A plain old country church, or The Ted Mosby of medieval studies

November 10, 2010

Are any of you fans of How I met your mother? Well, if you’re not, you should be… Seriously, I think it’s a great show, and I can always relate to main character Ted Mosby. Most of the time he’s a regular nice guy and often quite witty. Unfortunately, though, he’s also an architect and, even worse, a professor of architecture, so every now and again he’ll don his professor-y tweed jacket with elbow patches and deliver a fastidious lecture on architectural history to whoever is around. Needless to say, his friends and surroundings usually don’t share his enthusiasm and get annoyed as soon as he even mentions the word architecture.

So, folks, which side are you on? If you’re with Ted it’s safe to keep on reading. If, however, you’re with his friends, you might want to pull out right here and now because the rest of this post is basically about architectural history, and it comes with a tweed jacket and elbow patches…

Even though [m] and I had engaged in the tiring activity of public knitting on Friday night, we got up and out early on Saturday morning to take yet another walking tour in the Wienerwald region. This time, our walk started in the small village of Kaumberg, and the route instructions read something like: “Walk past the parish church, then follow the path to your left.” But, even from the outside it was apparent that it was a medieval church so, naturally, we weren’t gonna walk past it. We went in.

The parish church at Kaumberg – and here begins the tedious, educational part – was founded in the 12th century, and at least from the 13th century onwards it was provided with priests from the Benedictine monastery at Klein-Mariazell. I only mention this because, as you may recall, we visited Klein-Mariazell only two weeks ago. (It’s really just around the corner from Kaumberg or, more precisely, a few miles down the valley and up the hill.) By the time the present structure at Kaumberg was erected (in the mid- to late 15th century), however, the parish had already passed under the supervision of the nearby Cistercian monastery at Lilienfeld. Allegedly, the church was finished under abbot Gregor of Lilienfeld who held this office from 1499 to 1502.

Today, with its plain whitewashed walls and its crude, unadorned stone ribs, the church emanates an atmosphere of simplicity and quietude. In former times, though, the interior would have been slightly more cluttered and variegated. A description dating to 1837 mentions two huge Baroque altarpieces, adorned with gold and fake marble, and also a banister of red marble separating the sanctuary from the nave.* And while this description only refers to a post-medieval state, it’s not unlikely that the medieval furnishings would have been even more elaborate than the Baroque ones. All that remains of the original 15th century fittings are, however, the parts that were literally set in stone, that were and still are inseparably connected with the architectural structure of the building.

For instance, in the south wall of the chancel there still is a small, ogival niche which would either have served as an armarium – a cupboard to hold the liturgical vessels – or, more likely, held a piscina – a shallow basin used for washing the liturgical vessels after communion. Next to it, a much larger, rectangular wall recess stills marks out the sedilia – the place where the priest and, if present, his deacon would take their seat during mass.

While piscina and sedilia were essential for any kind of liturgical celebration, another interesting medieval feature in the church at Kaumberg would have been used only on special occasions, namely on certain high feast days…

Right in the middle of the nave there’s an octagonal opening in the vault, surrounded by a rather stylized painted band of clouds. Openings like this were once very common in churches all over Central Europe. In German they’re known as “Heiliggeistloch” (“hole of the Holy Spirit”) or “Himmelfahrtsloch” (“Ascension hole”), alluding to their principal purpose…

On the feast of Pentecost, a wooden dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit would be lowered into the church through this opening in the vault to render  the Biblical events more palpable and graphic for the congregation.  Similarly, on the day of the Ascension, a sculpture of the risen Christ would be hoisted by a rope through that same opening so that churchgoers could literally witness Christ’s ascension to heaven. No wonder people like Wyclif, Hus or Luther felt that the Catholic Church somehow overdid the whole “use of images” thing…

Speaking of images: There’s also a late 15th century wall painting in the tympanum over the portal. It shows Christ as Judge of the world, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist in supplication for mercy on behalf of humanity. As you can see, the painting is of a rather crude quality. Even if we take into account its poor state of preservation, we have to admit that it was done by an artist of limited talent. However, it adds a nice dab of colour to the now mostly monochrome building. The same is also true for a set of modern stained glass windows – not the work of the world’s greatest artist, but a welcome touch of colour, especially as the morning sun coming through the windows drew shadows and colourful reflections on the whitewashed walls:

Ok, so much for the Ted Mosby part. Well, almost… As Lieutenant Columbo, another of my TV heroes, would say: “There’s just one more thing…”

Another remarkable fact about the parish church at Kaumberg is that it’s a “Wehrkirche”, i.e. a fortified church, strategically situated on a hilltop and surrounded by defence walls:

When the church was being built, there certainly was a need for protection, because there were threats a-plenty. For instance, in 1463 Kaumberg was attacked and ransacked by one Wehingen von Gutebrunn, a local robber-knight. And then there was, of course, the expanding Ottoman Empire: From ca. 1470 onwards Turkish forces invaded and raided Austria on an increasingly regular basis, and in 1529 Kaumberg, too, was plundered and pillaged by them. Even the fortified church wouldn’t have withstood that assault but, thankfully for its parishioners, there was a much firmer stronghold nearby providing them with a safe resort – Araburg castle, enthroned high above the village:

Even today, while in a rather ruinous state, the Araburg is still an imposing structure. It’s also a popular hiking destination, and that’s exactly where we steered our steps on Saturday morning, once we had finally made it past the Kaumberg church. But more on that another time…

* Franz Xaver Joseph Schweickhardt: Darstellung des Erzherzogthums Österreich unter der Ens, vol. 6, Vienna 1837, pp. 150-151.

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