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The Welcoming Viennese

So far during our first week in Vienna, anyone whom my wife and I have asked for information has been very gracious. Yesterday was a good example. As we were trying to find the Votive Church near the University of Vienna, we by chance saw a massive l-shaped turreted orange-brick structure. It was eye-popping and mind boggling. This magnificent fortress was not listed in our guidebook, nor did it have any inscription on it.

Hoping to find someone who could identify the building, I noticed behind me a young woman walking her dog at the edge of a park. After I caught her attention, she told me—in slightly accented, fluent English—that what we had seen was once that imperial barracks for Austrian soldiers in the 19th century and was now a police headquarters. Without any prompting from me, she then further elaborated on its history. Throughout her explanation, she was warmly smiling, eager to be of help.

When she had finished, I turned around. My wife was no longer there. I wasn’t worried: indefatigably curious, she frequently meanders when I am not holding her hand or walking beside her. The woman was not as nonchalant as I was. She wouldn’t leave me until my wife returned. Such endearing solicitude in a foreign city! In a few moments, my wife appeared from around the corner and waved to me. The woman was relieved that my wife and I were reunited. I thanked her for her genuine concern and for earlier taking the time to enlighten me about the police bastion. She beamed and renewed walking her dog in the park. As she departed, she seemed to almost waltz through the woods.

The people whom my wife and I asked for help when we were in Paris three years ago were at best brusque and at worst insolent. Not so in Vienna. Is kindness ingrained in the Viennese? It may well be as typical as apple strudel.


Four Viennese Churches in Four Days

A few days ago, my wife and I visited two spectacular Gothic churches: St. Charles and The Votive. The St. Charles Church had a unique feature: a lift and then a long winding stairway to the top of the cupola. Along the way we were only inches from gorgeous murals with tableaux ranging from sinners grappling with monstrous snakes to saints adoring the risen Christ. Our intimate experience with gloriously ascending religious iconography was well worth a few Euros and a bit of vertigo.

The Votive Church had its own special treat: dozens of impeccably stained glass windows with rich dark blues, greens, and reds well surpassing those of the most expensive and expressive home theater screen. Two awesome scenes in particular impressed me: a nonchalant St. George killing a magnificently malevolent dragon and a raggedy robed peasant playing a violin with as much abandon as a fiddler on the roof.

This Sunday, we visited two more churches: The Church of Maria am Gestade and St. Peter’s Church. Before Mass, we traversed the Marian church. It wasn’t as ornate as other gothic churches in Vienna. I didn’t see much gold, silver, or even brass. However, it had one outstanding attribute: sturdy burnished wood that gleamed and resonated throughout the sanctuary. This church had a commonsensical aura to it that would appeal to the more austere Austrians.

An hour later, we attended a Mass at the ultra-Gothic St. Peter’s Church, more for the music than for the message. I enjoyed listening to the accomplished, uplifting Korean choir ensemble in between the priest’s intermittent exhortations. During the priest’s sermon—most of which I couldn’t fathom, my German being only rudimentary—I discretely looked around the church. I was amazed. Everything in the sanctuary was symmetrical on either side of the main aisle.  None of the lustrous white marble and gold sculptures throughout the church were identical in size or in the subject depicted. But whether they were on ground level or above, there were just as many of them in corresponding sections on my right as there were on my left. The same applied to the pastel wall paintings, intricate wood carvings, and miscellaneous brass engravings. 

Near the end of the sermon, I closed my tired eyes that had so meticulously scanned the church. When I opened them, the lower half of the brass sculpture of St. Peter to my right stared at me. In it, two vicious Romans are flogging the soon-to-be martyred St. Peter, who with a blazing reverence is securely holding onto a simple cross.

The image of St. Peter oblivious to his tormentors, fortified in his rock-hard faith, imbued the mass with a welcomed sanctity.

While some people prefer to worship without being distracted by religious imagery, I feel that a fresco or a statue—as it did today—can add a spiritual dimension that transcends mere words, even if you can understand them.

I have no interest in religious creeds. What inspires me is the religious spirit, wherever it may be found, in churches (from Catholic to Wiccan), synagogues, mosques, or temples.

Paradise Lost and Paradise Gained

Finding Beethoven’s residence in Vienna (the Pasqualatihaus) was a convoluted adventure. According to the guidebooks, the house was on a side street beside the vast City Hall. My wife and I located the area soon enough, but we constantly met dead ends. The street map was useless, so I asked a few people to help me get to Molker Bastei 8. Every one of them tried to be helpful, but none of their conflicting directions got me to the site. My wife and I double backed and triple backed to various starting points. Frustration and the increasing heat wore us down. Finally, we trudged into the shade of a steep stairway. My wife decided to rest; having exhausted every other avenue, I decided to climb up the stairway, if not to heaven, then perhaps to Beethoven’s abode.

After reaching the top, large, unmarked, twisting cobblestoned alleys greeted me. Flirting with motion sickness, I precariously navigated the maze. Soon I saw a sign with the first name Ludwig inscribed on it, but there was no Van Beethoven next to it.  Undeterred, I followed the rough-hewn path until I came to an uphill paved street.  Midway there, I saw a store entitled Beethoven Shop. Ah ha! Perhaps I was at the end of my pilgrimage. Even though the street was not named Molker Bastei, the Beethoven house must be nearby; and the owner surely could help me find it.

When I entered, three super-animated ladies, including the shopkeeper, were regaling one another—in a mishmash of English and German—about how much they knew about Beethoven’s living quarters. Without giving them a chance to finish their seemingly endless chatter, I blurted out a bit incoherently (I must have had the dehydration blues) “Where is here…Is he here?” The women, without missing a beat, pointed upward, and the manager said fourth floor. I had reached the Promised Land after all my labyrinthine wanderings.

I hurried back to my wife to tell her the good news. We both, with renewed strength, retraced my steps and then almost effortlessly climbed up four more flights of stairs to the Beethoven house.

Was it worth it? Well, some of the items were pretty lame: a nondescript table, a few facsimiles of Beethoven’s scores, and a drab portrait of the man who owned the house.  Other items were more fascinating. There were two revealing paintings of Beethoven. In the first one, he is fiercely melancholy; in the second, he is self-assured and hopeful. And I marveled at a stand filled with cubbyholes for scraps of manuscripts. But the piece de resistance was one of classical music’s holy grails: Beethoven’s forte piano, still in pristine condition. I could almost hear the mighty chords of its master that continued to vibrate within me as I returned to my base camp in the Vienna suburbs.


Unexpected Delights at the Jewish Museum and the City Synagogue

In Vienna during the last two days, my wife and I extensively browsed through the Jewish Museum and toured the only Viennese synagogue, the Stadttemple, not demolished by the Nazis. From witnessing up close heaps of archeological remains to watching televised personal testimonies, we got an invaluable crash course on the history of the Jews in Vienna from medieval to modern times.

In addition, I will always fondly remember two of the people we met along the way: an employee at the Jewish museum and a tourist at the synagogue.

 At the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse, the super accommodating greeter was a gem. Sensing that we were having a hard time getting oriented, she left her post more than once to escort us to the WC, to the area where we could secure our bags, and to the elevator. When she heard that none of the staff could locate a brochure for us—the woman at the information counter told us that it was out of stock, as did another employee—the greeter somehow found a copy and made sure that we got it.

The next day after we completed our visit to the museum, we asked the greeter how to precisely locate some of the kosher restaurants and Jewish neighborhoods alluded to in the brochure. She took the time to enlighten us—with sweeping gestures and in her ingratiating middle European accent. Her motto should be “never curt; always courteous.”

At the synagogue, one of the less cultured looking men in the tour group made inappropriate noises. During the docent’s talk, he occasionally jerked his head to whisper to one of his buddies and at odd intervals couldn’t suppress either a sigh or a chuckle.  At the end of the session, he badgered the docent into letting him sing something at the bema. What a nerve! This uncouth man, who looked and acted like a schlemiel, obviously didn’t have the proper credentials. Even I, with a mediocre voice, would be a better candidate to grace the bema.

Oh was I wrong. The man gloriously sang a Hebrew prayer, with passion and precision, whether his voice was booming or falsetto. He rivalled the best cantors in the world, even the renowned Chaim Adler, whom my wife and I repeatedly heard at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue last year. The man I had earlier considered to be a nobody, a no-goodnik tourist in Vienna overwhelmed me with his eloquent chanting: I felt my eyes beginning to tear.

When he was done, I told him that he had a gorgeous voice. He then said that he was a cantor who has given concerts throughout the world, even at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. I felt honored to be in his presence.

The man may have behaved a little childishly during the docent’s talk, but his incomparable singing was a big plus in the ledger of the Book of Life.

The greeter and the cantor, what a way to top off our first week in Vienna!


A Rousing Beginning of Week Two in Vienna

Yesterday, my wife and I visited the Rathaus (the city hall where Viennese politicians convene) and the Jesuit University Church. Despite some distractions at both magnificent buildings, being there was an aesthetic tour de force.

The city hall (Rathaus), the tallest and largest structure in Vienna, is more lavishly arrayed outside and inside than any other municipal building in Europe. The exterior of the city hall looks like the headquarters of an impregnable royal fortress. And its lofty spires and domes resemble those of an imperial church. It is jaw-dropping impressive on the outside. Inside, I was awed by the mammoth yet delicately sculptured chandeliers, the series of bold frescoes depicting civic virtues, and the finely wrought wood ceilings laced with gold. The only drawback was that the English audio guide for each room was very brief—only a couple of minutes, whereas the tour guide spent at least 10 minutes delineating the aspects of each chamber, in German, and very loudly, so much so that I had to leave the group and enter another area to be able to hear my audio guide.

Jesuit University Church is tidy and fairly plain on the outside, but inside it is spectacular. The interior is supported by huge marble pillars either decorated in bright orange and white swirls or spotted in black and gray earth tones; on each side of the main aisle, half of the monumental pillars are rounded, and half are twisted six times. These stupendous pillars would have been quite a challenge for Samson.

The spacious confessionals are so intricately carved in spiral bands and, it seemed, spit (or, should I say, spirit) polished that they would invite even the most inveterate sinner.

And the organ! Oh, the organ! Its pipes in the middle fan out like angel’s wings. That is unusual. But what astounded me the most were the pipes on either end. They rise majestically three times as high as the middle ones and seem almost to touch the edge of the ethereal panoramic dome.

While I was mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes around me, the organist suddenly played something hideously dissonant. I was able to stand listening (at least for a while) to this painfully unmelodic music because the organ had such clear, rich, supersonic tones. Its resounding power was comparable to that of the gargantuan church organs in Paris. I’d love to come to an organ concert at the Jesuit Church—as long as the music itself was appealing.

If I had to choose to be either a politician or a priest in Vienna, I’d opt for both—as long as I could deliberate in the Rathaus and alternately—at my convenience—officiate at the Jesuit Church. Working in such luxury would be the best of possible worlds, the secular and the sacred.



During the afternoon in Vienna, my wife and I spent a few leisurely hours at a Starbucks and at a local restaurant before walking to a nearby church (St. Anna) to attend a string quartet concert. A few days before, we had reconnoitered the area to make sure that we knew how to get to the church. We succeeded, or so I thought.

We left the restaurant in plenty of time to arrive early enough at the church so that we could be in the first row, our preferred perch. We love to experience the full impact of the music. Seeing up close how nimbly and expressively top notch performers play their instruments and relate to one another is always a treat; we don’t like to have any impediments in front of us, people or props.

As we approached the intersection where St. Anna is located (Annagasse), my wife said that we should go to the left. I overruled her immediately. I disagreed. I told her emphatically that I was convinced “100% absolutely” that we needed to take a right. My wife didn’t say anything else. She followed me as I strode further and further towards our destination.

After a while, however, we got to a crossroad, a familiar open-ended plaza with landmarks that didn’t belong in the vicinity of what I recalled as the narrow, secluded Annagasse. I hated to be late getting to St. Anne’s; I scoured the area, but my search was futile. As I began to hyperventilate, I felt as if I were caught up in the Twilight Zone.

 My wife suggested that I ask a concierge at a nearby hotel for the right directions. While she sat down on a bench, I ran across the street for help. The concierge said that I had to retrace my steps and then take a left at Annagasse, not a right. I tried to convince him that he must be misinformed, but he pointed to a spot on the city map where St. Anne’s was located, and it certainly wasn’t where I had so adamantly and obviously foolishly said it was, despite my wife’s objections.

With my wife in tow, I tried to double back on Anagasse, but I couldn’t find it. My wife told me just to go in the direction of the original intersection (at Kartnergasse) and not to worry about whether I was on Anagasse or not. I complied; it was getting late—I had no choice.

In a few minutes came the revelation as we reached Kartnergasse. I could never have taken a right turn there to Annagasse because Annagasse went only to the left. As I looked up, I saw the street I had taken to the right on was called Fuhrlich.

What a waste! If only I had listened to my wife to begin with. It took only a second to reach St. Anna’s Church. But this is the kicker. Earlier in the week, we had found the church by taking a left turn at Kartnergasse but only after going to the right on Fuhrlich for a bathroom break.

So I was slightly vindicated but still frustrated with myself, not for making the wrong turn but for being so sure that I was right to go right. During our retreat to Annagasse, I fervently apologized to my wife for not listening to her in the first place. She nodded.

In any case, despite the fiasco, we were able to get front row seats. The concert was thrilling, quickly dispelling my funk. St. Anna’s, a small church, had tremendous acoustics, and the buoyant young quartet played effortlessly and flawlessly throughout the Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven selections.

My wife was so enraptured with the church’s acoustics and the brilliant performance that she effusively thanked the group after the concert. I would have done a terrible injustice to my wife if we had missed any part of the concert because of my stubborn street miscalculation. As it was, she let me hold her hand as we left for home. I was mightily relieved.

An addendum: After a couple of stops on the metro, my wife—I think playfully—asked me if I was sure that we were going in the right direction. She had never questioned me before; after all, I had always prided myself on being such a maestro of the metro system. But from now on, I’ll try to be more humble.

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Worthwhile Revisits to St. Stephen’s and St. Michael’s

At St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the first church my wife and I saw in Vienna, we were in awe of its lofty steeples, ubiquitous gothic arches, and stunning frescoes. After admiring a host of other landmark churches for the past three weeks, I decided to go back to St. Stephen’s to reflect on its magnificence. During my visit yesterday, I realized that St. Stephens, while still impressive, is relatively restrained. It’s not as grandiose and ostentatious as St. Peter’s, The Jesuit Church, St. Charles, or The Melk Abbey.

But as I noticed for the first time, there are two features of St. Stephens that are unique, features that I somehow overlooked the first time that I was there. Jutting out from the wall in the far left-hand corner of the sanctuary was an appealing, homey touch: a three-paneled doll-like cabinet containing dozens of various sized decorative Madonnas. 

The other unique item in St. Stephens is located in a small chapel to the left of the entrance way: a full-length marble statue of a bearded black Jesus on the cross with a glowing golden crown covering his head. I saw no visible wounds, no stigmata at all. This Jesus is looking downward, not in agony or at peace but just indifferent to his fate.

I’m glad I came back to St. Stephens. I was not disappointed that I found it less magnificent than I had first thought. That is natural enough considering how many other churches my wife and I had seen. But the two gems on either end of the left side of the sanctuary gave a novel cachet to St. Stephens.

On a more mundane note, I saw a reasonably priced wallet at the edge of the souvenir shop. It has a black-on-black picture of St. Stephens etched on the outside cover. I think I’ll buy it.

In a previous vignette, I wrote that I couldn’t remember where I had seen the crucified Jesus that had so moved me. I found the location last week: in the back right-hand corner of St. Michael’s sanctuary. It no longer had such a powerful effect on me, but it was still engaging, especially the brown billowing cloth wrapped around Jesus’ thighs.

The altarpiece at St. Michaels is the only one that, appropriately so, depicts St. Michael the Archangel thrusting the fallen angels into Hell. St. Peter’s Church has a similar scene, but out of the wall on a side wall. At the Kunsthistorishes Museum, there are three paintings of St. Michael effortlessly battling with the fallen angels. The one I like the best is by Luca Giordano. It is the only one that humanizes the devils to be. One of them is shrieking in such pain, with his mouth horribly distended, that I felt that I was right there with him.

Ever since I studied and taught Milton’s Paradise Lost, I have been intrigued with St. Michael’s role in cleansing Heaven of the rebel angels. Now in Vienna, I have had the opportunity to see how Milton may have visualized that triumphant scenario.

I’m sure glad that my wife and I have so much time in Vienna to revisit certain sites. It’s always good to get a second perspective to fill up the prospectus that we’ll use to edify and entertain our children, grandchildren, and friends.


Taking a Break in Vienna

Go Figure!

While trying to scramble the letters from “evangelicals” to form other words and abbreviations, I wondered if “liel” would fit in. According to my on-line dictionary, liel is not a word in itself; but it is the first name of a young Israeli-Indian singer, Liel Kolet. Because I am taking a break today from sightseeing in Vienna, I had time to check her out on YouTube. She has about a dozen listings ranging from American pop songs to Hebraic chants. In every case, her voice and stage presence are superb. In one of her renditions of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, she was so soulful that I teared up a bit. In addition to her singing, she is a highly regarded peace activist.

How strange that the word evangelicals led me to a Jewish celebrity in Israel!


Once More:

Here’s another serendipitous gem that I located today on the Free Online Dictionary as I was scrambling these letters in the word evangelicals, celan. It turns out that Celan is the last name of a famous Romanian poet, Paul Celan, a survival victim of the Holocaust.  Coincidentally last night, my wife and I were discussing our options in visiting a concentration camp in Eastern Europe within striking distance of our home exchange sites.


All Clocked Out

Until I went to the three-storied Clock Museum, I thought that I had seen the extent of the extravagant adornments in Vienna’s artistic arsenal. I was wrong. Atop giant grandfather clocks that spanned half a wall in the upper floors were all sorts of excessive accoutrements: for example, bloated eagles, Austrian cowboys, interlocking snakes, mythological deities and heroes, busts of Austrian royalty, and carvings of wild boars. One clock was embedded in an ornately winged altarpiece; some tiny clocks were actually located within landscape paintings. I saw one clock that had as much gold plastered on it as did many of the delicacies in the imperial treasury. It would be hard to find any of these clocks that weren’t replete with precious jewels. There was nothing utilitarian about the clocks in the baroque and neoclassic era. They were show pieces, overly elegant testaments to aristocratic self-importance. I didn’t stay too long in the upper floors of the upper-class clocks. Although it was cool outside, the rooms were almost unbearably stuffy (figuratively and literally); and the procession of these gaudy clocks was getting me dizzy.

It was a pleasure to browse through the cooler bottom floor where clocks were unfashionable, simple, even primitive mechanical devices made solely to tell time. They belonged more in the Austrian equivalent of a saloon than a salon. The tower clocks were mammoth monstrosities, but they single-mindedly served their purpose, unlike the pretentious clocks I had no use for.

I must admit that if the clock museum were air-conditioned and if I wasn’t a bit wet from the rain earlier, and if I had not already seen so much overpowering luxury in Vienna’s churches and museums, I might have been more generous in assessing the clocks on the upper floors. But in the aftermath, I still feel that more or less, less is more.


Some More Enjoyable Revisiting

My wife and I revisited two connecting Viennese museums today, this time using the audio guides for the Collection of Historic Musical Instruments and the Collection of Arms and Armour.  Because we had already spent a lot of time browsing through both museums, we thought that an audio guide might be a good supplement. In fact, in some cases, it was essential.

Many pianos in the musical instrument rooms were labeled spinets; but as the audio guide stated, these spinets were harpsichords, not spinet pianos, as I had assumed. I made another miscalculation when I assumed in the other museum that any armor with a skirt was made for women. The audio guide said otherwise: the skirts were made for teenage boys as a fashion accessory. They would wear this kind of armor to a ball, not to a battle. Sometimes, men too would wear skirted armor in order to have more leeway when fighting on foot.

Of course, the audio guide also provided me with lots of technical information that I couldn’t even begin to grasp with my limited knowledge of the mechanics of music, or, sadly to say, the workings of anything mechanical—as my wife will attest to.

Nonetheless, now and then I heard some revealing tidbits. As I approached what I considered to be the most magnificent harpsichord in the museum, the audio guide had this to say: A little over a century ago, the aging builder of this finely wrought, generously and gorgeously decorated harpsichord was expected to easily win first prize at the Paris World Fair. But because of a shipping delay, his prized harpsichord—by only a few minutes— didn’t arrive on time. He was devastated when the apologetic judges had no choice but to give the gold medal to another candidate. After being wowed by his harpsichord, I have no doubt that if I could time travel, I’d suspend the rules and give him a medal more precious than gold.

My spirits were lifted a few moments later. The audio guide occasionally provided musical excerpts played on original instruments in the rooms or based on documents in the rooms. The sound quality was pretty muffled except in two cases. Early on, I distinctly heard part of a jaunty harpsichord piece that Mozart had composed when he was SEVEN years old. And when I listened to a drinking song taken from one of the manuscripts etched on a table, the voices were so fresh and clear and filled with a love of life that this rollicking excerpt gave me an extra wind before we wound down our time at the exhibits.


Unexpected Pleasure at Prater

In order to honor one of our friends from Nova Scotia whom we met in Honolulu, my wife and I took the trusty metro (called the U-Bahn) to the Prater Park Amusement Center in Vienna.  Our new-found friend, who had years ago marveled at the large old Ferris wheel at Prater, wanted us to see if it was still there, and if so, relay to him our impressions and send him some pics so that he could vicariously recapture its charm. The Ferris wheel is indeed still operating. It is a classic. The uniquely rectangular seating compartments that enclose the riders leave them just enough room to see out.

After we arrived, my wife and I, hardly aficionados of amusement parks, figured we’d take pictures of the Ferris wheel and then leave the Prater. But despite our initial intentions, we were drawn to all the hoopla. Hovering over many of the amusements were huge figures of gargoyles and a menagerie of other grotesque creatures, manlike and animal or in between. One such grisly animated monster with a cavernous mouth continuously munched on a human skeleton.

There was a tilt-a-wheel that not only spun around but heaved up and down at the same time. There was the most unusual merry-go-round we had ever seen. Little children were riding real ponies that pulled carts that went faster and faster as the motorized ride progressed. The kids were awed, and so were we.

But the most spectacular scenic wonder was the jaw-dropping ride around a replica of the Eiffel Tower. Every seat was completely filled for each excursion that started with slowly circling the base of the tower, then gradually spiraling upward with increasing velocity until reaching the apex. After that, the ride identically reverses the process.

We took pictures of all of these high adventures. That’s as far as we would go. My wife likes to stay firmly on the ground, and I get queasy just looking up in the air.

When we finished surveying Prater, we just happened to notice a wooded park alongside the amusements. Instead of heading home, we began walking through it. It is a vast area studded with stunning patches of vibrant yellow and red flower beds. Like the other verdant parks that we traversed in Vienna, we saw other walkers, skateboarders, runners, families picnicking, and people leisurely lying on the grass.

But we had an extra treat as we ventured further into the park. On one of the narrow medians next to us, we heard a trotting noise: a man was seated on a chair while controlling the reins of a horse way in front of him. I had never seen a steeple-chase tournament, but at least I have now had the pleasure to witness one such horse and rider combo.

While we were on the way back out, we saw and heard so many children having fun at the amusement park that we got homesick for our ever-increasing flock of grandchildren. Thank the gods of technology for Skype. We used it tonight, and it was a delight.




An Abundance of Skeletons

In the sanctuary of many Viennese churches there are (under glass) sarcophagi revealing full-length skeletons of saints dug up from ancient Roman catacombs. At first, I found this particular custom a bit unnerving; but I have been in so many churches this month that I’ve grown accustomed to such remains.

At St. Peter’s church last week, I saw such a skeleton in an alcove containing a large picture of a 20th century deceased priest who had attained sainthood. I asked one of the attendants if the sarcophagus housed his skeleton. The man said that was not the case—the remains belonged to one of the early martyred saints. Then he creepily confided in me. If only it were true that St. Peter’s Church did have the skeleton of the priest. What a boon it would be! I shuddered a bit and left him.

For the record, just before coming to Vienna, on a lark, I did some research: there have been over 10,000 saints canonized from the early Christian era to the present. That to me was an astounding figure. Many of their corpses have been preserved in church crypts. And it is traditional, as I recently discovered, to display a few of the most notable ones in the sanctuary.

Be that as it may, for aesthetic reasons, I prefer churches without skeletons bared in the sanctuary. Yesterday, as my wife and I were strolling along the Stubentor area, we just happened to enter   a Dominican Church that was skeleton-free. What it did contain was pretty standard except for various sized stunning lunettes covering every inch of the dome and descending halfway to the sanctuary floor.

I don’t take any church for granted in Vienna. There is always some especially memorable feature. It would not have to relate to saints. I have seen plenty of sinners immortalized in church paintings. At the Dominican Church, in fact, there is a portrait of a Roman executioner wielding a huge axe, ready to chop off the head of a female saint.

I wonder where her bones are resting.

Two Contrasting Churches

On our last day in Vienna, my wife and I visited two churches that were glaringly different. The first one, Marie de la Siege, was on a run-down street near the train hub. From the distance, the church looked like a magnificent medieval fortress with turrets—very formidable and slightly forbidding. As we got closer, however, we saw lots of scaffolding covered with large tarps whose purpose evidently was to catch whatever brick was crumbling or cascading from above. This was not a good omen. When I entered the huge church, dingy and dark as it was, I was impressed with the unique pillars. They were scalloped in five layers, not perfectly round as in all of the other churches we had visited in Vienna. These gigantic gray pillars were made out of cement stained with alternately spaced earth colors that had faded over the years. And the cement itself at many bases was cracked either through erosion or disrepair. The vast church had discolored frescoes that might once have been masterpieces but now looked forlorn from neglect. The only thing in the church in good condition was the vibrant altarpiece glorifying the Virgin Mary.

My wife found a booklet explaining why the church had decayed so much: from Allied bombings to lack of government funding. Being in a blighted area with poor parishioners I’m sure hasn’t helped either. Marie de la Siege has tremendous potential; it’s a shame that it is in such disrepair. About the scaffolding: pieces of the church turrets have already fallen. My wife and I saw some of the damage as we left the church. If I were in charge, restoring this church and the neighborhood would be a top priority.

We didn’t know about this church—the travel guides never mentioned it. By accident, we spied it as we decided to explore a new section of Vienna apart from the hordes of tourists. As we walked out of the church, we had to navigate through the gauntlet of decayed buildings before we reached the Metro. At that time, I would have felt more secure in the company of tourists. 

Unlike Marie de la Siege, there was another church, the Shottenstiftkirche, that we had meant to see many times, but it was closed whenever we tried to visit it. The travel brochures said that this church, located in the acclaimed Freytung section of the monumentally elegant Innere Stadt, was top notch. How ironic. Innere Stadt, the Old City, literally means Inner City, a far cry from what we Americans call the inner city, a term more fitting to the seedy area surrounding Marie de la Siege.

While my wife was enjoying herself at a nearby café, she told me to go to the church one more time. I said it was futile, but she insisted. I’m glad she did. For some reason, it was open and filled with men in black suits (a rarity in the Old City) and women wearing fashionably dark dresses (another oddity in the Old City). It was a somber occasion, probably a funeral, as my wife later informed me.

But the church itself was not austere. It was gorgeously arrayed in perfect symmetry on each side of the main aisle from the upper crisply frescoed walls to the base of the immaculate pillars. Everything glittered. There was nothing out of place. I loved being in this luxury, but I felt a little guilty too as I remembered the plight of Marie de la Siege.

Maybe a few of the most opulent Viennese churches like the Shottenstiftkirche could transfer a portion of their wealth to aid a sister church in desperate need of renewal like the besieged Marie de la Siege.

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A Tale of Two Organs

Yesterday, my wife and I became acquainted with the oldest organ in Vienna, at St. Francis Church.  And today, we had a guided tour of the largest organ in Vienna, at St. Michael’s Church.

The organist at St. Francis escorted a small group of us into the upstairs room housing the oldest organ in Vienna. Aware that some of us in the tour were Americans, he said that he had no time to address us in English. Oops!

After he very expressively played an excerpt from the baroque period, he commented at length on the organ’s capabilities in relation to that piece. He seemed to be very knowledgeable, and I could tell from his gestures and inflexions that he really wanted his German audience to understand the points that he was making. We enjoyed being in the presence of such a historic site, but it would have been much more meaningful if the presentation was in English. I caught a few words here and there but hardly enough to enlighten me; and my wife, who is expert at body language but unversed in German, was just as unsuccessful as I was in deconstructing the organist’s talk.

But she would not be deterred. After the organist had escorted the group out of the alcove, she cornered him. My wife wanted him to discuss not what he lectured about earlier but what insights he had about the history of the organ itself. Although the organist was preoccupied with a pending appointment, he spent about five minutes with us. It was well worth it.

We learned that the organ is completely shrouded from the sanctuary; none of the parishioners are allowed to see it. The new organ in the sanctuary is quite visible and is the one that is mainly played.  The old organ is used only to supplement the much more powerful one if there is an epic concert. So whenever organ music is performed at the church, the old organ is never seen but sometimes heard.

Another tidbit of information we appreciated was that during the Second World War, the severely aged organ was removed to the countryside to avoid the Allied bombing of the central city. It remained intact and was returned to St. Francis, where it underwent extensive restorations for decades until it is now eminently playable.

At that point, the organist left us. He was as personable as he could be, considering his schedule. And I was glad that my persistent wife slowed him down enough to at least give us some basic information about the evolution of the priceless organ.

Although the organ has limited capacity, I loved its pure sound, whether majestic or delicate. I even grew to like the organist as he opened up to us while checking his watch.

Tonight, we attended a concert at St. Michael’s to hear the largest organ in Vienna. I initially was disappointed. The timing on most of the baroque works was sketchy, and the sound, considering the organ is so large, was fairly tame. The organist never used the full range of the stops.

After the performance, I didn’t particularly want to tour the organ loft, part of our 10 euro ticket, but my wife insisted. I’m glad that I took her advice. The presentation was much better than the one at St. Francis. As the organist spoke in German to one group, the person who introduced the program at the start of the concert translated for the English speakers. I learned that there are so many manual maneuvers that the organist has to do to keep the over 3000 pipes divided into 40 “families” in sync. Sometimes the organist revealed that he needs other people to help him do his balancing act. So that’s why I sensed that his timing was somewhat off. It would be miraculous if it weren’t. In fact, at organ concerts, I’ve always noticed moments of imprecise timing, especially in a piece that I was familiar with on a CD. I was accordingly on edge during a live performance. On a CD, timing issues can be rectified with more manpower, and sound can be automatically accentuated.

Even though the translator spoke in English, I had trouble understanding the technical aspects involved in operating this mammoth organ. But my wife, a former organist at her local church, was fascinated. She intently followed the priest as he moved excitedly about on the platform and talked with grand gestures. There was no doubt that he was proud of the organ’s architecture and its sonic intricacies. Whenever he got too wound up in his exclamations, my wife urged him to slow down and clarify. He graciously complied with a hearty smile and continued at a moderate pace with his heartfelt explanations.

In front of the organ, there is a high barrier that shields the organist from the rest of the sanctuary. One of the women in the group asked the organist how during Mass he was able to get cues from the priest. He then pointed to a couple of holes in the barrier that were just large enough for him to peek through while he played without looking at the keyboards. Then the young organist grinned and, while fixing his gaze at the much older translator, said that he had such tremendously good rapport with the priest that most of the time, he didn’t have to look at him at all. Then came the revelation. The translator was not just an adjunct to the church: he himself was the priest! Before the presentation ended, the voluble priest continued to share with us his voluminous and intimate knowledge about the organ that he so cherished.

The presentation was truly an up close and personal treat. I got a better understanding of the difficulties inherent in playing the St. Michael’s organ and I had a chance to meet the organist and the priest whose devotion to the organ was inspiring. 

Then came two other revelations: Mozart’s mentor, Joseph Haydn, once played the organ at St. Michael’s, and after Mozart died, Mozart’s requiem was first performed there in 1793. The priest made sure to show us a plaque commemorating that concert.

What a difference between touring the organ lofts of the two churches. Besides the fact that we couldn’t understand what the St. Francis organist was saying during his formal presentation, he was a bit ill at ease with us later on. That made our stay at the church uninviting. On the other hand, the organist and the priest at St. Michael’s were much more welcoming.

 If St. Francis was a bit of a bummer, St. Michaels was a supercharged hummer.


A Full Day at the Museum

My wife and I today self-toured the Vienna’s Kunsthistorishes  Museum, one of the largest fine art museums in the world. Surprisingly, it has no 19th, 20th, or 21st century works at all. Another anomaly is that the myriad of bedazzling decorative artifacts (from tiny figurines to mammoth table clocks) take up almost as much space as do the museum’s renowned medieval, renaissance, and post-renaissance paintings.

Even if you spent an entire day at the Kunsthistorishes Museum, you wouldn’t have time to listen intently to the audio guide’s coverage of over 800 works, a small fraction of the entire repertory. Just casually walking through all of the rooms and halls would take about an hour.

My wife and I started out slowly in the art genre that most interested us, faithfully consulting our audio guides. They are a bargain at 4 euros. How else would you know to look for a satyr’s outpouring of fecal matter reflected in a child’s mirror in the background of a bacchanal or see an ever-so-slight sign of a benediction initiated by a saint?

After about three hours, we picked up some speed and became more selective in what we took time to listen to and to observe.  By late afternoon, we scanned the rest of the museum, without using the audio guides. Within five minutes of closing, we exited, exhausted but at the same time exhilarated to have had the opportunity to be in a venue that houses so many titanic masterworks by Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Breughel, Velasquez, and Rembrandt.

A footnote: Although I had hoped to see some of the touted paintings of my favorite medieval painter, Hieronymus Bosch, I found out that his works have been removed this year but will be returned in 2015. Nevertheless, as I trudged through the last lap of my tour, I happened to spy a Bosch lookalike painting that contained all of his typical fiery phantasmagoric demons who enjoy torturing dumbfounded sinners and transforming them into devilish caricatures. That truly made my day.


An Unexpected Treat

Today, my wife and I purchased tickets to attend an upcoming concert played on period instruments at the oldest church in Vienna. I was very fond of the composers on the program—J.S. Bach, C.P.E. Bach, Telemann, and Quantz. But I had a few nagging concerns about the concert. 

From frequent listening to CD recordings of works performed on original instruments, I have found that the sound can sometimes be a little sour. In addition, I had never heard of the group that was performing, the Ensemble Klingekunst. After checking out the church before the concert, I had further doubts. The place had a strong musty odor, it was clammy, it was stuffy, it was hot, and it felt a bit claustrophobic. I began to wonder if we would be the only people bothering to attend this concert under such adverse conditions. But at least there was one consolation: If things got unbearable, we at least could leave at the intermission.

Despite the unpleasant environment and the obscure (at least to me) ensemble, we dragged ourselves to the church. The first good sign we noticed as we reached the church was that there were a lot of people waiting in line with us. In fact, just before the concert began, more chairs and an extra bench had to be enlisted to accommodate the crowd.  Another positive note was that the woman next to us effusively praised the summer series at the church.

The minute the performance began, my wife and I knew that we had made the right choice in coming to St. Ruprecht’s. The ensemble played so gloriously that after a while, we were able to ignore our accumulated perspiration and the crypt-like surroundings.

Each member of the young female group, whether performing together or individually, was magnificent. They were consummate professionals who had mastered their instruments. Throughout every piece, the cellist, harpsichordist, and transverse flute player were riveting and so incredibly versatile. They performed some selections with tenderness, others with tenacity.

They were a delight to watch. The harpsichord player, almost in a trance, swayed lovingly over the two keyboards as her hands, so delicate and nimble, effortlessly did her bidding. The transverse flutist, particularly during her demanding Bach partita solo, glided through the work with charismatic charm (if she were the pied piper, she’d have me hooked for sure). The cellist was the most dramatic performer. During the second movement of the Telemann sonata, she attacked her instrument with such vigor that I thought she’d break a string. In the third movement, the rapturous expression on her face and her gentle bowing almost made time stand still.

As far as I’m concerned, the stellar Ensemble Klingekunst already is one of the foremost original instrument groups in the world. If you bought one of their CDs, you would accrue a lifetime of interest.



A Minus Becomes a Plus

After my wife and I left the Art Museum yesterday, we heard some garbled shouting a long block away. As we looked at that area, we saw droves of people marching toward the center of town. Many of them had banners that neither I nor my wife recognized. Traffic was blocked off in that direction to facilitate the demonstration.

Then it hit me. This must be a pro-Palestinian protest against Israel’s Gaza assault.  I didn’t intend to join the marchers: I am vehemently pro-Israel. From what I could gather, there weren’t any counter demonstrations. If there were, I’d be tempted to join in as long as both groups were non-violent. But you can never be assured of that, as my wife and I found out when we were at Kent State University during the 1971 massacre.

My wife wanted me to confirm my suspicions, so I consulted a nearby police officer. He said clearly “for the Palestinians.” I was right.

The next day, I checked on the Internet to get more information. The demonstration, the largest one in Europe, amassed over 11,000 people, and for a few minutes I was right there, just by chance.

Today the foreign ministers of France, Italy, and Germany condemned the pro-Palestinian, anti-Semitic violence generated throughout Europe (particularly France). The fact that the Austrian government was silent has somewhat put a damper on my otherwise delightful Viennese vacation.

Vienna has a very small Jewish community. I dread what might happen if Palestinian supporters riot as they did in Paris, ransacking synagogues and destroying other Jewish property until police intervened.

Wary of Europe’s reinvigorated anti-Semitism, I had left my necklace with Hebrew writing on it in North Carolina, along with any other trappings of Judaism I might otherwise have taken to Central Europe. I thought I probably was a bit paranoid.  Now I’m not so sure. In any event, I’m glad my wife and I visited the Jewish Museum and the Stadttemple, the city synagogue, before Israel’s retaliatory move against Hamas.

Today, however, I am in a much better mood.  While walking to and from the grocery store near my home-exchange house, I had to endure, as usual, a miasma of cigarette smoke. But there were a couple of compensations.

Going to the store, I saw four toddlers helping their mother push a baby stroller. It was a smooth procedure, in fact, perfectly synchronized. Each child had a different strategic position to maintain on his or her side of the stroller. The mother had no worries; she didn’t have to say a word. The kids were self-sufficient, single mindedly devoted to their task. I couldn’t tell if the baby carriage was empty: if it were, it would have been even harder for the children to steer it in a straight line. I was fascinated with the tableau.

Coming back from the grocery store, I had another delightful moment. An elderly woman held a young girl’s hand as they slowly came in my direction. Whatever relationship they had, they both seemed very comfortable walking together. All of a sudden, the curly haired girl, who reminded me of Shirley Temple, looked up at me and gave me a big smile as she passed by. When she did so, the grandmother beamed as well.

I’d suffer through inhaling a bunch of second-hand smoke any day as long as I could witness and be a part of the idyllic scenes that I encountered this morning.

From now on, I’ll try to think more about toddlers than terrorists.

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And the Last Shall be First

My wife and I visited three Imperial museums today in the Hofburg New Palace (Neue Hof ) behemoth housing incalculably precious jewels, dazzling finery worn by anyone in the royal chain of command, from heralds to the emperors themselves; ancient Ephesian artifacts, some intact, others fragmentary; incredibly well-preserved musical instruments, including pianos played by Mozart, Beethoven, Clara and Robert Schumann, and Franz Lizst; and arrays of full-length armor worn by men, horses, and women. The vast palatial halls leading to the museum rooms are by themselves worth the price of admission. They contain enormous framed mythological paintings, three-storied stately chandeliers, lustrous technicolored columns at every step, and white marble nude statues the tower over the entrance way.

I must be jaded. After drooling over the bedazzling jewels and ornate garb that I saw displayed in the museums and palaces in Paris only three years ago, I was not unduly impressed with the equally rare gems and attire in the storehouse of Austro-Hungarian royalty. Nor was I excited about the Ephesian collection, much of which reminded me of the Greek sculptures that I have so often appreciated in many museums of fine art in America.

But what did excite us during the second half of our visit were the astonishingly unusual musical instruments and armor in the Neue Hofburg. There were harpsichords carved with baroque extravagance, clavichords whose sounding boards extended three feet or more, a weird wind instrument shaped like a snake’s body with a snake’s fangs forming the mouthpiece, brass instruments that were twisted at such odd angles that the sound could easily get plugged up in a crevice, an oversized lyre with two sets of parallel strings, and a jew’s harp with a crudely drawn Star of David in the middle of it.

The full-metal armor was just as intriguing. Some of the gloves had spikes at the fingertips, some helmets just had sprinklings of tiny holes through which it would be painfully hard to see the enemy; a few suits of armor were highly decorated with bright, almost gaudy, patterns, leaving enough space for a huge codpiece.  But the armor that amazed me the most belonged to a woman: It had a skirt made out of billowing metal.

My wife and I expected the musical instrument rooms to be low key and the armor rooms to be equally dull. We were happily mistaken. We don’t have a lot of pictures of the treasury or the ancient Greek remains. We do, however, have a treasure trove of pics from the underrated last two museums. The guidebooks pay too much attention to the glitter and not enough to the grit.

The Upper Belvedere Palace

The Belvedere Upper Palace just outside of the inner city has something for everyone—from medieval triptychs to abstract paintings, from baroque statues to Rodin sculptures, from pious portraits of the Virgin Mary to Renoir’s fleshy nudes, from still-life renditions of fruit to a painting of the ship of fools containing dozens of tiny grossly distorted scenes depicting anything from the crucifixion to a 18th century bacchanal. You can see demure portraits of dignitaries, the chopped off heads of martyrs, impressionistic landscapes, and wooden replicas of wild animals. There is the ad nauseam duplicated painting The Kiss by Austria’s Gustav Klimp, and there is Frenchman Jacque-Louis David’s much renowned painting of Napoleon as he crossed the Alps on his horse. In about two hours, you can get a good overview of the three floors of palace art.

I don’t usually care for medieval art, but there was one work in that period that immediately caught my attention: The Crucifixion of Christ painted by Conrad Laib. I don’t feel that the calm, seemingly contented Jesus, although in the center of the piece, is the main focus. Top billing is given to the dramatically portrayed two scruffy thieves on their respective crosses. The ropes tied around their stomachs are so tight that their chests are gruesomely distended, and their fascinating faces too are riddled with a toxic brew of torment and disgust. Another figure that deemphasizes the Passion of the Christ (or should it be renamed the Dispassion in this case) is a handsome Roman nobleman outfitted in a dashing blue robe and riding a brilliantly white horse with equally blue trimmings. The Virgin Mary’s tepid response to the crucifixion again distances us from what is happening to Jesus. Another distraction from Jesus on the cross is the caricature of a beak nosed bearded Jewish elder who is pointing and sneering at one of the thieves.

Nobody pays much attention to Jesus, and perhaps his listless demeanor justifies their indifference.

I wonder what medieval churchmen thought about Laib’s seemingly iconoclastic or even irreverent depiction of the Passion. Now that’s a dissertation topic for someone who has a fixation with the crucifixion.


Two Unpretentious Churches

In Vienna’s Innere Stadt (the inner city), my wife and I by accident came across the The Minorite Church (an order of Franciscans). Unlike many of the highly touted, must-see cathedrals that we have visited, this church has a relatively modest exterior and interior. There is no baroque excess—just the basics.

 But I saw two outstanding features: a full-length reproduction of The Last Supper and a small statue of the crucifixion in the middle of the altarpiece. The painting, boldly and dramatically saturated with vivid colors, appeared to me and my untrained eye to be the spruced-up original, just as the grimy, discolored figures in Michelangelo’s masterpiece at the Sistine Chapel have been restored to their former luster.

The crucified Christ in itself wasn’t very different from the ones I have admired in other churches, but this statue had an unusually eerie, otherworldly ambiance from the subdued light of the small dome surrounding it.

Today my wife and I, on our way to a park in the Vienna woods, entered the compact Karlensberg Church near the bus stop. After a while, it becomes hard to differentiate between all of the churches we have surveyed. The Karlensberg Church, however, had a unique organ. It looked like a miniaturized, delicately jeweled treasure chest one could find in the Imperial museums. I’m sure its output would be limited, but it sure was a gem to behold.

Every church that my wife and I have gone through has had at least one indelible, memorable aspect. There is a church in Vienna whose name I have already forgotten, but its only marble sculpture, a dreadfully lifelike crucified Christ, jolted me to the core. His blood was so real that I could almost see it dripping from his festering chest wound. His arms and feet were painfully shriveled. His mournfully intense eyes seemed to be riveted on me.

This church was the last one we saw that day. It was late, and I was feeling a little wobbly, so I certainly might have been a bit in an altered state. In any case, the statue powerfully moved me, as have so many things in Vienna like the blind lady who braved the hurdles of an underground Metro stop or a mother lovingly kneeling over her infant triplets who were squirming in their supersized baby stroller. I have noticed that while I am on any vacation, I have a heightened sense of awareness. That could be a blessing or a curse. So far in Vienna, it has uniformly been a blessing.


Overall, a Disappointment

The guidebooks mentioned that Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs, was more sensational than the one in the inner city that we accordingly decided not to tour. That may well be true, but Schonbrunn Palace was only occasionally riveting.

Our Grand Tour of 40 rooms took about an hour. We had to do some tricky maneuvering, trying to keep ahead of the throngs of tour groups behind us and trying not to get caught up in the ones in front of us. Except for one room vividly studded with rich Chinese wall panels, the same kind of wooden, monotonous gold-fringed rococo wall carvings from top to bottom covered all of the other rooms. In the Great Hall, where Kennedy and Khrushchev once had a tete a tete, a bravura allegorical painting completely enveloped the ceiling. (The remaining rooms had bare ceilings.) The only other trappings of royalty that impressed me were the brightly enameled, intricately decorated table clocks sporadically found in some of the rooms and one hugely wide bed in the emperor’s chamber.

Overall, I was disappointed in my tour of Schonbrunn Palace. Yet it is possible that there may be stupendous sights in the 1401 rooms that are off limits to the public. But what are the odds of that scenario?

I enjoyed the palace grounds more than its interior. The shaded park area with pathways lined with well-manicured bushes was refreshing. And where the sunlight did filter through, the deep green leaves sparkled like emeralds. Adjacent to the park, I was struck by the formidable statues of Greek mythological sea gods surrounding the Fountain of Neptune. And even from a distance (it was too hot for me to slog up the hill), the triumphal Roman inspired arched Gloriette above the fountain amply reflected the imperial might of the Hapsburgs.

It certainly wasn’t a waste of time to visit Schonbrunn Palace, but it wasn’t the highlight of our trip either.



A Tale of Two Churches

Today, by motor coach and boat, my wife I and went on a tour to the Wachau Valley.

Our first main site was the town of Krems, a quaint town with a sprinkling of red roofed homes and small but stately churches. Krems is surrounded by hills and valleys of lush vineyards. We didn’t have time to get out of the motor coach to explore the town on foot, as we normally do when we are by ourselves; but the traffic was slow enough that we got a decent  overview of one of the crème de la crème sights in the Wachau.

When we arrived at Spitz, we traveled on the Danube to the Benedictine Abbey of Melk, our final destination. Along the way, there were a few castles, some decrepit, some well preserved. Throughout the boat trip, the exquisitely cultivated countryside on both sides of the Danube reminded me of the Tuscan landscape that my wife and I used to marvel at when we vacationed in Italy a few years ago.

After a couple of hours, we toured the Benedictine Abbey. I had always assumed that monasteries, no matter where they were located or what their history was, had an ascetic aesthetic: After all, poverty is one of the sacred vows novitiates must adhere to. The monks at Melk may wear hair shirts, live in stripped-down quarters with only a few possessions, and eat just enough to sustain themselves, but their sanctuary is a baroque wonderland.

Every inch of the huge altarpiece is studded in gold. Every painting is framed in gold. Every ornate, swirled carving is trimmed in gold. The balconies—which look as if they belong more in an opulent opera house than in a church—are enveloped in gold. Above the grandiose organ pipes are inlaid gold panels. Gaudy leaves of gold butt up against every statue and pillar. Gold is everywhere in baroque abundance. What a stunning and stupefying abbey. If you want to glorify God with luxurious hosannas, this is the church for you. If I were a monk, you’d have a hard time wresting me away from this utterly unearthly magnificence.

After returning to Vienna, I went to the oldest church in the city, St. Ruprecht, to get information about an upcoming concert. The church itself was extremely small and meagerly adorned. Only a dozen or so people were there. A trio was playing and chanting contemplative medieval music, and two women were kneeling on the altar, slightly swaying, and praying silently.

Such simplicity and such reverence! What a contrast to the ultra-extravagant, palatial Abbey sanctuary that, at least for the brief time that I was there, was loaded with hundreds of gawking tourists but no worshippers or music—either from an organ or a choir.

Which venue do you think God would most approve of?


Belvedere Revisited

On the third day of our third week in Vienna, my wife and I revisited the Upper Belvedere Palace, this time with a useful audio guide filled with informative tidbits and impressionistic descriptions. The only problem I had with the guide is that the programmers arbitrarily decided which works of art to include. In fact, in one room with at least ten paintings (by various artists), the audio guide commented on only one of them. I guess I shouldn’t complain. I’m sure I got my $5.50 worth of the 4 euro expense. How else would I find out that the wife of one painter was in 100 of his portraitures or that the three muses in the Rodin sculpture of Victor Hugo on display in the Belvedere were later discarded in his final version because one of Rodin’s art critic friends disliked the mythological trio?

I discovered something else–thanks to my wife. The last time we were at the Upper Palace, I was intrigued by the anonymous 16th century Znaim Altarpiece, a three-paneled panoramic bas wood relief centered on the Crucifixion. All too many of the Jews and Romans swarming around the battered Christ are brutally real, even grotesque. It is as if they are straining to jump out of the triptych to get your attention. When I revisited this medieval masterpiece, I felt the same fascination and revulsion that I experienced the first time.

But my wife added a new dimension. She encouraged me to look at the backside of the wood panels. There wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver, but I complied. And to my delight, I saw five sequenced paintings (not in bas relief and not carved on wood) of the life of Jesus leading up to his being dragged to Golgotha.

Although these paintings didn’t have the visceral impact of the altar’s frontispiece, I enjoyed my time gazing at them, thanks to my wife. And did I forget to mention that here at Belvedere, it was her idea to rent an audio guide that we could both use with the help of her trusty Bose earphones?

For years, she has opened vistas for me that on my own I would have never discovered.  She gradually dispels all my misgivings about embarking on new experiences. I may initially balk, but eventually I realize how fortunate I am to have followed my wife’s lead.


A Jarring Juxtaposition

Today my wife and I visited the Lower Belvedere Church. For someone who used to pooh-pooh medieval art, earlier in the week at the Upper Belvedere Palace, I was surprisingly fond of the exhibited works of that period. Now I was doubly wowed at the Lower Belvedere that had hundreds of vibrant 14th and 15th century paintings, all within the confines of two medium sized palace rooms. In fact, in the first salle, supersized rectangular paintings sprawled over the walls, three and four deep, and seemed to bleed into one another. It was almost surreal. Though at first it wasn’t easy to differentiate one painting from another, after a while, I was able to focus on the ones I liked the best, from the most offbeat to the most reverent.

I was entranced by so many paintings that I sometimes put my face no more than an inch away from them, marveling at how clearly and precisely drawn everything was, especially the azure skin tones of the Virgin Mary, wisps of a couple of grey hairs embedded in a Pharisee’s beard, and the excruciatingly realistic dried blood on Christ’s feet.

Before coming to Vienna, I had no use for medieval art, no matter where I encountered it—whether it was displayed in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. or at lesser known museums such as the one in Raleigh, North Carolina. What accounted for my bias? I’m not sure, but it just could be that what I have witnessed so far in Vienna is superior to what I have seen elsewhere.

The next day, while I was in the midst of reading a novel about medieval Spain, Cathedral of the Sea by Idefonso Falcones, a chapter was devoted to the bubonic plague in Barcelona. After thousands of victims horribly died, rumors spread that the Jews were to blame: they had poisoned the wells. Accordingly, desperate townspeople in graphic detail massacred hundreds of Jews in the ghetto.

So far in the Vienna palaces, museums and churches that my wife and I have toured, I haven’t seen any paintings about the terrifying tableau of the plague and the consequent pogrom against the scapegoated Jews. Perhaps I’ll come across one in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the last major attraction for our final week in Vienna.


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