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The Stiftsbibliothek (Abbey Library) in St. Gallen embodies a vibrant tribute to God through the world’s finest works of art. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the awe-inspiring ceiling, biblical frescoes, playful putti (cherub-like figures), magnificent globe, and shelves lined with 170,000 beautiful leather-bound books will captivate you. Stepping across the creaking wood floor, breathing in the scent of a thousand years of parchment, ink, patience, and piety, you will also fall silent. These are some of the world’s most priceless and ornate medieval manuscripts, only displayed for public viewings occasionally.

The library at St. Gallen served as the medieval equivalent of a heavenly rung on the ladder; it fueled one of the best Benedictine monasteries in Europe. The Stiftsbezirk (Abbey District) now centers around this magnificent area, designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. You should visit only this abbey in Switzerland during your journey.

1. Stiftsbibliothek Library History

St. Gallen, Switzerland

According to legend, an Irish monk initiated it all with a shrub, a bear, and St. Gallen. Saint Gall (Gallus), an itinerant monk and one of Saint Columbanus’s twelve companions, reportedly departed from Ireland for the continent around 612 AD. He interpreted tripping over a briar bush as a sign from above. Using the log, he began constructing the humble hermitage that would later become St. Gallen’s cathedral. A fortunate encounter with a bear led to him convincing the bear to bring him a log, accepting bread as compensation, and then leaving him alone.

St. Gall played a crucial role in establishing one of the most famous Benedictine abbeys in the world, founded by Abbot Otmar in 747 AD, regardless of whether you believe the story about the briar and the bear. St. Gallen city developed around the abbey and emerged as a prominent European ecclesiastical and intellectual center.

Throughout the Middle Ages, monks traveled great distances to come here for various reasons, such as praying, reading, studying scripture, and dedicating years to the solitary, laborious task of copying and illustrating manuscripts. Notker Balbulus and Ekkehart IV found inspiration in the library’s manuscripts, which fueled the work of painters and literary academics. The arts, sciences, and library science flourished in this environment. The collection grew to astonishing dimensions.

Over the years, attacks and flames have plagued the town. Still, the abbey has weathered them all, even the stormy periods of the Reformation. Renowned baroque architect Peter Thumb of Vorarlberg designed and constructed the new abbey in the mid-18th century. The construction occurred shortly before the abbey estates were secularized, and the monastery was dissolved in 1805. In 1983, Unesco designated the property, which includes the Stiftsbibliothek, as a World Heritage site. The old monastery church was transformed into a cathedral in 1848.

2. Stiftsbibliothek Library: Architectural Style

St. Gallen Library, Switzerland

Peter Thumb of Vorarlberg mastered the flamboyant rococo style, refusing to settle for mediocrity. Just before he died in 1767, he completed his library, a mesmerizing wonderland of curving stucco and paintings depicting the early church councils. His final gift to the world was his ultimate masterpiece. The chubby putti, resembling cherubs, embody various roles like poet, doctor, botanist, carpenter, musician, painter, astronomer, and architect as they fill the window niches.

An elegant balcony unfolds on the top floor, allowing light to filter through 34 windows and create a painterly glow even on cloudy days. They meticulously sourced the materials, expertly carving magnificent walnut and cherry wood into bookcases and shelves. In Greek, “Psyché iatreio” translates to “sanctuary of the soul” or “soul pharmacy,” with two gilded cherubs holding a sign displaying the name above the entrance.

3. Artifacts from the Stiftsbibliothek Rituals

Stiftsbibliothek, Switzerland

Texts and Literature

The library showcases only 30,000 books out of 170,000 in special exhibits at any time. There are 1650 incunabula or books produced before 1501. The library displays only a small number of its 2100 priceless manuscripts. Of these, few stand out for their beautiful craftsmanship and remarkable preservation. In 760, the monk Winithar wrote the first known manuscript because he was dissatisfied with the availability of parchment.

Cod Sang 555, a picture of St. Columba dating back to the ninth century, a manuscript of The Rule of St. Benedict, a foundational text for medieval monastic life, and Manuscript B of the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem written about 1200, are among its other literary treasures.

St. Gallen Globe

Behold the library’s earth and celestial globe, standing over two meters tall, brimming with lifelike detail. Some nations remain undiscovered, leaving it unfinished, but it sparks the adventurous spirit in all travel enthusiasts. Someone stole the original from the 16th century over 400 years ago, so what you see now is a highly realistic reproduction.

Cellar upstairs

Explore the cellar’s vaulted space to learn more about St. Gall and his legacy. The Lapidarium, once a cathedral, now showcases sculptures from the Carolingian, Ottonian, and Gothic periods. You’ll also find a captivating history of illustration, mostly in German. Standing out is the illuminated Evangelium Longum, dating back to the late ninth century, with an elaborately carved ivory cover bearing the artist’s and monk Tuotilo’s signature.

A relic from ancient Egypt

Shepenese, the ancient Egyptian mummy, and two wooden sarcophagi were presented to St. Gallen’s mayor in 1820. It originates from the Deir el-Bahri Temple Complex and dates back to 700 BC. During the Saite Dynasty (672 to 525 BC), Shepenese resided as a priest’s daughter.

St. Gallen Cathedral

The mid-18th-century cathedral in St. Gallen boasts twin towers. It is slightly less extravagant than the renowned library next door, showcasing a blend of baroque and classicism. The cathedral’s pink marble and mint-green stucco create a vibrant scene where cherubs and saints dance above dark, stormy frescoes. A paradisiacal scene centered on the Holy Trinity is depicted atop the cathedral’s cupola. To experience the most uplifting feeling when visiting the cathedral, attend a Dommusik performance.

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