Landing at the Cistercian abbey of Heiligenkreuz you set foot on a different planet. Tucked away in the Vienna Woods the local Cistercian monks, however, have found a unique way to connect with the world.
Since they stormed the international music charts with their Gregorian chant in 2008 visitors keep coming. Not only to hear monks chanting but to trace Austria’s pre-Habsburg history.
Entering Heiligenkreuz Abbey
Since I had grown up in this part of the Vienna Woods, Heiligenkreuz had always been close. Perhaps too close to pay thorough tribute to even the largest Cistercian monastery in Europe.
After I had driven through Wienerwald’s rolling hills, young Frater Georg took me on an inhouse tour. Definitely, entering a living monastery felt more intense than exploring an abandoned holy space.
Like a house that had been passed on from generation to generation, the courtyard displayed a rich architectural mix: the Romanesque chapel sat between classic façades, while the neighbouring Renaissance arcades embraced a baroque fountain (photo).
Just three weeks from his investiture Frater Georg sharef his love and knowledge of life at Heiligenkreuz: the believes of the founding fathers and early community of monks had shaped the Cistercian abbey as much as any architect involved.
Frater Georg’s Paradise
For almost 900 years monks had prayed and worked uninterruptedly at Heiligenkreuz, a world record for a Cistercian abbey.
One of the spaces the monks loved most was the cloister’s courtyard, called the ‘paradisum’. Its colourful flowerbeds and neat lawns were carefully protected by the cloister.
‘By walking around the paradisum through the cloister we search for God’, explained Frater Georg. Even the cloister’s red marble columns decorated as trees provided some taste of paradise.
This photo shows Frater Georg looking at Christ in the cloister’s 13th century reading corridor. Every evening, he convenes with his confreres and the abbot there to read a rule of St. Benedict, one of the spiritual fathers of the Cistercian order.
After the reading the obligatory silence starts for all the Cistercian monks. Nobody is allowed to talk until the first prayer of the following morning.
Like many central European monasteries, Heiligenkreuz abbey displays a mix of lavish decorations alongside spartanic spaces such as the monks’ workroom.
What caught my eyes were these candle holders in the funeral chapel: Frater Georg pointed to four hip-swinging skeletons each balancing a candle.
‘Dancing has long been associated [in the Catholic church] with the devil. Through dancing, humans make themselves bigger and more important than they are.’
Certainly one of most paradisiac places of Heiligenkreuz was the Fountain House. When we entered the nonagonal shaped room Frater Georg’s eyes lit up, as if he was back at his favourite spot.
Like a delicate tent the stone vault spread out nine colourful glass windows above a fountaing that cascaded water down several basins.
Austria’s Babenberg History
Much like Klosterneuburg Abbey, Heiligenkreuz hosts top ranking medieval Austrian rulers. Before the Habsburgs took over, the Babenberg dynasty ruled what is Austria today (and more).
No fewer than four Babenberg dukes had made the Cistercian abbey their last home. Among them was margrave Leopold V.
In fact, he was the one who kidnapped the English king and crusader Richard Lionheart. As I caught him on a fresco about the crusades, he was smilingly taking off his belt from his blood stained shirt. I wasn’t feeling too proud of the legendary origins of the Austrian flag.
Gregorian Chant At Heiligenkreuz
Singing is vital for the Cistercian monks when it comes to praising God. Five times a day Heiligenkreuz’ halls fill with the meditative melodies of Gregorian chant.
Most of them take place in the 900-year-old abbey church: What I found fascinating was the high altar spreading out right in the middle, covered with a canopy. Together with the austere high church walls and the subtle lighting the church exuded ancient mysticism.
Soon after Frater Georg invited me to join the vesper, gentle waves of Latin psalms washed around me. Why is this ‘music for paradise’, as the Cistercian monks call it, so meditative? Most likely because of its unison nature. There is only one melodic line, sung in free floating rhythms.
Listen to this Gregorian chant video that catapulted Heiligenkreuz to world fame:
How To Visit The Cistercian Abbey
By their own principles and nature, Cistercian monks are extremely welcoming: ‘Our doors are open for you, our hearts even more’ fully applies. You can join guided in-house tours on a daily basis.
Tours take place from Monday to Saturday at 10.00 am, 11.00 am, 2.00 pm , 3.00 pm and 4.00 pm, except Good Friday and Christmas Eve. On Sundays, only the 10.00 am tour is cancelled.
My tip: To hear the Gregorian chant, visit Heiligenkreuz around the lunch time choir prayer at 12.00 pm or just before the vesper at 6.00 pm.
If you are touring the Vienna Woods you can also bring your own private tour guide. Get in touch if you need help arranging private transfer and a Vienna Woods guide. Alternatively, there is also a regular guided Vienna Woods tour that includes a visit to Heiligenkreuz abbey. Finally, consider renting a car for complete independence, especially if you plan to see more sights around Vienna.
explore more ideas what to do in the Vienna Woods
read my Seegrotte tour review about the nearby underground lake
visit Day Trips from Vienna
find ideas for your Vienna Woods hotel
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