Concise history of the monastic library

Strahovský klášter / Library / Concise history of the monastic library


The Royal Canonry of Premonstratensians at Strahov, which the Strahov Library is an integral part of, was founded in 1143 by Bishop of Olomouc, Jindoich Zdík, with support from the Prague bishops Jan and Ota, Prince (and later King) of Bohemia Vladislav and his wife Gertrude. The first community of canons regular came from the Rhineland monastery of Steinfeld. Although there are several Latin codices from the oldest collection of the library, we cannot say for sure that the library has enjoyed conscious continual development. What we can say is that the origin of the library collection goes back to the foundation of the abbey. Over the centuries, the abbey has suffered several disasters which have interrupted its smooth evolution. The buildings (evidently wooden) destroyed in the fire of 1258 were replaced by a Romanesque structure which went on to become an integral feature of the Prague skyline. The abbey was plundered in 1278 and 1306 by foreign armies, and in 1420 by Hussite radicals from several towns making up Prague. The abbey was then abandoned during the Hussite Wars. 150 years later, when the abbey was struggling to exist, Jan Lohel (later to become Archbishop of Prague) was elected the new abbot (1586-1612), and reconstructed the abbey as well as the former level of education. In 1627, Lohel's successor Kašpar Questenberg translated the relics of the Order's founder, St Norbert, from Magdeburg to Strahov. St Norbert became one of Bohemian patron saints, and Strahov consequently earned itself a special place among Premonstratensian order houses.
The efforts of Abbot Questenberg and his successors to build a library were thwarted by the invasion of General Konigsmark's Swedish forces in 1648, which took most collections of books with them to Scandinavia.
The books collected after the Peace of Westphalia were given a dignified place of storage after 1679 in the newly constructed library hall, now known as the Theological Hall. The Library Rules were also issued around this time. Because of extensive acquisitions in the second half of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, the expanding library book collections required another hall (the Philosophical Hall) by the end of the 18th century. At this time, the abbey became a haven of the Czech National Revival, represented there by the librarian G J Dlabae. The latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were mainly devoted to the cataloguing of the library's book collections. After 1950, when monastic orders and congregations were forbidden in Czechoslovakia, their members executed, interned, and imprisoned, and their property confiscated, the Strahov Library was incorporated into the newly established Museum of National Literature, and the monastic archives, music collection, picture gallery, and exhibits were dispersed to other state institutions. Soon after 1989, following the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia, the buildings and other confiscated property, including the library, were returned (in some cases they are still in the process of being returned) to the Strahov Premonstratensians in a programme to rectify some of the material injustice perpetrated by the Communists. The Strahov library book collections contain approximately 200,000 volumes, estimated to hold 260,000 works. The books are stored in the two halls and in adjacent depositories. Many of the works are old prints printed between 1501 and 1800. The library's incunabula (firstprints) (over 1,500 volumes) and manuscripts (approximately 3,000 sheaves) are also valuable and are stored in a special treasury room.




The Theological Hall was built under Abbot Jeroným Hirnhaim (1671-1679). The architect was a Prague burgher of Italian origin, Giovanni Domennico Orsi, whose Italian school is evident in the stucco cartouches. The Baroque concept of the library is demonstrated by the shelves; unlike the Romanesque treasury system or the Gothic desk system, the books were stored upright. Above the shelves, there are gilded wooded carved decorations with wooden cartouches. This was a rudimentary library aid, because the pictures in the wooden cartouches and their titles specified the type of literature stored on the shelves. At this time (1672) Library Rules were compiled by Abbot Hirnhaim.
Theological Hall 1 Fifty years later, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the translation of St Norbert's relics (1727), the hall was extended by several metres. It was then decorated with frescoes by the Strahov Premonstratensian and painter Siard Nosecký. Symbolically, and based on quotations from the Bible (mainly Proverbs) and in part from the philosophical tracts of the hall's founder, Abbot Hirnhaim, he presented the true wisdom we acquire through piety, fear of God. In his tracts, Hirnhaim opposed scholasticism and its racionalistic understanding of the world and truth, which he believed to be false or proud wisdom. He wanted to gain an understanding of the world through true humble piety. A person enlightened by faith, however, must build on knowledge and education. The library hosts several frescoes as a symbol of this principle. Above the forged iron gates on the other side of the library there is a small legend: INITIUM SAPIENTIAE TIMOR DOMINI - the beginning of wisdom is fear of God. It remains a paradox that the philosophical works of the library's founder were put on the index of forbidden books and were therefore placed in special locked cabinets above both the hall doors; Hirnhaim himself had these cabinets installed. As time passed, publication of his works was permitted, and they became the inspiration for Siard Nosecký. A portrait of Jeroným Hirnhaim hangs by the first window, Nosecký's self-portrait by the second.
Theological Hall 2 The left-hand side of the hall is dominated by a Late-Gothic wooden statue of St John the Evangelist. The link between this statue and the library is his small pouch, held by St John in his left hand. This pouch called girdle-book, although frequently depicted in manuscripts, has only been preserved in several cases, mainly because of the purpose it served - as a travel bag. It was either destroyed during journeys or cut off on inclusion in the book collection. On the right-hand side, there is a 'compilation wheel', commissioned by the library in 1678 and used to compile texts. The scribe had the various sources he was using distributed over the shelves of the wheel. The planet mechanism means that when turned, its shelves were kept at the same angle so the books are not liable to fall.
A number of globes (both astronomical and terrestrial) line both sides of the Theological Hall. Some of them come from the workshop of the Rotterdam-based family Blaeu, which specialized in manufacturing maps, atlases, and globes over several generations in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Over 18,000 volumes are stored in the Theological Hall. The name of the hall comes from the content of these works. The northern wall contains nothing but different editions of the Bible or parts of the Bible in many languages.
In 1993 and 1994, the interior was restored; the shelves were completely dismantled and the wood was treated. At the end of the 1980s, the original red paint was discovered under the later blue-grey paint, and this red was used in the restoration as the oldest layer. The parquets from the 20th century were replaced with a historically and aesthetically more accurate copy of the original Baroque flooring. The original visitors' route went through all the main areas of the library. After long-term readings were analyzed, the tour was adjusted to the current version, as the humidity in the halls fluctuated so much during the day that the good condition of the frescoes and book bindings was in jeopardy.




The Strahov Cabinet of Curiosities was bought for Strahov out of the estate of Karel Jan Erben in 1798. Cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammer) are the direct predecessors of modern museums. Their collections reflect the Rudolphine Renaissance and its interest in the mysterious and remarkable, and the beginnings of the systematic concept of natural sciences.
Curiosities Right at the entrance to the historical part are natural science collections, mainly with sea fauna, complemented with collections of insects, minerals, and wax replicas of fruit. Here a true object of curiosity is the prepared remains of the bird Dodo (Dodo ineptus), now extinct. A wire shirt from the 12th century and a breastplate from the 17th century hang between the display units. The display units contain 'archaeological' collections: ceramics, handcuffs, Hussite peasant weapons. In front of the entrance to the connecting passage there is a pedigree chart of Premonstratensian monasteries for the period from 1120 to 1727.
In the connecting passage, we can see a number of volumes, mainly related to medicine, law, alchemy, and metallurgy. At the end of the corridor, above the door, there is a portrait of Abbot Kryšpín Fuck, who made the upper flow of the Vltava navigable all the way to Prague just before the mid-17th century.

Cabinet of CuriositiesRight of this picture a dendrology library or a xylotheca is situated. Of the 68 volumes prepared by Karel of Hinterlagen around 1825, each documents one type of wood. The panels are made of the wood of the relevant tree, the spine with the title in Latin and German is made of bark with lichen, inside there are roots, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, sections of branches, and pests. Beyond the dendrology library, on the back wall of the passage, there is an illusive perspective painting by Achbauer, from 1825, which extends the corridor by means of optical illusion.

A facsimile of the Strahov Evangeliary is presented on a special stand. This codex, which is older than the Czech state, is dated 860-865 and comes from Trier; in around 1100 it was still the property of the local monastery of St Martin. Between 980 and 985 four full-page illustrations of the evangelists were bound into the codex. These illustrations, the peak of the Ottonian art of illumination, were produced by one of the most distinguished masters of book illustration in the Early Middle Ages, Master of St Gregory. On the new binding from the Gothic period, covered with red velvet, there are, in the corners, four large enamel targets with Romanesque ornaments (circa 1180), four bronze Romanesque figures, and six cut crystals. At the time the new binding was made, sculptures of Christ on the Cross, Our Lady, and St John, and four silver Renaissance medallions with four Evangelists. The groups of curiosities between the windows are predominated by military ship from the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. Next to these are military exhibits: the barrel of a cannon from 1686, five cannonballs, and riding boots which are perhaps from the time of the French siege of Prague in 1742, three Polish spears, a Tatar bow, a hunting crossbow, helmets from the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, and a Slovak axe (valaska). Two elephant trunks and a tooth from a narwhal (previously passed off as a unicorn horn) lie on the landing.




In the final quarter of the 18th century, Abbot Václav Mayer decided to build new library space for the numerous additions to the library. To this end, he had the current Philosophical Hall built on the site of a granary by Jan Ignác Palliardi, an Italian architect naturalized in Bohemia. The façade was built in 1783, but after the advantageous purchase of a walnut interior for the library, relocated from the abolished Premonstratensian monastery in Louka by Znojmo, he adapted the dimensions of the future hall to the size of the shelves. The interior was installed in 1794-1797 by its original designer, Jan Lahofer of Tasovice, and modified to an Early Classicist Style. The amazing size of the hall (length: 32 m, width: 22 m, height: 14 m) is compounded by the monumental ceiling fresco by Viennese painter Anton Maulbertsch, painted over six months in 1794 with the help of just one assistant. The highest rows of books are only accessible from the gallery; hidden spiral staircases, masked with false book spines, lead up to the corners of the gallery.
BooksThe fresco 'Intellectual Progress of Mankind' is a concise depiction of developments in science and religion, their mutual impact on each other, and quests for knowledge from the oldest times until the time the hall was built. The basis and locality of true wisdom can be found in Christianity. Divine Providence, surrounded with virtues and vices, is set in the centre of the fresco as a guarantee of this search for wisdom. The development of mankind starts with its dawn, which is understandably linked with Old Testament motifs. In the centre of these events are panels with the Decalogue, and Moses, behind which is the Ark of the Covenant. Others depicted here are Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Solomon, and David. On the left-hand side we can track the development of Greek civilization, from mythical times, to the time of Alexander the Great (portrayed in the presence of his teacher Aristotle), right through to the philosophers Socrates, Diogenes, and Democritos. The evolution of science is illustrated on the right-hand side (e.g. Aesculapos, Pythagoras, Socrates in prison). By the legend 'Wenceslaus secundus, hic primus', which tells us that the founder of the hall, Václav Mayer, was the second abbot to be named Václav, but the first Václav in the library, there is a group of defeated misbelievers as an allusion to the French encyclopaedists. Their Encyclopaedia is, however, stored in the hall among the first volumes, which indicates the liberalness of the then atmosphere in Strahov. The opposite side is dominated especially New Testament scene of St Paul's speech at the monument of unknown god on Areopagus in Athens.
Philosophical Hall 3Wenceslas, Patron Saint of Bohemia, stands in the right-hand corner, a banner with the Eagle of St Wenceslas swaying in his left hand. The old woman on his right is his grandmother, St Ludmila. Underneath him, among the four Fathers of the Church (Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory) stand St Methodius, who christianized Great Moravia Empire, and the second Bishop of Prague, St Adalbert. The last in the line, with an enlightened face and holding his abbot's croizer, the founder of the hall, Abbot Václav Mayer, peers into the hall. To his right, other Bohemian patron saints, St John of Nepomuk and St Norbert (the founder of the Premonstratensian Order) are kneeling.
At the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, the library became famous throughout European cultural circles. Numerous visits by important people are recorded in the oldest visitors book first used in 1792. Women were initially only allowed to enter the library sporadically because of the imposition of monastic seclusion. One of the first was, surprisingly, Lady Emma Hamilton, who visited the library in 1800 with her husband, the British archaeologist and statesman Sir William Hamilton, and her lover, the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Another significant woman to enter the library, on 17 June 1812, was the Austrian Princess and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte Marie Louise. In the autumn of the same year, she sent Strahov Library more books, a Viennese set of porcelain, and, most significantly, a four-volume work on the first Louvre museum. When this exclusive publication had been completed, Napoleon is said to have ordered the whole print run to be destroyed, and kept just three or four complete series. He was afraid that his reputation would be ruined by the fact that the work listed the origin of a whole number of exhibits, looted in the main in Italy. This gift was stored in a special high cabinet overlooking the other furniture in the hall. Opposite the entrance doors, on the other side of the hall, there is a bust of the Strahov librarian and archivist Prior Cyril Straka, who made a substantial contribution to the cataloguing work and to the process of making the library and archival materials available to the public, primarily in the first quarter of the 20th century. He was also one of the foremost experts on Czech bookbinding. It was Straka who named the two halls after traditional separate philosophical and theological study subjects. In addition to philosophy, which originally included all the sciences, we can also find works from other disciplines which were taught at universities in the scope of courses on philosophy: astronomy, mathematics, history, philology, etc. There are more than 42,000 volumes in this hall.

View of the Philosophical Hall here.

Library - video 1

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Library - video 2

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