Heiligenkreuz Abbey

Heiligenkreuz, Austria

Heiligenkreuz Abbey is the oldest continuously occupied Cistercian monastery in the world. It was founded in 1133 by Margrave St. Leopold III of Austria, at the request of his son Otto, soon to be abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Morimond in Burgundy and afterwards Bishop of Freising. Its first twelve monks together with their abbot, Gottschalk, came from Morimond at the request of Leopold III. They called their abbey Heiligenkreuz (Holy Cross) as a sign of their devotion to redemption by the Cross.

On 31 May 1188 Leopold V of Austria presented the abbey with a relic of the True Cross, which is still to be seen and since 1983 is exhibited in the chapel of the Holy Cross. This relic was a present from Baldwin IV of Jerusalem, King of Jerusalem to duke Leopold V in 1182.

Heiligenkreuz was richly endowed by the founder's family, the Babenberg dynasty, and was active in the foundation of many daughter-houses.

During the 15th and 16th centuries the abbey was often endangered by epidemics, floods, and fires. It suffered severely during the Turkish wars of 1529 and 1683. In the latter, the Turkish hordes burnt down much of the abbey precinct, which was rebuilt on a larger scale in the Baroque style under Abbot Klemens Schäfer.

Heiligenkreuz abbots were often noted for their piety and learning. In 1734 the Abbey of St. Gotthard in Hungary was ceded to Heiligenkreuz by Emperor Charles VI. In the late 1800s, it was united with the Hungarian Zirc Abbey. The monastery of Neukloster at Wiener-Neustadt was joined to Heiligenkreuz in 1881.

Heiligenkreuz was spared dissolution under Emperor Joseph II. Although the National Socialists planned its dissolution in the Third Reich, this plan was not carried out. Abbot Karl Braunstorfer of Heiligenkreuz was a Council Father at the Second Vatican Council.

The abbey has been an important Austrian centre for music for more than 800 years. Many manuscripts have been found at this monastery, most notably those of Alberich Mazak (1609-1661).

Abbey and church

Entrance to the abbey is through a large inner court in the centre of which stands a Baroque Holy Trinity Column, designed by Giovanni Giuliani and completed in 1739.

The façade, as in most Cistercian churches, shows three simple windows as a symbol for the Trinity. Typically Cistercian, the church originally lacked a bell-tower, but one was added during the Baroque era on the north side of the church.

The abbey church of Heiligenkreuz combines two styles of architecture. The façade, naves and the transept (dedicated 1187) are Romanesque, while the choir (13th century) is Gothic. The austere nave is a rare, and famous, example of Romanesque architecture in Austria. The 13th century window paintings in the choir are some of the most beautiful remnants of medieval art.

The chapter house in the cloisters contains the graves of thirteen members of the House of Babenberg. The remains of Blessed Otto of Freising are kept under the altar of the Blessed Sacrament at the east end of the presbytery.

Present day

Heiligenkreuz  is now one of the largest faculties for the education of priests in the German-speaking world. Presently, over 90 monks belong to the monastic community, the focus of which is the liturgy and Gregorian chant in Latin.

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