Monday, August 14, 2006

Miraculous images: Mariazell

The Austrian shrine Mariazell is the most famous place of pilgrimage of Central Europe.

The story of Mariazell begins in 1157, when the Benedictine monk Magnus was sent to the area by his abbot to work as a spiritual caretaker. Magnus took a statue of the Virgin and Child with him. On the evening of December 21, he had to stop at a certain point because the forest was to thick. The legend holds that he prayed to the Virgin for help and soon after that the bush and the rocks opened up to make way for him. A little further down he stopped and set up his abode, in a beautiful green valley. He placed his statue on a white branch of a tree. Sometime later, when Magnus had become the priest of many hunters and shepherds from the area, he built a little chapel around the linden tree with the statue of the Virgin Mary. Soon miracles occurred at the site and pilgrims flocked to it in great numbers. The small wooden chapel became known as the 'Cella Mariae' and gave its name to the place: Mariazell.

The late Romanesque figure of the Virgin that is venerated in Mariazell is 48 centimetres high and carved out of linden wood. The Virgin is seated with the Child Jesus on her right knee. With her left hand, in which she holds an apple, she points to her Son, who also holds an apple. The gaze of Mary is directed upon the onlooker. Written records of pilgrimages dating back to the fifteenth century mention that at certain times people saw the statue's face, eyes and lips moving as if it were alive.

The first church of Mariazell was Romanesque and built in about 1200 by Duke Henry of Mahren, after he and his wife were miraculously healed at the site. In 1340 it was replaced by a large Gothic church, built by King Louis I of Hungary. The building underwent a third transformation between 1644 and 1704, when a magnificent Baroque church was constructed. It was designed by the architect Domenico Sciassia. The new church had no less than fourteen side chapels. It is now regarded as one of Austria's most outstanding religious buildings. The church's characteristic fa├žade is dominated by three towers: the middle one is a remainder of the Gothic church, whereas the two outer ones are Baroque. The church also has an oval shaped dome. In 1907 the church became a Basilica Minor. Since then it is known as the Basilica and Church of Grace of Mary's Nativity.

The Baroque interior of the church is very richly decorated. Much of the decoration was done the famous Johan Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. He also designed the main altar, which is dedicated to the Holy Cross. The miraculous statue of Our Lady of Mariazell stands on a silver altar in the Chapel of Grace, in the centre of the church. The statue is usually dressed in a wide expanded mantle. The chapel marks the spot were the hermit Magnus built the first shrine of Mariazell. In front of the chapel stand two large silver angels from 1794.

The history of Mariazell as a national shrine is very much connected to Austria's history as a nation. At the end of the thirteenth century, when Vienna became the capital of the Habsburg Empire, Mariazell became the favourite shrine of the dynasty and nobility.

Many gifts and votive offerings have been presented to the miraculous Virgin of Mariazell. In 1364, King Louis of Hungary offered a valuable image of the Virgin and Child to the shrine. Miraculous powers were also attributed to this picture, which is still kept in the treasury. It is especially venerated by Hungarian pilgrims. During the reign of emperor Leopold I (1640-1705) Mariazell became the national shrine of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Since that time, Our Lady of Mariazell is known as 'Magna Mater Austriae' (Great Mother of Austria) and 'Magna Domina Hongarorum' (Great Lady of Hungary).

Mariazell has remained Central Europe's major place of pilgrimage till today. Annually, the town is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Austria, Hungary, Croatia and other countries in the region. For many centuries now, the small town's economy flourishes owing to the constant stream of pilgrims. There are many hostels, guest-houses, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.

We leave Mariazell with a song that pilgrims would sing before their departure from the shrine:

'O Mary, you are my life,
My heart breaks inside me
For I must leave you now
And separate myself from your presence'.

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