Zwettl Abbey – It comes from far away… Monastery and the Three Wise Men

The Gospel according to Matthew is the only biblical text that mentions the “Magi from the East”: through the miraculous appearance of a star, they first set out in search of the newborn king of the Jews, suspected of being in the royal family. Palace of Jerusalem – then find Bethlehem among the poor. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and white wares to the baby Jesus. Gifts that want to be understood symbolically. Gold symbolizes Jesus as king and frankincense as high priest. Myrrh, a bitter-tasting resin, is one of the oldest medicines. It is intended to distinguish Christ as “Savior” while at the same time alluding to his suffering and death.

Because of the three royal gifts, the Magi were read as three kings. They were given the names Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Two brilliant abbots of the Cistercian monastery at Svetl, Abbot Caspar Bernhardt (r. 1672 – 1695) and Abbot Melchier von Janak (r. 1706 – 1747), depicted the two kings as their patrons in their works as well. Art. However, the monastery's association with the three saints is much older.

Holy traces

Even the oldest description of the “Swettler's Cross” which is said to have come to Svetl under Abbot Bohuslaus (r. 1248 – 1258) contains relics, “holy relics” associated with the birth of Jesus. The monastery's famous foundation book, the “Bearskin”, lists not only relics of the long-lost stable and the Lord's swaddling clothes, but also the remnants of the robes of the “three witches” and the offered myrrh. Of course, the “historical authenticity” of these fragments, which were revered as sacred at the time, cannot be assumed. Its value lies in the fact that instead of explaining (and falsifying) the reality of faith, God actually became “vulnerable” as a human being.

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The beginning of the festival

In past centuries, Epiphany marked the beginning of the festival – and was therefore celebrated with enthusiasm. A letter from Abbot Johann Bernhard Link (r. 1646 – 1671) tells us that it was celebrated with joy even in the austere Swetl Monastery. The dean vehemently opposes the complaint of Lorenz, a schoolteacher who felt neglected in his salary, saying that in earlier times “School teachers Satisfied with less money and a choir of boys.great comedy” About the Birth of the Lord and the Three Kings and “Festival Comedy Scenes” [aufgeführt] want The letter does not reveal in what form (perhaps vocal interlude plays?) these plays were performed and how long this tradition lasted.

A dangerous gift

The great Baroque abbot of Swetl Abbey, Abbot Melchior von Janack, commemorates his name in various works of art – the “Adoration of the Magi” is found as a motif in the collegiate church of Swetl, as well as in the faculty's private chapels. In a box in the abbey, in the chaplain's quarters, St. Melchior is depicted as an oriental king with a turban. But be careful! If you want to open the box's secret compartment, be careful with a metal spike on the lock's snap spring, which secures the box's contents.

Table for given resources: List of relics on bearskin: Zwettl Abbey Archives 2/1, fol. 36 r.; Letter from Abbot Link to schoolmaster Lorenz: StiAZ Lade 17 – 1 – 27.

About the Author: Andreas Camryth is an art historian, archivist and librarian at Svetl Abbey.

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You can find more about the NÖN series here: “Stories of Svetl Abbey”

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