How an Irish Monk Sanctified the Swiss Alps

I’d never heard of St. Gallus until my last trip to Switzerland. While there, I discovered — and developed a healthy respect for — this humble Irish monk through whom God did great things.

At the request of St. Columban, the great missionary to continental Europe, Gallus (also known as Gall and Gallen) journeyed in 612 to a wilderness between Lake Constance and the Alps to build a hermitage near the mouth of the Steinach River.

To accomplish this, he had to thrash his way through thick underbrush inhabited by wild boar and wolves. As if that wasn’t bad enough, St. Gallus actually came face-to-face with a bear — which, according to legend, he not only tamed but commanded to fetch firewood.

What he couldn’t foresee was that a monastery would be established in 719 on the site of his humble hermitage. From 747 on, the monastery followed the Rule of St. Benedict. The city of St. Gallen also sprang up. The monastery quickly became a major center of medieval art, learning, and political and religious power.

This Christian community had to face many challenges over the years. Its golden age was from the ninth to the 11th century, and again in the late Middle Ages and Baroque period (late 17th and early 18th century). The most serious threat came in 1534 when the mayor led the town to support the Protestant Reformation. The monks left for three years, then came back during the Counter Reformation.

A look at the history of the city-states there reveals an “uneasy coexistence” between the powerful royal abbey and the reformed republic and free city of St. Gallen. The beautiful abbey church, with its magnificent choir stall, was built in the 1760s. Sadly, it became a casualty of the French Revolution when French soldiers camping inside lit fires to keep warm.

In 1805, monastic possessions were removed from the walls. It was only in 1960 that work began on the cathedral’s restoration, requiring 12 artists working four years to scrape off the ceiling.

Yet the abbey has endured in one way or another despite all these attacks. Today the abbey complex in St. Gallen is a World Cultural Heritage Site of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, so honored for its contribution to the culture and civilization of Western Europe. It’s well known throughout Europe for its cathedral and around the world for its magnificent library.

Theological Décor

My tour began with the cathedral (the St. Gallen Abbey Church), one of the most splendid late Baroque churches in the Lake Constance area. Its double towers are 68 meters high. The interior stucco is painted a light green, a unique feature of the Lake Constance area.

Ten relief works on the back wall depict scenes from the life of St. Benedict. The nave is breathtaking: opulently painted, adorned with stucco work and with interior furnishings rich with woodcarving. Marvelously executed paintings on the domed ceiling depict Paradise and the Eight Beatitudes. As the guide explained, the decor “is the manifestation of an exceptional school of theological thought — no illustration, no item of stucco, no woodcarving is random or coincidental.”

Two other noteworthy items are a bell, which is claimed to be the one St. Gallus brought from Ireland, and one of the crypts: It contains the tomb of St. Gallus.

A long glass corridor, looking out onto a schoolyard where uniformed cathedral schoolboys play at recess, connects the church to the next section.

After climbing several stairs, you reach a world of books and beauty — the crown jewel of the abbey complex, its library.

St. Gallen Library’s 34 windows cast a soft light on the burnished wooden floors and finishing, creating a warm and inviting ambience. I was given slippers to put over my shoes because the floor here, made from dark hard walnut and cherry alternating with light soft fir, is quite delicate.

The main room is a blend of baroque walnut walls and rococo furnishings and decoration. The ceiling paintings represent groups from the first four Ecumenical Councils — Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon. Also represented are four Eastern and four Western Church Fathers, Benedictine luminaries and other saints.

Along the wall, great shelves hold volumes of every shape and size. Affixed to each window is a ledge that conveniently converts to a desk when unfolded. Upstairs is a balcony housing thousands more books.

Colossal Collection

The library collection is enormous; more than 150,000 illustrated manuscripts, incunabula and printed books dating from before 800 A.D. are kept here.

Several display cases exhibit precious manuscripts and books. The pages in those exhibit items are turned every day to ensure even light exposure. Among the treasures are the oldest existing copy of the Rule of St. Benedict (the original was stolen), 14 copies of the Book of Kells and the entire Latin Vulgate Bible written with corrections by Alcuin in 801 at the command of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne.

The latter is made entirely of sheep-hide parchment. (It requires two sheep to make up every page, so this 660-page Bible represents 1,320 dead sheep.) It took seven monks to transcribe Alcuin’s translation. Another 890 manuscript shows Gallus having a chat with that famous bear.

The amazing thing about this library is that it is not a museum. Its volumes are meant to be read by the public. No one has to wear gloves when handling any books on the open shelves.

With its rich store of indigenous and illuminated scripts, its liturgical, Biblical and theological treasures, and its specialized medieval collection, St. Gallen Library is a priceless and peerless treasure.

More importantly, its mission is to offer nourishment for the mind and soul by making available to the world the storehouse of history contained in its faithfully preserved collection, which is added to constantly. And a key driver behind this history, of course, is the Gospel.

Europe may have turned cool to the divine aspect of its own heritage, but, it can never deny it, thanks in part to St. Gallen Library.

There’s a Greek inscription over the entrance hall door. It translates: “

Healing Place
for the Soul.” How happy St. Gallus must be to see that the seed of his tiny hermitage grew into such an immense plant that continues to bear Gospel fruit.

Lorraine Williams writes from

Markham, Ontario.

Planning Your Visit

The cathedral is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The library is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on the abbey cathedral, library or complex, call +41 (0)71 / 227 37 19, e-mail [email protected] or visit on the Internet.

Getting There

St. Gallen-Altenrhein Airport is on Lake Constance, which borders Austria, Switzerland and Germany. It’s not far from Zurich. For more information, call the St. Gallen-Lake Constance tourist bureau at +41 (0)71 / 227 37 37 or e-mail [email protected].