The Library Treasures of St. Gallen

The Abbey of St. Gall is still a magnificent structure, though it hasn’t been a monastery since the late 18th century. About 30 years after the ornate abbey church was constructed (and the medieval abbey demolished to make way for it), the prince-archbishopric of St. Gallen came to an end, and the monks dispersed for other abbeys in the region.

One of the things that has persisted is the Library (Stiftsbiblitek) of St. Gallen. Visitors can tour the Baroque Hall, where the library staff have displayed an array of manuscripts from their collection (about 15 of them). Of course, one cannot take photos in the library (someone might use flash!) But being Swiss, they are super-organized and have digitized many of their manuscripts, which are available online and with the iOS app “e-codices,” which is free and terrific. (Go ahead, get the app, then look under “Stiftsbibliotek St. Gallen” … you’ll be gone for hours!)

Just as a point of contrast, when we were going to be in Ireland a few years ago, I contacted the Royal Irish Academy and asked if the Cathac of St. Columcille (the earliest extant Irish manuscript anywhere…a psalter perhaps written by Columcille himself) was going to be on display when we were there. And here is their response: “It certainly can be…when are you coming?” So, when we wandered in, they showed it to us in a display case, then set us up at a workstation where we could see the digitized version. Then they said, “You know you’re not really allowed to take photos of it, but if you wanted a few snaps without flash, that would be okay.” And then they showed up with a little bag of postcards and bookmarks for us. And then we ran into Peter Harbison (THE authority on high crosses, who has an office there), and we chatted with him for a half-hour. Ah…Ireland…

Here is one of the manuscripts I saw and loved…and Irish-inspired Psalter from about 820, the Psalterium Gallicanum.

Though they weren’t Irish, they had contact with Irish monks who were traveling on the continent en route to Rome, and they were the recipients of Irish gospel books, psalters, and Latin grammar books (at which the Irish were expert!) brought by those roving Hibernians.

The cool thing about the collection here is that 1) the Reformers didn’t burn the abbey’s books; 2) They didn’t have Henry VIII to plunder their coffers and dissolve the monastery; 3) They didn’t have Cromwell; 4) Napoleon didn’t steal the books.

Today, the library has the largest collection of early Irish manuscripts on the continent. Fabulous. I’m going to include some of the illustrations of Codex Sangalliensis 51, an Irish gospel book from around 750, so after the Lindisfarne Gospels and before the Book of Kells. Think of this as the filling in the Oreo of Irish monastic manuscripts!

Compare this page to the famous Chi-Rho page of the Lindisfarne Gospels…not too far afield from one another!
Jesus in the center, with two-finger teaching pose. Usually he is holding a gospel book with the writing toward you, the reader, but not here. And if you look at the eyes of the Twelve underneath him, only one is looking toward us (top-center)…everyone else is looking at Jesus.

This page shows the crucifixion, with Longinus and Strepheton at the sides of Jesus and angels above his shoulders…very typical in Irish high crosses that came later than this manuscript.
The symbols of the gospel writers are seen in the four corners of this page (clockwise from top right): The man (Matthew), the od (Luke), the lion (Mark), and the eagle (John). BUT, the other animals have wings and talons, as if they’ve been bird-ified!

Okay, in my dreams, I would be able to spend weeks looking at manuscripts in St. Gallen and read them with my crappy, 35-year-out-of-date college Latin and my even crappier Koine Greek. But unless you are an academic (or probably the Bishop of St. Gallen), you’re out of luck.

BUT…check this out! It is a manuscript copy of the four canonical gospels, and it’s interlinear, meaning in two language, the original Greek and Latin translation (along with nice manuscript coloration). Yep, this is how the Irish saved civilization! This is probably the fourth-oldest surviving copy of all four gospels in one place. And it’s in St. Gallen.

The name of this manuscript is Codex Sangalliensis 48, but it has a code-name: “Codex Delta,” making is sound even more intriguing. This manuscript was written in about 850 by Irish monks in the last of Columbanus’s monasteries: Bobbio, Italy, but wound un in St. Gallen. This is the first page of the Gospel of John (the title is Euangelion kata Ioannon…the Gospel according to John) and the famous first phrase: “En arche en ho logos…In principio eras verbum…in the beginning was the word.”

I could go on and on (and I probably already have), but one last image. This is a later illustration from a book of saints’ lives, and it shows our Irish pals, Gall and Columbanus, making their way across the Bodensee (Lake of Constance). Beautiful. (And in a later episode, I’ll show you how this image mirrors mural art on the monastic island of Reichenau on the Bodensee.