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St Florian Monastery, Austria
Sitting on the wooden pew, I look at the church around me. The carved marble, the elaborate stucco, the painted ceilings, the detailed chapels. It’s stunning. But it’s not the most beautiful thing here.
Right now, even more exquisite, is the music that is filling the room.
At the same time it is both light – seeming to float around me – and solid – exerting a force on every part of my body. It is engrossing in its volume and in its delicacy.
Right now, the music is manipulating my perception of the church as much as the other way around. And perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
St Florian Basilica
Because here at the Basilica of the St Florian Monastery, the organ which is producing the music is the highlight. Even in a church of such beauty, it still deserves to be the star attraction.
It is the Bruckner organ, named after the famous Austrian composer Anton Bruckner who was the organist here at the monastery for almost a decade. It is one of the largest working organs in Austria, with more than 7300 pipes and 103 stops.
I’m lucky to be hearing the organ in action but it’s no coincidence. There are regular concerts and also ones put on especially for visitors.
I’m here for a tour of St Florian Monastery as part of an excursion on my Danube cruise with Avalon Waterways. The concert is being put on just for us at the end of our visit to the monastery.
It’s certainly the highlight of this visit to St Florian Monastery which is, in some ways, a bit odd. Because there’s actually another part of the complex that should be the highlight – and would be my favourite if the music wasn’t such a special experience.
St Florian Monastery Library
I’m talking about the library of the St Florian Monastery. It is one of the most impressive in Austria, the beautiful late-Baroque hall lined with shelves that hold centuries of wisdom.
There are about 150,000 volumes here, including about a thousand medieval handscripts. I look at all the books and realise they hold more knowledge than I could ever come close to understanding.
Libraries of monasteries are always important places but they are rarely this beautiful as well. It’s one of the main reasons St Florian Monastery Library is worth the visit.
On the ceiling is a fresco that shows “the marriage of virtue and science, protected by religion”. Golden trim runs along the architraves that separate the ground floor from the second level. Wooden panelling creates even more detail, even though it’s not needed.
Even without touching a book, reading a word, I spend a long time just looking around, soaking in the aesthetic and the academic.
History of St Florian
The construction of the library began in 1744, a few decades after a massive reconstruction of the monastery turned it into what you find today. This Baroque reconstruction between 1686 and 1708 turned St Florian Monastery into the largest one in Upper Austria.
It is one of the most impressive examples of Baroque architecture in Austria and some people think it is even better than nearby Melk Abbey, which get more attention from tourists but, for that reason, can be a bit overwhelming to visit.
One of the nice things I realise quickly about St Florian Monastery is that you don’t find crowds here. We are the only tour group here when we visit – there are no other buses in the small parking area. There is just a handful of other tourists in the whole complex.
Even though what you find today is from the 18th century, there has been some form of monastery on this site for about a thousand years.
And it has long been dedicated to St Florian, born in Austria around 250 AD.
St Florian was a Roman military commander who was responsible for leading firefighters. When he refused to pay tribute to Roman gods, he was ordered to be burned at the stake but, when he appeared to welcome the method, he was drowned instead.
It’s for these reasons that he has become the patron saint of firefighters – as well as the patron saint of the nearby Austrian city of Linz.
It is said that his grave lies somewhere beneath the church.
Going down into the crypt beneath St Florian Monastery, you might expect to find a tomb of St Florian, but you’ll be disappointed. Even though his body is said to be somewhere on this spot, there’s a bit of confusion about exactly where he was buried (remember, he did die about 1700 years ago!).
There is an enormous coffin here, though, and it actually holds the body of Anton Bruckner, the composer who had the basilica’s organ named after him.
He had requested that he be buried here, beneath the church where he made such beautiful music, because he wanted to be able to hear the organ for all eternity.
I’m not sure what he would’ve thought of the coffin’s placement next to the skulls of 6000 people (although, he apparently was obsessed with death so he may have enjoyed the idea). But this display of bones from early Christians certainly gives the Saint Florian Ossuary a rather creepy feel.
As we are led through the monastery complex, I notice quite a lot of artwork on display. I’m sure each piece is significant and, for an art lover, there would be some real treasures here.
One of the most famous, that is worth special mention, is the Sebastian Altar by Albrecht Altdorfer. It is on display in its own room, demonstrating its importance, and is quite a sight.
This late-Gothic winged altar was completed in 1518 and was once in the basilica of the monastery. But it was removed during the reconstruction and never put back.
Imperial Marble Hall
As if all of this wasn’t enough, there’s one last part of St Florian Monastery that I want to tell you about: the Imperial Marble Hall.
In some ways, it is not particularly significant – in the sense that it doesn’t have the artistic or historical story that other parts of the complex do. But it is just so exquisite!
Pink marble walls are intersected by painted white columns (that look like marble) and tall windows that let the sun pour in.
The portraits and the throne-like seats at the ends of the hall give you an indication of what it was mainly used for – entertaining royalty and other important guests. Now it is still used for public events.
But the most impressive part of the Imperial Marble Hall is the painted ceiling, full of allegorical symbols, that seems to focus on you regardless of where you stand.
The painting also plays a slight optical trick on you, seeming to curve at the bottom, even though the ceiling is actually flat.
With all of these reasons to visit St Florian Monastery, I’m actually surprised it’s not more famous. But, as long the crowds head to Melk Abbey instead, it keeps St Florian as more of a special treat.
I really appreciate that Avalon Waterways offers it as an excursion on this trip along the Danube – a perfect example of what defines their ‘Active & Discovery’ itineraries.
But however you may be travelling through the region, it’s worth your time to visit. Try to come when there’s an organ concert scheduled – you won’t be disappointed.