Thursday, August 5, 2010

Heaven and earth

When I arrived at Einsiedeln Abbey more than two months ago (it is difficult to believe it has been that long), I promised some photos of the church’s interior. It is somewhat difficult to take photographs in the main part of the church during the day when the light is good. First of all, it is forbidden. Second, snapping photos risks rudely disturbing the worship and prayer of the many pilgrims in the church each day.

So, I have cheated somewhat. The two photographs above—the Black Madonna and the Lady Chapel that houses the figure—are taken from Einsiedeln’s website ( The chapel is located near the main entrance to the church, and is the primary attraction for many visitors and pilgrims. Each day, several Masses are celebrated at the chapel for pilgrims, and at other times many people are silently praying in front of it. Each evening at the conclusion of Vespers, all the monks process down to the chapel from the lower choir to sing the Salve Regina, which many visitors also come to see and hear.

The chapel—in earlier times also called the Chapel of the Hermits and the Saviour Chapel—is located on the spot where St. Meinrad had his hermitage and was martyred. Later, the monastery was built at the location. On Sept. 14, 948, the chapel was to have been consecrated by St. Conrad, the bishop of Constance. However, he reported having a vision while praying in the chapel on the eve of the dedication, seeing Christ, the four evangelists, St. Peter, angels and many saints celebrating the rite of consecration. He heard the words, “No further, brother, it has been blessed by God.” So the legend grew that the chapel was consecrated by Christ himself in honor of his mother Mary, and this is why the chapel is such a place of devotion today. Each year on Sept. 14, the monks of Einsiedeln, guests, and pilgrims celebrate the miracle of dedication with solemnity, lighting up the chapel, church, and abbey with thousands of candles. I am sorry I will not be here to experience that.

The current Lady Chapel was erected in 1817. The previous structure was destroyed in 1798 during the French Revolution.

As the ornate and colorful ceiling vaults above and behind the chapel demonstrate, it is difficult to capture the church interior on camera. There is so much of it—like heaven swirling and rejoicing timelessly here and hereafter. How do you capture heaven on earth? That is the Baroque style, and its intent is to overwhelm you.

Although Baroque is not quite my preference (Romanesque symmetry and simplicity has more appeal for me), I certainly appreciate its purpose and beauty. I have seen quite a few Baroque-style churches during my time in Europe this summer, and in my view, Einsiedeln is by far the most impressive. It seems to be on another level entirely (it is consecrated by God, after all).

I took the three photos below myself. They offer views which most people visiting the church are not able to see. The first is the upper choir where we pray Vigils early each morning. It is above the main floor of the church, and hidden from public view by the altar piece shown in the second photo. So, visitors can hear the monks chanting Vigils, but cannot see them. This area has some beautiful woodwork, including the choir stalls and floor.

The last photo shows part of the ceiling fresco above the gated lower choir area where the monks pray Lauds, Vespers, Compline, and celebrate Mass. Much of the lower choir area—the location of the main altar—can be seen but not entered by visitors.

The church’s overall effect is make one feel surrounded by the multitudes of heaven rejoicing in the majesty God promises each of us. Earth is present, too, since numerous relics of the saints are kept throughout the church. They include the skull of St. Meinrad, kept inside the main altar--as St. Benedict says in the Rule, we are to keep death daily before our eyes.

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