How an Irish Monk Sanctified the Swiss Alps
I’d never heard of
St. Gallus until my last trip to
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
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
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
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
My tour began with the cathedral
(the St. Gallen Abbey Church), one of the most
splendid late Baroque churches in the
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
Two other noteworthy items are a
bell, which is claimed to be the one St. Gallus brought from
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,
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.
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.
There’s a Greek inscription over
the entrance hall door. It translates: “
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 st.gallen-bodensee.ch on the Internet.
Airport is on
- April 2-8, 2006