Abbey of St Gall (1983)

St. Gall, North Abbey
© SB-Bodensee Tourismus

The Convent of St Gall, whose present appearance is largely the result of building in the 18th century, is an imposing architectural ensemble composed of various buildings grouped around the great Monastery Square: on the west side are the abbey, flanked by its two towers and the former cloister whose wings now house the library and the 'Neue Pfalz', currently the headquarters of the canton authorities. On the other side of the square stand the former arsenal, the Children’s and Guardian Angels’ Chapel, and the old Catholic school.

St Gall, Monastery plan
St Gall, Monastery plan
© Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen

The history of this site begins in 612 AD. On the site of what is now the cathedral, Gallus, an Irish monk, built an oratory and a handful of fellow-believers congregated around it. Nearly a century later, Abbot Othmar replaced Gallus’s oratory with a church that was already imposing. Later, Othmar established the Benedictine order of St Gall (747). The monastery soon became one of the most important centres of the monastic and learned communities. By the 9th century, the church and monastery were already being extended. This is the period of the famous 'St Gall Plan', which came from the monastery of Reichenau and had been designed for Abbot Gozbert around 820. The only manuscript plan in the world from the Carolingian period to have been preserved in its original condition, it can be regarded as the plan of 'ideal' monastic architecture. All that remains to be seen is to what extent Abbot Gozbert’s plan did in fact serve as a direct model for the extension to this particular architectural ensemble, or whether it ought to be taken rather as a sort of principle for monastic organization in the Benedictine Order. The question remains controversial.

St Gall, Cathedral
St Gall, Cathedral
© Philipp Lehmann

It has however been proven that the 9th-century construction did follow the plan at least in part. Abbot Gozbert had Othmar's church demolished in 830 to build a new St Gall's Abbey. Later that same century, St Othmar's Church (consecrated in 867) and St Michael's Chapel were built behind the St Gall's abbey of the time, but would later disappear completely when the present cathedral was built; the only remaining traces of these Carolingian edifices, unearthed by excavations, are the foundations, some magnificent capitals, and the crypts. Down the centuries, building work was periodically made necessary by a succession of fires and destructions. In the Gothic period, apart from a new choir (finished in 1483) the Carolingian building was only slightly altered. In 1623, St Othmar's church was renovated, which involved demolishing St Michael's Chapel to allow the nave to be extended westwards.

St Gall, Rotunda
St Gall, Rotunda

The plans for the renovation of the monastery complex, including the construction of the official buildings and the present cathedral, date from the early 18th century. Projects were developed by various architects and clerks of works; eventually, the proposal by Peter Thumbs was adopted, thus adding a great nave and a rotunda to the Gothic choir, which was to be retained in the first instance. The sculptor Christian Wenzinger and other renowned artists were put in charge of its decoration. The next phase, in 1761, involved demolishing the Gothic choir and its 1215 belfry. In 1766, building was finished on the two current towers. By 1773, structural problems had already made remedial work necessary. But the interior still wasn’t finished by the end of the 18th century, when the monastery was secularized and its church became the principal Catholic church in the canton of Saint-Gall. Decoration work was only finished in 1810 with the high altar and central portal. During the 19th century, various interior surfaces were altered. To date, there have been three rounds of proper renovation: 1841–1845, 1928–1938, and 2000–2003.

St Gall, Choir
St Gall, Choir
© Kanton St. Gallen

The cathedral today comprises a central rotunda, which appears from the outside like a transverse building linking two parts of the same length, the choir and the great nave. The east and west walls are of sober appearance, decorated with only a few statues. The curves of the rotunda are richly decorated. The molasse façade is without doubt the architectural jewel of the building. Between two 68 m-high towers stands a projecting, three-storey central panel; this structure is reinforced by the numerous elements of decoration. Inside, the building is organized around the central space of the rotunda, while the architecture of the great nave seems to make it continue on into the choir. The effect sought here is not movement, but rather a stable, calm balance. St Gall's Cathedral can be considered as a point of transition between rococo and classicism, one of the last religious edifices in the baroque style. The interior decoration is essentially confined to the ceilings (Christian Wenzinger for the dome and nave and Josef Wannemacher for the choir), with religious scenes and figures depicted in skies decorated with sombre brown clouds. Admirable for the richness of their decoration, the choir stalls, carved by Joseph Anton Feuchtwanger from 1763-1770, are further enhanced because of the impression of ensemble given by the architectural space.

St Gall monastery library
St Gall monastery library
© Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen

The current monastery library, built under Abbot Coelestin II, lies on the 2nd and 3rd floors of the west wing of the former cloister, to the south of the cathedral. The sinuous lines of the wooden galleries subdivide the space into two levels and, along with the flattened arches of the flat vaulting, help to deconstruct the rectangularity of the space. The walls and pilasters are lined with finely-wrought bookcases; a good degree of openness either side of the room and the finesse of the decoration in wood and imitation marble dispel any sense of heaviness. In keeping with the function of the room, the ceilings make reference to the Doctrine by representing the first four ecumenical councils: the Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451).

The St Gall monastery complex has been inscribed on the World Heritage list because it is a partial realization of the plan of the ideal abbey and a typical example of a great Benedictine monastery. A centre of art and learning, the functional and cultural continuity of the site is reflected in the coherence of the history of its building.

Last modification 01.12.2013

Top of page

https://www.bak.admin.ch/content/bak/en/home/kulturerbe/unesco-welterbe/welterbestaetten/stiftsbezirk-st--gallen--1983-.html