The Abbey Library is Switzerland’s most magnificent Rococo building, it’s Switzerland’s oldest library and one of those few places in the world that will absolutely take your breath away. It’s a beautiful library with amazingly old books and it is one of the oldest and most beautiful in the world. Today the library at St.Gallen is still considered nearly unrivaled in its beauty. Revel in one of the most stunning libraries ever.
It’ll take you 5 minutes to physically look at the entire library, 30 minutes if you go around reading everything and maybe an hour if you spend time reflecting on the library’s contribution to history. The library consists of two floors, with a balcony running around the upper level (not open to the public). Due to it being illuminated by the light of thirty-four windows, even a rainy day does not diminish the beauty of the library. However, it’s only one room. Unless you are a history buff, it won’t take long to visit – that’s why I want to give you some more short and interesting Information about. By the way: It took me a loooooong time until I had all the information. I hope you like my choice!
A little bit history
The Abbey Library was founded in 719. It is one of the oldest and richest libraries in the world, boasting intensely decorated walls, floors and ceilings, unique early medieval writings, breathtaking handwritten books filled with beautiful calligraphy and accompanied by the stunning Baroque Cathedral. This library was the scriptorium where Benedictine monks slaved over illuminated manuscripts. And in addition to all that historical weight, the library building is absolutely magnificent. It is considered one of the most significant architectural creations of the European Rococo. The Hungarian invasion of 926 and the conflagration of 937 brought severe setbacks to the monastery, without, directly affecting the book collection. Before the invasion of Hungary, thanks to the foresighted advice of the nunnery Wiborada, the monks had brought the library to safety on the island of Reichenau. Wiborada remained in the church (St.Mangen) for her vow and was killed by invaders. She was the first woman in church history to be officially sanctified by the pope. She is considered a patron of the libraries and book lovers. The monastery fire of 937 and the two dying city fires of 1314 and 1418 survived the books unscathed. That the abbey library did not perish in the iconoclasm of 1529 is due to the mayor and reformer of the city: Vadian (Joachim von Watt). In numerous manuscripts of the Abbey Library there are still comments and explanations of Vadians hand. From 1633, the monastery maintained its own printing machines! The Abbey of Saint Gall was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 as a perfect example of the Carolingian monastery.
Cuddly Flippers, Floor
There are large cuddly slippers to wear over the shoes so as to protect the beautiful wooden floor. The floor made of fir wood is unique and particularly beautiful, in which four large stars and some other decoration elements made of walnut wood are embedded.
The framing of the entrance door is dated around 1781 and attributed to the sculptor Franz Anton Dirr. Above the entrance door to the library, you can see cherubs holding a sign in Greek that says «psyché iatreio» which translates to «Sanctuary of the soul» or «soul pharmacy». Just to be there, standing in front of something written more than a thousand years ago is humbling. The smell, the lighting, the woody floor, shelves, railings – it is a place to heal your soul.
Books & Manuscripts
The collection currently encompasses 2100 manuscripts, 1650 incunabula (prints up to 1500), early prints (printed 1501 to 1520) and around 170’000 printed books. Included there is the earliest-known architectural plan of the Cathedral drawn on parchment. It’s one of the most significant educational institutions of the middle ages. Many of its volumes were brought by Irish monks to the monastery. Samples of priceless medieval manuscripts are on display, with some over a thousand years old. Have you seen the animated film «The Secret Of Kells»? Well also Colm Cille or Saint Columba’s book is there along with a drawing of him done at the time. There is also a manuscript of the first Lord’s Prayer written in old high German. Also a version of «The rule of St.Benedict», which set out the rules for medieval monks and «Manuscript B» of the epic poem «The Song of the Nibelungs» (Nibelungenlied). Like many rare book and manuscript libraries, they are in the process of digitizing all of their documents, which you can browse on cesg.unifr.ch or e-codices.ch. The aim of e-codices is to make all medieval and a selection of modern manuscripts in Switzerland freely accessible through a virtual library.
Shepenese the mummy
In addition, you will see the fascinating 2700 year old Egyptian mummy Shepenese. She was retrieved from the hiding place in the «Hathorkapelle» of the Deir el-Bahri Temple Complex (by the way one of the most beautiful temples in Egypt). Shepenese was a daughter of a priest. She came to St.Gallen’s Abbey Library in 1820 along with her two wooden sarcophagi. By doing so, they unified the products of the most important morning- and occidental cultures under one roof. Shepenese lived at the beginning of the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BC) and was around over thirty years old.
Terrestrial and Celestial Globe
The unique earth and celestial globe dating back to the second half of the sixteenth century (but this one is only a copy). It is 121 centimeters in diameter and more than 2.33 meters high. The globe shows both: the earth and the stars in the night sky. The big globe is still incomplete since some countries are not yet discovered. It comes from northern Germany and was built by globemaker Tilemann Stella (1525–1589). Click here if you want to know more about the globe.
In small niches over the poles of the window buoys are twenty putti from 31 to 34 centimeters high. They embody twenty professions: Poet, Doctor, Botanist, Carpenter, Pharmacist, Bell Giant, Gun Caster, Goldsmith, Flutist, Singer, Painter, Gardener, Composer, Businessman, Sculptor, Geographer, Architect, Astronomer, Mathematician and Organ Builder.
Stucco, Ceiling, Paintings
Admire the curving balconies and look up to examine exquisite frescoes, which portray the earliest church councils. The gilded chamber is adorned with celestial murals and stuccoed cherubs. The stucco is a work of the brothers Johann Georg and Matthias Gigl and was created by them in 1761. Most of it is simple, only two roosters are visible and are interpreted as a «company name» (Gigl means in old german cock). The ceiling painting was created 1762 by painter Josef Wannenmacher. The paintings over the doors on each side show each the two builders C. Gugger von Staudach and Beda Angehrn. A copy of a painting depicts the body of Jesus in the tomb. As a counterpart, a picture of Cäcilia hangs above the northern gallery door. Cäcilia was an early Christian martyr who found death by the sword.
Cabinet of curiosities/Manuscript Cabinet (Coin Collection)
Through the southern door you could reach the manuscript cabinet via a staircase (not open to the public). The diversity of the world should be reflected in a collection and so many rarities came together in the monastery. Coins, medals, mounds, fossils, shells, and more. Joseph von Rudolphi (1717–1740) was the founder and sponsor of the still existing Coin Collection. Those is in contrast to the other pieces still preserved in the Abbey Library.
Public Library, Reading Room
There is also a public lending library, owning over 170000 books and other media. While books printed after 1900 can be borrowed, all other books prior to this date can only be viewed in the Reading Room, which has wifi and a computer for finding information in the St. Gall library catalog. Get a glimpse of the library’s extensive anthology of manuscripts in the Reading Room. Scholars use these to study monastic life at the abbey from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century. Major artifacts include the abbey’s 8th-century property deed and an architectural plan of the original abbey. There are works by poets such as Ratpert and Tuotilo too.
The audio guide allows you to explore the premises, the cathedral and the abbey library on your own. It is worth it to get the full story about this amazing place. Pause for a quiet moment and let this majestic World Heritage site work its magic.
No photos allowed
Taking photographs is strictly forbidden – even without flash. There is a selfie spot at the entrance door which you could use.
Where to find?
The photos show the beauty of this library, but cannot prepare you for the sense of «wow» you feel upon your first step inside.
You want to know more?
If you want to know more you could buy some books in the shop, where you buy your ticket or see their website (stiftsbezirk.ch)
Join the conversation!
Did you liked it? Have you ever been here?