One of the joys of playing Tour Guide for friends is revisiting special places. You seem to see them freshly – perhaps stereoscopically – because you’re seeing them through new eyes as well as your own.
So – back to the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, aka the Abbey Library of St Gall, with Lois and Roger. You can’t take photos in there, so these images are public domain ones.
This is no ordinary library. It’s up there as one of the most beautiful in the world – a Baroque beauty of wood that seems to be still alive in its curves and coils, and frescos that demand a crick in the neck.
Then there are the books!
Gallus, an Irish monk who was as migratory as many of his later countrymen, set up his hermit’s cell in what was to become St Gallen in 612. Around a hundred years later, the hermit’s cell was developed into an abbey, and right from the start, the Benedictines were collecting, writing, copying and illuminating books in their scriptorium on this site.
The current Library was built at the same time as the Cathedral (1758-1767) and designed, constructed and embellished by craftsman from the region.
And they knew that what they were creating – both in making the books, and collecting and housing them. Hence the inscription over the door. Translated from the Greek, it says “Sanatorium for the Soul”.
Short side-track (thank you Roger) – talking about the monks copying away reminded me of the joke about the abbot who’d been down doing some quality control in the scriptorium and was later found crying his eyes out. “What’s wrong father?” “I’ve just gone back to the original – and it said ‘celebrate’ not ‘celibate’.
Anyway… there are pages from the 5th Century, a huge collection of incunabula (that’s what they call books printed before 1500), and floor-to-ceiling cases of the richness of thinking and writing over the centuries. It’s definitely “look-don’t-touch” territory in there – but in huge gift to the future, the books have been e-imaged and are on line
And – talking of seeing with fresh eyes – Lois pointed out the death-portraits at either end. One, we decided quite easily, was Gallus. The other – a woman. Who? I couldn’t find the right person to ask. But now… I have a possible candidate, and a new heroine. St Wiborada. I’ve googled all the images of St Wiborada, and that particular picture is not among them – but let that ugly fact not get in the way of a beautiful theory.
St Wiborada was a Benedictine at the Abbey of St Gall, and after getting into some trouble serious enough to require an ordeal by fire to prove her innocence, she became an anchoress (= female hermit). Perhaps, like Cassandra, it was her gift for prophecy that had got her into trouble – but anyway, that gift proved itself about ten years later, in 926, when she insisted that the invading Hungarians would wreak havoc.
Eventually she was believed, and the treasury, the wine, and most of the books, were taken to safety. Wiborada herself stayed to pray. The Hungarians broke in through the roof of her cell, and with an awful symmetry of action broke her skull with an axe.
So, she became a martyr, the first woman to be canonised, in 1047, and the patron saint of libraries and librarians.
I’ve titled this “Sanatorium for the Soul – 1” – because we also found a very new Sanatorium for the Soul – which will need to wait for another day. TBC…