How This Fresco-Filled Abbey in Austria Came to Be

Alexxa Gotthardt
Dec 18, 2017 8:02PM
Candida Höfer
Benediktinerstift Altenburg IV 2014, 2014
Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle

Crypts—those subterranean vaults that house the dead—aren’t often associated with bright, stunningly beautiful art. But travel to Altenburg Abbey, a centuries-old monastery perched in the tiny Austrian hamlet of Altenburg, and you’ll find one of the world’s finest Baroque frescoes in its underground burial chambers.

Step down into the abbey’s underbelly and you’ll be surrounded by walls blanketed with exuberant arabesques and lively patterns of pastel-hued seashells. From afar, it resembles the kind of joyous confection that might have covered one of Marie-Antoinette’s decadent chambers. But a closer look reveals the complexity of the massive wall painting. In between its curlicues and charming bits of sea life are elaborate images depicting death. On one wall, an agile skeleton with a tuft of stringy hair and an arrow takes aim at cherubs. Two that he’s targeted already lay behind him. Elsewhere, death is depicted as the mythical figures Mercury (Roman god of commerce and financial success) and Neptune (Roman god of the sea).

This fabulously detailed, inventive fresco is the work of 18th-century Austrian artist Paul Troger, whose paintings decorate many of Altenburg Abbey’s lofty rooms. Together, these works comprise his most ambitious project.

Candida Höfer
Benediktinerstift Altenburg VI 2014
Rena Bransten Gallery

Troger was born in Welsberg, a small town on the border of Austria and Italy, in 1698. By 1722, it’s said that he had made his way to Rome to study ancient art and Baroque fresco painting, and from there took a grand tour around the country, to visit well-known Italian artists and artworks. In Naples, he was influenced by Francesco Solimena’s deft use of Chiaroscuro; in Bologna and Venice, he drew from the rich palettes and expressive styles of Giuseppe Maria Crespi and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, respectively.

It was these hallmarks of Baroque painting that Troger brought back to his native Austria in 1725. He set up a successful studio in Vienna, where he and a number of assistants fielded commissions—perhaps the most spectacular being his Altenburg Abbey project, which he embarked on in the early 1730s.  

The abbey itself was founded in 1144 as a home for Benedictine monks, but a 1645 invasion by the Swedes left it in need of repair. It wasn’t until the 1730s, however, that the enterprising abbot Placidus Much decided to give the building an extravagant makeover, enlisting the popular architect and builder Joseph Munggenast to redesign elements of the interiors, and Troger, among others, to swathe them with his kaleidoscopic frescoes, which remain intact today.  

Candida Höfer
Benediktinerstift Altenburg III 2014, 2014
Ben Brown Fine Arts

Troger first tackled the abbey’s church, covering its vaulted ceilings, domes, and altars with dramatic biblical scenes. The crown jewel is the ornate fresco that fills the room’s main cupola. Across its broad surface, God rumbles with various forces of evil; he and an army of archangels launch arrows and lightning at an angry throng of devils, a many-headed monster, and even a fire-breathing dragon.

The striking library also boasts a series of Troger’s masterpieces, nestled between the room’s spectacular blue Corinthian columns and deep red marble cornices. Troger’s painted domes depict characters like Divine Wisdom, and biblical moments like Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba. The room is often touted as one of the globe’s most impressive libraries.

Troger is at his most creative, however, when he strays from religious scenes. Similar to the crypt fresco, his work in the abbey’s sala terrena (or “earth room”) is delightfully fantastical. On one wall, a jaunty man is perched under a parasol within a lush jungle of plant life. Above him, a flock of eccentrically clad ladies and gentleman fly around the periwinkle sky on large, beautiful birds. While this isn’t heaven, in the biblical sense, it’s certainly paradise. Troger excelled a this type of dreamy composition: frescoes that surrounded viewers in an aura of drama and buoyancy that have inspired wonder for centuries.

Alexxa Gotthardt
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019