Abbey of Saint Gall

St. Gallen, Switzerland

The Abbey of Saint Gall has existed at least since 747 AD and became an independent principality between 9th and 13th centuries, and was for many centuries one of the chief Benedictine abbeys in Europe. The Abbey of St Gall is an outstanding example of a large Carolingian monastery and was, since the 8th century until its secularisation in 1805, one of the most important cultural centres in Europe. The library at the Abbey is one of the richest medieval libraries in the world. Since 1983 the whole remaining abbey precinct has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

History

Around 613 Gallus, according to tradition an Irish monk and disciple and companion of Saint Columbanus, established a hermitage on the site that would become the monastery. Following Gallus' death, Charles Martel appointed Othmar as custodian of St Gall's relics. Several different dates are given for the foundation of the monastery in the middle of the 8th century. Othmar founded the Carolingian style Abbey of St Gall, where arts, letters and sciences flourished. The abbey grew fast and many Alemannic noblemen became monks. Under abbot Waldo of Reichenau (740–814) copying of manuscripts was undertaken and a famous library was gathered. The abbey became an Imperial Abbey (Reichsabtei) by Emperor Louis the Pious in 813.

From this time until the 10th century, the abbey flourished. It was home to several famous scholars. During the 9th century a new, larger church was built and the library was expanded. Manuscripts on a wide variety of topics were purchased by the abbey and copies were made. Over 400 manuscripts from this time have survived and are still in the library today.

On 26 April 937 a scholar kindled a fire and the abbey and the adjoining settlement were almost completely destroyed; the library was however undamaged. About 954 they started to protect the monastery and buildings by a surrounding wall. In the 13th century the abbey became more involved in local politics and entered a period of decline.

In the 16th century the abbey was raided by Calvinist groups, which scattered many of the old books. In 1530, abbot Diethelm began a restoration that stopped the decline and led to an expansion of the schools and library. Under abbot Pius (1630–74) a printing press was started. In 1712 during the Toggenburg war the Abbey of St. Gall was pillaged by the Swiss.

Following the disturbances, the abbey was still the largest religious city-state in Switzerland, with over 77,000 inhabitants. A final attempt to expand the abbey resulted in the demolition of most of the medieval monastery. The new structures, including the cathedral by architect Peter Thumb (1681-1766), were designed in the late Baroque style and constructed between 1755 and 1768. The large and ornate new abbey did not remain a monastery for very long. In 1798 the Prince-Abbot's secular power was suppressed, and the abbey was secularized. The monks were driven out and moved into other abbeys. The abbey became a separate See in 1846, with the abbey church as its cathedral and a portion of the monastic buildings for the bishop.

Architecture

The Abbey of St. Gall largely got its present appearance in the 18th century. It is an impressive architectural ensemble comprising different buildings regrouped around the main square of the abbey: The west side includes the ancient abbatial church (the present cathedral), flanked by two towers and the ancient cloister, which today houses the abbatial Library; located on the east side is the “Neue Pfalz”, the present seat of the canton authorities. The northern part of the square is composed of buildings of the 19th century: the ancient arsenal, the Children’s and Guardian Angels’ Chapel and the former Catholic school.

The library

The High Baroque library represents one of the most beautiful examples of its era, and the present cathedral is one of the last monumental constructions of Baroque abbatial churches in the West. In addition to the architectural substance, the inestimable cultural values conserved at the Abbey are of exceptional importance, notably: the Irish manuscripts of the 7th and 8th centuries, the illuminated manuscripts of the St Gall School of the 9th and 11th centuries, documents concerning the history of the origins of Alemannic Switzerland as well as the layout of the convent during the Carolingian era (the only manuscript plan of that time remaining worldwide, conserved in its original state, representing a concept of monastic organisation of the Benedictine order).

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