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St Gallen’s treasure trove

St Gallen's old town is one of Switzerland's finest. swiss-image

St Gallen boasts one of the country's most impressive medieval centres. But it is the adjoining abbey that is listed as a Unesco world heritage site. Michael Hollingdale paid it a visit.

The twin towers of St Gallen’s baroque cathedral loom over the city’s medieval centre casting a benevolent shadow across the ancient buildings.

Fountains, statues, carved balconies and the town’s famous oriel windows vie for attention on the approach to the cathedral. It was constructed in 1755 and its interior is wonderfully ornate with breathtaking ceiling paintings, stucco embellishments and fabulous woodcarvings around the confessionals.

But as beautiful as the cathedral is, I had come to St Gallen to visit the adjoining abbey precinct that houses the collegiate library. The abbey has been listed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1983.

The history of the abbey goes back to the seventh century when an itinerant Irish monk called Gallus fell into a briar. He saw this as a sign from God and decided to stay and build a hermitage.

The Benedictine monastery was founded around 100 years later in 719 and grew into one of Europe’s most important medieval cultural and educational centres, reaching the peak of its influence in the ninth century.

Emperor Charlemagne favoured the Benedictines because they were a working order and could be used by the secular authorities for administrative and educational purposes.

The abbey library as it stands today dates only from 1760 but is home to many of the monastery’s original works.

As I step into the hall with the deputy librarian, Dr Cornel Dora, the interior literally takes my breath away.

“Yes, it’s still like an explosion of beauty to me as well, and I’ve been working here for seven years,” he says. “It’s one of the most wonderful libraries in the world.”

The library was constructed in a late baroque style after the abbey regained its earlier influence after the Reformation.

It’s dominated by wood – mostly walnut but also cherry-wood and maple and pine flooring. The graceful lines of the balustrades that overlook the main hall give one the impression of being inside a violin.

There are four huge paintings on the ceiling depicting the four Christian ecumenical councils. They are the work of the artist, Joseph Wannenmacher, and are a celebration of orthodoxy in a world going through the upheavals of the Enlightenment.

The shelves contain around 130,000 volumes and around 2,000 are from the early medieval period. The collection constitutes around 10 per cent of such manuscripts worldwide.

“The manuscripts were mainly produced in St Gallen,” says Dr Dora. “It’s an indigenous collection, perhaps the best in the world.”

The abbey also has an important collection of archives. “We have around 1,000 charters that are more than 1,000 years old,” Dr Dora informs me, adding that it is the most important collection north of the Alps.

The manuscripts housed in the library include the only surviving copy of the Benedictine rule book, a collection of ancient Irish texts, and a book of liturgy bound in carved ivory which is said to come from Charlemagne’s personal collection.

There are also old musical scripts, evidence that the abbey was an important centre for Gregorian chant and the famous psalter illustrated in gold ink.

“There’s a kind of industry involved in book-making,” explains Dr Dora. “The community had to produce parchment and needed cattle for that. They had to make ink and they had to bind the works. There were scholarly monks and then there were those who did the more simple work.”

The library also contains other exhibits. There’s an Egyptian mummy that dates from 650 BC and an architectural plan from 830 that predates similar drawings by around 300 years.

It shows plans for re-building and expanding the abbey as it became more and more successful.

“It’s a fascinating document,” says Dr Dora, “because it doesn’t just outline the buildings but also has very detailed inscriptions. For example, we know there were three breweries, two schools and a herb garden. We even know which herbs were to be planted.”

In the dormitories, it’s possible to count around 80 beds which corresponds with the number of monks who lived in the community at the time. They would have been supplemented by a host of farmers, servants and their families.

Dr Dora describes the abbey library as a baroque treasure box that holds more than 1,200 years of European history. Its importance is hard to overstate.

It was thriving when the rest of Europe entered the Dark Ages and lost much of its culture and learning, and it was this that was decisive in persuading UNESCO to make St Gallen’s abbey precinct and library a world heritage site almost 20 years ago.

“It is a great honour,” says Dr Dora as he ushers me out of the hall. “But also a big responsibility. St Gallen has to preserve the abbey to make it accessible to future generations.”

by Michael Hollingdale

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR