A Short Guide to Weltenburg
The Benedictine abbey of Weltenburg is the oldest monastery in Bavaria and was founded around 600 AD. by the monks of St. Columbanus. It is situated near the entrance to the scenic Danube gorge, on the northern slopes of the Arzberg mountain, near the site of the ancient Celtic settlement of Artobriga.
The baroque church was built by the architect brothers Cosmas Damian Asam and Aegid Quirin Asam. Work began in 1716 by order of Maurus Baechl, Abbot of Weltenburg from 1713 to 1743; the entrance hall completing the building was finished in 1751 by Franz Anton Neu.
In the entrance hall, we find symbolic representations of the Four Last Things (death, judgement, heaven and hell) and the four season which remind us of the passing of all things Earthly. Furthermore, there is an oil painting by Franz Asam depicting the Last Judgement; the two confessionals with reliefs of St. Peter and St. Mary Magdalen doing penance invite us to meditation and contemplation.
The main body of the church consists of an oval space interrupted by four large niches. The west niche contains the organ and choir gallery. The organ case was decorated by Caspar Mayr; the organ, built in 1728 by Konrad Brandenstein, is the only one of its kind to survive into our time.
In the south niche there is an al fresco painting depicting Christopher Columbus’ landfall in America, accompanied by Christianity embodied by twelve Benedictine monks led by St. Benedict and the Virgin Mary. In the northern niche, we find the pulpit made of columns of Weltenburg marble reaching up to touch the cover which depicts St. Benedict teaching the first words of his Rules in Latin: “Listen, my son”. Thus, the congregation is exhorted to be listeners, like the figures on the left of the pulpit, drinking the water of life flowing from the Gospel. The large niche to the east opens toward the presbytery and the main altar.
Between those four large niches, we find four smaller niches that contain matching altars designed by Aegid Quirin Asam. The two altar paintings in the niches to the rear of the church depict St. Benedict in meditation and St. Maurus saving St. Placidus, respectively. In the front two niches, the picture over the altar of the Holy Trinity shows the coronation of the Virgin Mary, a painting by Matthias Daburger, while the painting of Jesus being mourned by five angels over the altar of the Holy Cross is a work by Cosmas Damian Asam, as are the paitings over the rear altars. Below the altar paintings, we find stucco medallions showing St. Scholastica, St. John Nepomuk, St. Joseph and a Guardian Angel with a child.
Angels are frequently depicted throughout the church, as in 1686 the monastery became part of the Bavarian Benedictine Congregation of the Holy Guardian Angels. In the half cupola, for instance, we see the Archangels in gilded stucco relief: Raphael, Michael, Gabriel (with the rosary), and Uriel with the incense of adoration.
Above the sanctuary arch, we find a depiction of the death of St. Benedict; opposite, above the organ, the death of his sister, St. Scholastica. On the north side, we see Totila, king of the Ostrogoths, standing before St. Benedict; opposite, the building of the abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy, in 529 AD. Below these, each arch supports one of the four Evangelists. The builder of the church, Cosmas Damian Asam, looks down from between the breastwork of the half cupola, above St. Luke and a corona of stars.
The large niche in the front of the church opens toward the theatrical high altar reredos. Here, we see St. George, patron saint of the monastery, killing the dragon and saving the king’s daughter. Behind, suffused with bright light, we see the Virgin crushing the serpent. To the left of St. George stands St. Martin, the secondary patron, on the other side, we see St. Maurus depicted with the features of abbot Maurus Baechl. Above the reredos arch we see Elector Karl Albrecht, later Emperor Charles VII. At the top of the reredos, we find a representation of the Virgin, greeted on the one side by the Archangel Gabriel, while on the other another angel hands her the sceptre of domination. This represents at once the Annunciation and the Assumption of Mary; above, the risen Christ awaits her.
On the ceiling in front of the high altar we find a symbolic depiction of Religion with the secular founder of the monastery, Duke Tassilo of Bavaria, and St. Benedikt.
The paintings in the nave ceiling, appearing to rise into a cupola flooded with light, are a high point of baroque style. We see the Trinity crowning the Virgin Mary as mother of the Church, and leading a procession of the faithful departed into the aspect of God. On the north side, there are the apostles together with St. Rupert, who consecrated the abbey as well as the hillside chapel containing Our Lady of Weltenburg, a pilgrimage statue from the 15th century. Behind those Saints, we see St. John the Baptist and St. Joseph. Above the organ, King David is playing his harp to St. Mary Magdalen, St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and four other holy women. On the south side, St. Martin approaches with the monks under his patronage, led by Abbot Baechl, St. Scholastica and St. Benedict. St. George with the dragon stands beside the Church Triumphant.
In this church, the mystical theology of St. Dionysius Areopagita with its main principles of purification, enlightenment, and unification, has found a powerful artistic representation.