Abbey of Klosterneuburg

Mag. Natascha Müllauer

The Abbey of Klosterneuburg

Stift Klosterneuburg Leiterin der Kultur Stiftsplatz 1 A-3400 Klosterneuburg Austria

The origins of Klosterneuburg Abbey situated about 10 km outside of Vienna, reach back to St. Leopold (Leopold III, Margrave of Austria, a Babenberger and the patron saint of Austria). He and his wife Agnes founded Klosterneuburg Abbey in 1114. It became a house of Augustinian Canons in 1133 and still is up to this day. Klosterneuburg Abbey holds a number of important artworks in its collections, ranging from the world-famous Verdun Altar from 1181, a rich collection of gothic panel painting, of magnificent Baroque works, to modern paintings. The Abbey aims not only to protect and preserve these works, it also makes them accessible to visitors in interesting ways.

The Abbey building consists mainly of two parts: the medieval complex around the cloister which forms together with the abbey church a main monument of romanesque and gothic architecture in Austria and the Baroque complex, the so called Imperial wing ("Kaisertrakt"). According to Emperor Charles VI, the monastery and the imperial palace were to form a unity; the example was the Escorial near Madrid. The most gigantic of all Baroque monastery complexes was built over 10 years starting in the year of 1730 according to plans by Donato Felice d''Allio. Construction was terminated soon after the death of Charles VI in 1740 for financial reasons. Only a quarter of the originally planned complex was finally completed by the architect Joseph Kornhauml;usel between the years 1834 and 1842. The most important elements of this immense complex are the finished grandly furnished Imperial Rooms with the imposing Marble Hall and the unfinished and in the status of a construction site preserved Sala terrena.

A dwindling number of visitors over the last years, antiquated security systems, the lack of climate control systems and, last but not least, the construction of a large visitors'' garage on the eastern side of the Imperial Wing all provided the impetus for Klosterneuburg Monastery to make its cultural facilities more modern and thus more competitive. In the summer of 2004, the monastery engaged with touristical and museological planning. Over the next few months, a master plan including a climate control concept and an estimate of costs was drawn up in close cooperation with the team from the monastery. Just twenty months after work on the concept had begun, the Sala terrena (including the Lower Imperial staircase), the exhibition space around the cloister, the eastern garden facilities and the redesigned monastery courtyard were opened to the public.

The museum project, opened on 4th May 2006 consisted of 3 main parts:

  1. The first and most important part was the re-opening of the Sala terrena, the only existing large scale baroque representational architecture preserved in the status of a construction site (due to the fact that construction work stopped in 1740 at an early stage of finishing) and its adaptation as new visitors' entrance. The half-finished brick structure, parts of which were encased with cut stone masonry, served as a storage space for three centuries. In some places, one gets the impression that the stone masons had simply thrown away their trowels in the middle of work. In close cooperation with the Austrian Federal Office of Monuments (Bundesdenkmalamt), the decision was made to preserve the Sala terrena and the Lower Imperial Stairwell as a unique, real-life documentation of a baroque construction site. The structural joints of the various sections can still be seen clearly; the brick surfaces and the sculptures by Mattielli have been carefully cleaned with various grades of granulated marble, preserving the numbering of the sculptures' parts, as well as the sculptor's various other markings and changes he made to the works' forms after their initial completion. The details of the construction process are more evident here, in situ, than in probably any other structure. The large archways (most probably not covered by glass in their originally planned state) through which the Sala terrena was to open onto the garden in front are being fitted with two layers of glass, which themselves enclose a light direction system.
    A bright terrazzo floor extends out of the Sala terrena, covering the entire complex. A lighting strip lining both sides of the tour route and elements housing electrical and media wiring do double-duty as the structure for a complex lighting system. This system makes it possible to individually switch on and off lighting of the vaults and the floor area, as well as to emphasize individual exhibits.
    The also unfinished surrounding rooms contain 8 stations according to 8 important moments of the abbey''s history: First settlement of the place by Romans and Celts - 1114 foundation of the abbey by Margrave Leopold III.- 1133 settlement of the Augustinian canons - 1222 palace of Duke Leopold VI, construction of the Capella speciosa - 1485 sanctification of Leopold III., Klosterneuburg becomes the National Sanctuary - 1730/40 construction of the Imperial wing ("Kaisertrakt") as an Austrian Escorial - 19th century era of romanticism - 1941-1945 suspension of the Abbey by the Nazi government.
    All this is shown in a modern presentation in the form of a video installation along the staircase: the 900 years of history of the abbey and the life and work of the Augustinian Canons. 
  2. The second fundamental part was the re-adaptation of the rooms around the medieval cloister of Klosterneuburg abbey for the new presentation of the most important medieval art treasures from the 14th and 15th century.
    A room used as a cellar before was converted into the new entrance area. It offers a view into one of the oldest architectural structures in the complex and provides easy access (including for the handicapped) to the Roman lapidarium. A newly created opening creates the connection to the cloisters area, which has been equipped with new lighting. The route leads visitors to the former refectory, now "medieval exhibition room". During the renovation works all medieval stone sculptures had to be removed so it was possible to create a completely new design.
    At its centre stand the so-called "rear panels of the Verdun Altar" from ca. 1330. The altar is surrounded by a selection of works from the same period including stained glass windows, manuscripts and panel paintings from the time of the reign of Provost Stephan von Sierndorf (1317 - 1335). The Klosterneuburg Madonna, created around 1300, and the Christ/Apostle Group, made approximately one century later for the gallery of the Capella speciosa and freed of their white overpainting during the last few months is now given a new presentation. Outstanding Austrian sculpture of the early and late 15th century constitutes a third group. In the wellhouse opposite, the large seven-armed chandelier from the 12th century is newly presented. From the wellhouse the way of the visitor continues to the Chapel of St. Leopold with the Verdun Altar (Master Nicholas of Verdun 1181). Its complex iconographical programme, the specifics of enamel technique and a reconstruction of the original function and setup are communicated via a film in the media room next door.
    The high quality of the works of art, which are all from the medieval monastery, joins together with the architecture of the gothic cloister and the exposed remains of the Romanesque abbey church to form a whole which, both substantively and atmospherically, is without compare in Central Europe. 
  3. The third part of the project was the excavation of the remains of the Capella speciosa, the first gothic building in Austria, erected in 1222, destroyed in 1799 and the creation of an archaeological monument on the main Abbey Square. A computer simulation shows permanently as a part of the presentation in the "Cultural Way" a reconstruction of the original Capella Speciosa.

The newly created and/or newly designed exhibition space in the Baroque wing and around the medieval cloister spans around 5,200 m2: investments EUR 4.6 millions Adaptation of the old Granary as a restaurant, 2,600 m2: investment EUR 4.5 millions The Garden redesign connected with the cultural project, 15,000 m2: EUR 1.6 millions The total construction cost of EUR 10.7 millions, subsidies: EUR 2.9 millions

Subsidising bodies were the Province of Lower Austria, the Austrian federal government, the City of Klosterneuburg and the Archdiocese of Vienna.


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