Crown Prince Rudolf Island and the Convent Mayerling

Остров Рудольфа (Russian), Prince Rudolf Land or Rudolf Island is the northernmost island of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago, Arkhangelsk Oblast, Russia. The island was named by the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition (1872-1874) in honor of Archduke Rudolf (1858–1889), Crown Prince of Austria, Hungary and Bohemia, son of Emperor Franz Josef I, eponym of 'Franz Josef Land', and his wife Empress Elisabeth.

Poor Rudolf was a desperate soul who shot himself and his beloved Mary Vetsera (17 years) at his hunting palace in Mayerling, Austria, in 1889 at the age of 31. Although Rudolf became very interested in natural sciences (starting a mineral collection at a very early age) I'm not sure how much he knew about "his" island at 82° northern latitude (81.767222° N 58.56° E), right at the limit of permanent polar pack ice - definitely the most distant place in Eurasia.

I was able to visit Rudolf Island in 2012 and wondered whether this knowledge would have helped Rudolf in his mental isolation or made it even worse as it is almost completely glaciated. Read about the expedition to the very end of the world in my fine art photo book FROZEN LATITUDES and visit the book's website.

When the explorers of Franz Josef Land, Carl Weyprecht and Julius Payer, returned from their expedition after three extremely harsh years they were invited on 29th Sept.1874 for an audience with Crown Prince Rudolf at the royal palace of Schönbrunn, Vienna. It lasted from 13:00 to 14:15 - so Rudolf must have had some understanding about the nature of his remote "Rudolph Island" ...

Rudolf Island

Rudolf Island's highest point is 461 m, being the top of an undulating ice cap. It is the northern most island of Russia's "Franz Josef Land" archipelago. Since its discovery in 1873 by the Austrian-Hungarian North Pole expedition, the island has served as a staging area for numerous polar expeditions. Actually it turned out to host some of the most remarkable attempts to reach the North Pole. Here happened also the historic meeting between Frederick Jackson (English polar explorer) and Fridtjof Nansen (Norwegian polar scientist). Jackson had established a polar base between 1894 - 1896 at Cape Flora whilst Nansen was drifting for three years in his specially ice strengthened polar vessel "Fram" across the Arctic Ocean from East to West doing most significant scientific research and attempting to "drift over the North Pole". When he realized that the slow drift would not allow them to reach the Pole, he left the ship with his companion Johansen walking over the frozen Ocean with dog sleds and kayaks to reach out for the Pole. Due to harsh conditions and the ever moving ice they had to give up a bit higher than 86° North longing for the known shores of the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard at 80° North. But summer approached and progress due to open water leads was too slow. One day they sighted land on the southern horizon and assumed it could be Franz Josef Land which was only discovered about 20 years ago with poor knowledge about its extent. Staying over winter on Jackson Island (named after their rescuer Frederik Jackson) in an earth shelter in permanent darkness and with temperatures never exceeding -20°C they pushed further south the next Spring. After the Norwegians had heard some dog barking close to Cape Flora, one of Jackson's men spotted a single person out on the ice. Jackson approached the stranger and only slowly, he started realizing who that filthy, long haired and tall person could be: "You must be Nansen!". This event is considered as remarkable and unpredictable as Stanley's search for Livingston in deep Africa.

During the second International Polar Year (1932-33), a weather station established on Rudolf Island was the northernmost scientific outpost in the world. Sheltered at Teplitz Bay it has been used as a stopping point for northbound ships. During 1899–1900, an expedition led by Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi stopped in the area. The Ziegler Polar Expedition of 1903–1905, led by Anthony Fiala left a large hut here. It served as a staging area for the world's first manned drift ice station, North Pole-1 (Russian: Северный полюс-1), primarily used for research, lead by Ivan Papanin and Otto Schmidt. "NP-1" operated for 9 months, during which the ice floe travelled 2,850 kilometres. On February 19, 1938 the Soviet ice breakers Taimyr and Murman took four polar explorers off the station close to the eastern coast of Greenland. They arrived in Leningrad on March 15 on board the Icebreaker Yermak.

Just in a few places, some capes and plateau edges peek out of the ice: Cape Fligely in the Northeast, juts out of the enormous ice cape as a big piece of solid basaltic rock and is considered the northernmost point of Eurasia. Even the longest ice free stretch of coastline from Teplitz Bay via Cape Säulen to Cape Germania is just a few kilometres long and maximally about 1.5 km wide. In this area, also the former weather and radio station was erected on the ice free plateau above Teplitz Bay.

The few ice free zones show only a very sparse vegetation, with surfaces of mostly rock, scree, or also morass above the permafrost layer. Temperatures above 0°C are registered only during a few weeks per year. Wildlife is sparse on Rudolf Island. Polar bears are frequent visitors. There are not many birds breeding on this icy and remote island either - a few minor breeding colonies in some cliffs like southeast of Cape Fligely (mainly kittiwakes), fairly good chances for seeing a few ivory gulls and possibly a few snow buntings on the sparse tundra around the former station. A few other birds come over from neighbouring islands, too, for instance some auks.

The names on Rudolf Island were given by the explorers Julius Payer and Carl Weyprecht: "Tepltz" in Bohemia (today: Teplice, Czech Republic) was the birth town of Julius Payer himself. "Cape Säulen" is named after its column-shaped (pillar = germ.: Säule) basalt rock structures. Cape Fligely was named after August von Fligely, the contemporary Austrian cartographer.

The Convent Mayerling

Rudolf bought the hunting palace Mayerling in 1886 from the nearby Cistercian Cloister Heiligenkreuz which owned it since 1550. Stift Heiligenkreuz was founded in 1133 and since then continuously inhabited by monks (85 in 2014) also running the Roman Catholic "Philosophisch- Theologische Hochschule Benedikt XVI. Heiligenkreuz" with a rapidly growing number of students (275 in 2015).

In the night of 30th January 1889 Rudolf died with his beloved Mary Vetsera. The true reasons for their death remains unexplained as the Viennese court destroyed the key documents and obliged witnesses like the court's keeper Johann Loschek to observed secrecy. According to current research, Rudolf first shot Mary and than himself with a shot into his head. Only the discovery in 2015 of Mary's original suicide notes at the Austrian Schoellerbank provided confidence about the double suicide story. Rudolf's father, Franz Josef I, converted Mayerling immediately after his suicide into a Carmelitess convent to heal their souls through an infinite stream of prayers.

I live close to Mayerling and visited it in Spring as well as Winter when snow was falling heavily and a cold breeze blew the snow through the cracks of the hunting Pavilion with its Austrian style X-mas tree. At that time the coldness around Mayerling was not too different from Rudolf's ice covered island close to the North Pole. The Carmelitess Nuns had to clean the pathways with snow shovels and ice flowers were growing inside on the windows. Nevertheless, see how different Mayerling and Rudolf Island are and how these differences can serve as allegory for the mental disorder and isolation of poor Rudolf.

Ice representing Rudolf's desperation caused by the expectations of a Royal Society under big pressure.

Green representing Rudolf's wish for a Christian life in abundance.

Mayerling interlocked with Rudolf Island

Take a look at the collection of pictures from Mayerling and Rudolf Island. I have tightly interlocked them to represent the differences of places and mentalities and found that this just augments the charm that lies in pristine Arctic landscapes.