Saturday, July 24, 2010

St. Gall

A week ago I took a daytrip to St. Gall, about two hours northeast of Einsielden by train. In this town is one of the oldest and most important former Benedictine abbeys in the Western world. Centuries ago, the abbey library of St. Gall established itself as a leading center of learning and research, and today it remains not only a beautiful museum but also a professional library attracting scholars for the study of manuscripts, medieval history, and monasticism.

The Irish monk Gallus built a hermitage on the site in 612. He was revered as a saint, and several decades after his death, in 719, the monk Otmar established an abbey where Gallus’ hermitage stood (more than 200 years before Einsiedeln was founded), and he later imposed the Rule of St. Benedict. As the centuries unfolded and the monastery grew, it became an extremely influential cultural center in the West.

Political maneuvering in the wake of the French Revolution led to the dissolution of the Abbey of St. Gall in 1805. Since then, the Canton of St. Gall has overseen its care, and since 1824 the former abbey church has been the bishop’s cathedral in the canton.

Although there have been no monks living at St. Gall for the last 200 years, the abbey’s more than 1,000-year-old existence has left a considerable imprint on Western Europe. Anyone who is at least slightly interested in monastic life, medieval history, Baroque architecture, ancient library collections, or the scholarly study of manuscripts should visit St. Gall if given the opportunity. It is a major tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The library alone is worth visiting (admission is 10 Swiss francs), and I found myself spending a good deal of time there. Built in the 18th Century in Baroque style, it features exquisite woodwork, including the inlaid floor. Before entering, visitors must slip gigantic grey slippers over their shoes before padding around to look at the exhibits. I successfully resisted the urge to get a running start and then slide halfway across the floor in my slippers—but just barely.

The library holds some fascinating, beautiful, and rare and important pieces—2,100 manuscripts, 1,650 incunabula, and 170,000 books. About 400 manuscripts are more than 1,000 years old—many of them produced at St. Gall in the 9th and 10th centuries—and have survived centuries of fire, war, revolution, and the Reformation relatively intact. Just a few samples of the superb calligraphy and colorful illuminated manuscripts could hold your attention for hours. The collection includes biblical and liturgical studies, musical and literary history, Old High German language, and the history of law and medicine. Many of them were transcribed or illustrated by monks at St. Gall, and are great works of art in their own right.

Among the library’s rare treasures are pages from a volume by the ancient Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro written in either the late 4th century or early 5th century, fragments of St. Jerome’s Vulgate manuscript of the Gospels dating to the early 5th century, early medieval Irish manuscripts, a number of colorful illuminated psalters from the 9th-Century featuring gold and silver lettering, and the Cantatorium, the oldest wholly preserved music manuscript in the world, from the 10th Century.

Two items, however, are of particular interest to any Benedictine monk. First, the library houses the most important reproduction of the Rule of St. Benedict in the world, most likely produced at St. Gall in 820. It most closely resembles the original Rule, which has been lost. Second, there is the world famous Plan of St. Gall, drawn up by monks on the island of Reichenau around 820 for the abbot of St. Gall. Sketched in red ink on parchment, the document shows the layout for a proposed early medieval monastic community that draws on the principles of the Rule. It is a simple but very detailed outline showing the layout of a proposed monastic church, cloister, workshops, and various other buildings.

The plan was never fully carried out. The Abbey of St. Gall, which has undergone a number of transformations over the centuries, was originally constructed in the 9th Century, and bears little resemblance to the Plan of St. Gall. However, since it is the oldest preserved architectural design in the world, and has come to represent the ideal construction of a monastery according to the Rule of St. Benedict, it has drawn worldwide interest. During my novitiate year at Saint Meinrad, we spent some time studying and discussing the Plan of St. Gall, so it was a thrill to see it in person.

I have not said much about the church. I suppose the photos I have posted speak for themselves. The current construction is 18th-Century Baroque, and so bears some resemblance to the church at Einsiedeln. However, the church at Einsiedeln is bigger, is even more ornate, and, of course, has something St. Gall doesn’t—the Black Madonna and Lady Chapel. I am not a Baroque fan by any means, but on that measure, I prefer Einsiedeln.

As nice as the church may be, the library at St. Gall is the real attraction in my view. In addition to tourists, researchers from all over the world either come to the library or access it through a computer network. Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed, so I was not able to include pictures (the shot of the Plan of St. Gall at the top of the post is from a facsimile display in the museum’s Lapidarium, which also houses a collection of architectural sculpture from the Carolingian, Ottonian, Gothic, and early Baroque periods).

So, if you are interested in a long-distance peek at the St. Gall Abbey Library’s architecture or some of its precious holdings, log on to the library’s website: or

Better yet, visit in person if you can. It’s worth it.

I will post more later on the past week's trip to northern Switzerland and Germany, which included visits to the historic city of Stein am Rhein, the island of Reichenau, and the German monastery of Weingarten near Ravensburg. Tomorrow I am heading to the Swiss monastery of Engelberg (Mount Angel) for a few days. On the way back I plan to stop and see a little of the city of Lucerne, which I am told is the most beautiful city in Switzerland.

Unti then ... Peace.

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