The Bishop under the Bell Jar – and the food!

In the Northern Libau port district of Karosta stands the stunningly beautiful Byzantine-style Cathedral of St Nicholas.

Lets move across to the Great Synagogue in Libau. During the German occupation of WWII, all Jewish males between 16-65 had to come every morning to the “Hauptwachplatz”, where they were escorted to work in various work stations, accompanied by beatings. Many did not return home at night. They were ordered to dismantle the Great Synagogue, the “Chor-Schul”, brick by brick, and to destroy the Torah scrolls.Here is a picture of the Great Synagogue of Libau. See my The Holocaust in Latvia.

 The contrast between the Great Synagogue of Libau and St Nicholas Cathedral is evident. Yet one does find synagogues that try to emulate the Russian Orthodox Church; for example, the very Byzantine-looking synagogue below. It’s not in Latvia, or anywhere in the Russian Empire, or anywhere in Europe. It’s in Pretoria, South Africa.

The Pretoria Synagogue became the new Supreme Court and was used for security-related cases such as the treason trial in 1962 of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and 26 others . The inquest into the death of Steve Biko was also held in the Old Synagogue. Who is that figure at the entrance staring at me. Prominent forehead, deep set eyes and whimsical little smile. St Nicholas! (See The Holocaust in Latvia). Perception is seeing, while imagination is seeing things, so if I was seeing St Nicholas in the doorway of a synagogue, then, no matter how much the synagogue looked like a Russian Orthodox cathedral, I was, of course, not really seeing but seeing things. Seeing is where cognition and reality meet. So if my eye picked up an image of something I merely imagined what was out there (reality), this would not be a perception but a deception; I’d be out of my cognition (mind). I leave St Nicholas staring after me from the doorway of the Great Synagogue in Pretoria, South Africa and fly off to Vienna. It is the summer of 1997. I was on a conference trip to Hungary, Russia, Bulgaria and where I presented papers on language and cognition. As I was using Austrian Airlines, and had a few days break between presentations, I stopped over in Vienna on several occasions, spending a few days there each time. On one of these Viennese interludes I wanted to see one of Mozart’s operas. It was, alas, 10 times more expensive than a train ticket to Mondsee and a CD of the “Sound of Music,” so the next morning, Sunday, I took the train to Mondsee to visit the “Sound of Music”cathedral in which Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews got married. The town is located next to a large lake, hence the name Mondsee (“(Mond)see,” which is pronounced zee, is German for “sea,” see?).

The Cathedral, as is a cathedral’s wont, dominates the town. I walked through the elegant streets and arrived at the Cathedral of St Michael.

It was about 10.30. On the right summery side of the cathedral a small market was in full swing. And the food!; tables festooned with a great variety of cheeses, wines, smoked meats, wursts, poultry and fresh whole grain and rye breads. Sellers and buyers, ruddy in cheek and portly in carriage were quaffing and shnapssing at full throatle. I was not, however, in Mondsee to indulge the flesh, but on a spiritual mission. I was not going to go all the way to Mondsee merely to mingle with Österreichers in feather caps, worshipping outside at the altar of plenty, but to stand before the altar inside the Cathedral to visualise the poignant moment when Christopher Plummer whispered to Julie Andrews “I do.” Here is a picture of the interior of the Cathedral.

When I entered the cathedral, there were only about three or four people kneeling or sitting. Mass must have finished earlier. For some reason, I didn’t walk immediately to the altar at the front but sat down for a while in one of the back pews, as in the picture, but when I was there the interior church was much darker. I don’t recall what I was thinking at that moment. I might have been reminiscing (with nostalgia, a Catholic will tell me) about my former Catholic days; or about the delicious spread outside. I moved forward about five rows from the front to get a good view of the massive baroque altar piece above the tabernacle and the stained glass windows on either side.

I shift my gaze to the golden tabernacle (in which the Eucharist is stored), on either side of which stand the four candlesticks. My eyes move upwards to what looks like a glass cage in the shape of a bell jar. There seated was a robed statue, mitre on its head holding a Bishop’s crook in its left hand. 

If you have better eyesight than I, you may be able to make out the crook in the statue’s left hand. I can’t find a clearer picture on the web. I move right to the front. There’s the face, but I can’t make out the features. That’s because the “face” was a skull. I found out later that the skeleton in the cage was Abbot Conrad II, who was abbot of Mondsee, and later Bishop, from 1127 until the year he was murdered ( 1145) by a group of jealous nobles. He was venerated as a martyr and, therefore, declared Blessed; one level below “Saint.”

Here is a clear picture of St Konrad (sent to me by kind Thomas Ebner; see his comment below):

Thomas also sent me the following information from the trustees of the basilica:

“… In a raised position in the centre, it contains the bones of the blessed abbot Konrad II., whose skeleton was formed into a seated figure in Passau in 1732. At the sides there are the reclining skeletons of four catacomb saints: below the female martyrs Acatemera and Praejectitia, whose names are even attested by tomb inscriptions (1731) and above them the martyrs Liberatus and Castus (1736)…” quoted from the Mondsee Basilica St. Michael official guide

What is this gnawing feeling buffeting at my bowels; bouffe, bouffe, bouffe (Bouffer is French slang for “eating,” “wolfing down”). I could eat a w…. I leave the church and return to the buffet. A man in leather breeches is holding out his foot-long wurst. He mumbles. (My Austrian Cherman is not as good as my German Cherman): “Fumpf schilling ein fuss” – Five bob, no fuss?

I’m starving, but besides the fact that I would never spend five Austrian bob on a foot of anything, I just can’t eat anything – now; well, perhaps I could chew on a bone.

I leave the man swinging his wares, say goodbye to the Cathedral, vacate the square, and wander in the direction of the pier. I need to get away to the “zee” (spelled “see”). I wait for the next boat. There are only three of us on this trip. The young couple are gasping and tittering; from ill-concealed amusement or nervous embarassment, I’ll never know.

There are two levels on the boat; the lower deck is enclosed and the upper deck is open to the sky. The giggly couple go upstairs, and I choose to remain on the lower deck. After the trip I was cross with myself for not sitting atop, where I would have had a much better view. But then, as always, I was more interested in concepts than percepts – I see clearer with my mind’s eye. Someone who did have a better view was the Buddha, not on a boat, but atop another Catholic altar.

The skeleton atop the altar reminds me of Pope John Paul II’s multi-faith service in Assisi, Italy.

In October, 1986, Pope John Paul II convened and led a multi-faith service at Assisi. leaders of non-Christian religions participated and publicly prayed to their gods. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, and Zoroastrians participated in this service. So did an Orthodox patriarch and some Protestant leaders. The video “Catholicism: Crisis of Faith” has film footage of this service. You can see and hear the Dalai Lama chanting, African shamans calling on their gods, and Muslims chanting from the Koran.

The altar that was used for the service had a statue of Buddha on top of the Tabernacle (an ornate container for consecrated bread). Catholics believe that consecrated bread is literally the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Putting a statue of Buddha on top of the Tabernacle is, in effect, elevating Buddha above Jesus Christ. Here is the picture of the Buddha on the altar.

But I must to return to Mondsee cathedral and the food. Outside, the market tables are dressed with good things. The people are ruddy-cheeked, plump, urbane. Money and choice viands change hands. The sellers are doing well. Inside, sits the majestic robed skeleton of Bishop Konrad on his throne waiting, perhaps, – together with St Nicholas of Karosta and the rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Pretoria – for that great day when they will be reinvested with flesh.