovely blues and browns, golds and yellows in a riotous swirl accentuated by painting done in tracing black.

We had signed up for the “sacred” tour and saw amazingly well preserved 12th century stained glass and a priceless 11th century gilded enameled altarpiece made of 50-something exquisite hand-crafted tiles depicting the entire plan of salvation. Hitler had “requested” the piece for his private collection. Somehow the monks managed to make it “disappear” behind a fake wall. Reminds me of “the Secret of Santa Vittoria,” but with a treasure more precious than wine.

As I said, the church was built in the 11th century as a Gothic masterpiece, but fashions change. In the 16th and 17th century Gothic was out and Baroque was in, so an absolutely staggering amount of money was spent to turn the inside of a Gothic Basilica into a stunning Baroque Basilica.

I personally prefer the Gothic cathedrals, like Notre Dame in Paris, or St Mark’s in Venice. They are magnificent in their relative simplicity and usually have amazing story-telling mosaics and stained glass windows glittering with vibrant colors. In the beginning, you see, it was difficult to produce clear glass. Too hard to find “pure” materials to work with. It was easier to produce colored glass because the raw materials naturally contained metals and minerals. Because of this lack of clear glass, Gothic Cathedrals are generally darker. And then you have those additional centuries of smoke deposited on the walls. That makes some people think of them as gloomy.

But, no one would ever call a Baroque or Rococco Cathedral “gloomy.” Those are the ones that look like whipped cream and egg white confections, gigantic wedding cakes. They are filled to overflowing with plaster and marble saints, cherubs, and enough gold to dazzle the eye of the most jaded viewer. It all took our breath away. Where to look first?

Recovering later in a charming outdoor café with a delicious Austrian beer we met a nice middle-aged couple on an eight-day bicycling trip across Germany and Austria. They rode along the Danube and were supplied with bicycles and an itinerary that gave them a nice distance to ride each day and a place to stay each night. As fellow countrymen do all around the world we began looking for people or attitudes we held in common. They were from California, as I recall, and we couldn’t locate any common friends or acquaintances. More than seven degrees separating us I suppose. And so, the lady turned to common attitudes. They loved the German wine country. So did we. And then she said, “I can’t believe all the gold in that church,” motioning towards the warm stone glistening in the afternoon sun. “We’re social workers; it should all be melted down and given to the poor.”

I’m not usually at a loss for words but this silenced me. All those centuries spent to produce these treasures. Those armies of craftsmen who gave their lives to make something beautiful. Those generations and generations of peasants who loved their church and gave their pennies to have a part in its construction. All that beauty. All that effort: up-loaded on e-bay and shipped off to the highest bidder? I knew I couldn’t say what first popped into my head, so I said nothing. “Hmmmmm?” was the most neutral reply I could manage. The conversation soon petered out and they remounted their two-seater and peddled off. We waved goodbye to each other.

The thought that had popped into my head was that we knew that Matthew was a tax collector; we knew that Peter, Andrew, and some of the other disciples were fishermen; and now I knew that Judas was probably a social worker. He shared their attitude that lavishing treasure at the feet of Christ was a terrible waste of resources. And Judas, carrying the communal purse, looked forward to “dispensing” these riches. Was he right? Is all this gilding and ivory wasted? Are the centuries of effort it took to build such stunning treasure-chests wasted just as surely as an afternoon spent building sandcastles? Time or tide will certainly wash both away. But, is the aim of life to just eat, drink, and try to pass on your genes? What place is there for voluntary poverty, discipline, and obedience in today’s world? In the age of the individual, what sense is there to “common” wealth? What’s the point of trying to leave something beautiful and lasting for posterity?

This brief, abortive, conversation left me depressed, alleviated only by the bus ride back to Vienna when we sat across from two giggling Austrian teenagers who tried hilariously to remember their English lessons. They tried vainly to tell us what they “wanted to be” someday. The future, at least, was real for them. How charming. And the Danube was lovely - reminding me, of course, of the mighty Mississippi, timelessly flowing unconcerned through human history - sometimes serenely - sometimes raging. And we stopped at Schwedenplatz for more ice-cream at the “Italienischen Eissalon.” It’s really hard to be depressed while licking a cone of blackberry ice cream.

When we got back to the room we dressed for the concert. It was the Lower Austrian Symphony Orchestra in the Grosser Musikvereinssaal. We were right on the front row, directly under the conductor. If you don’t believe me look at the photo. He hopped and stamped all through the music and during the most energetic passages almost went airborne. I swear I expected to have to catch him! Schumann and Stravinsky’s “Afternoon of the Faun.” The audience was so appreciative that they even called the orchestra back for an encore before the intermission! Those Wieners do love their music.

The trip back to the room carried us through the underground Karlsplatz at night. It was a different and somewhat creepy world in the dark. Obvious drug use from teens and young adults bored with the more socially acceptable ways of sedating oneself. I’m not sure that they thought they had a future at all. Perhaps we should sell a couple cherubs to give these kids some spending money. Wonder what they’d buy with it. Even if they don’t come from poor families, they are certainly poor in spirit, like the young drunks we saw in Salzburg Cathedral. Would our bicyclists think the problems of anomie solvable with money? I think of Mother Teresa’s adage that the worst poverty of all is that of being thought useless.

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