Library Halls

The library at Strahov Monastery has existed since the earliest period, but its history from the 12th century through to the 16th century is only known in broad outlines. Abbot Jan Lohelius (in office between 1586 and 1612), considered a restorer of the monastery, built the first library hall in a special section of the monastery, now known as "Lohel's Wing". In the 1670s, the library moved to larger quarters thanks to Abbot Jerome Hirnhaim, who had a hall constructed above the Romanesque halls, today known as the "Theological Hall". Eventually, this space also became insufficient, and a century later, in the 1790s, Abbot Václav Mayer constructed a new library hall, now called the "Philosophical Hall".

Theological Hall

The Theological Hall, built by Abbot Jeroným Hirnhaim, is decorated with paintings on the theme of biblical quotes about wisdom from the pen of Strahov brother Siard Nosecký.

The creation of library halls during the Baroque period

As mentioned above, the work initiated by Abbot Lohelius was continued by his successors, including Caspar Questenberg (1612–1640), Kryšpín Fuk (1640–1653), and Vincent Makarius Frank (1658–1669), who systematically focused on building the library collection. Abbot Jerome Hirnhaim (1670–1679) had a new library hall constructed, which we now call the Theological Hall. In 1679, it housed 5,564 volumes.

Theological Hall

The Theological Hall was constructed during the tenure of Abbot Jerome Hirnhaim (1671–1679). Its architect was Jan Dominik Orsi, a Prague native of Italian origin, whose Italian schooling is evident from the stucco cartouches. The Baroque conception of the library is represented by shelves; unlike the Romanesque treasury type and the Gothic pulpit style, books began to be stored vertically. Above the shelves, gilded wooden carved decorations with wooden cartouches can be seen. These served as the first library aid, as the images in the wooden cartouches with inscriptions indicated the fields of knowledge stored on the shelves. At the same time (1672), a library order was compiled by Abbot Hirnhaim. Fifty years later, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the transfer of St. Norbert's relics (1727), the hall was extended by several meters. It was then decorated with frescoes by Strahov Premonstratensian and painter Siard Nosecký. Symbolically, based on quotes from the Bible (mainly from the Book of Proverbs) and partly from philosophical treatises by the founder of the hall, Abbot Hirnhaim, they demonstrated the true wisdom that one acquires through piety, fear of God. Hirnheim in his treatises opposed scholasticism and its rational grasp of the world and truth, which he considered false or arrogant wisdom. He wanted to achieve understanding of the world through the path of true humble piety.

However, a person enlightened by faith must also build knowledge and education. The library is depicted in several frescoes as a symbol of this path. Above the wrought iron gates leading to the inner areas of the monastery is a small inscription: INITIUM SAPIENTIAE TIMOR DOMINI - The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10). It remains a paradox that the philosophical writings of the library's builder were placed on the index of banned books and theoretically should have been kept in special locked cabinets above both hall doors, which he himself had installed. However, Hirnhaim's books were read in the monastery and became an inspiration for Siard Nosecký. Dominating the right side of the hall (from the visitor's perspective) is a late Gothic wooden statue of St. John the Evangelist. The connection of this statue with the library represents the so-called sack binding, which St. John holds in his left hand. Although often depicted in art, sack binding has survived in few examples due to the purpose for which it was made, namely as a travel binding. It was either destroyed during travels or cut off when integrated into a book collection. On the left side (from the visitor's perspective) stands a so-called compilation wheel, made specifically for the library in 1678 and used for compiling or assembling texts. On the shelves of the wheel, the scribe arranged the sources from which he drew. A planetary mechanism allows the wheel to maintain its shelves at a constant angle while turning, so that the books do not slide off.

In front of the Theological Hall, an exhibition of globes, both terrestrial and astronomical, is displayed in showcases. Some of these are from the workshop of the Dutch Blaeu family, which specialized in the production of maps, atlases, and globes over several generations in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Theological Hall houses over 21,000 volumes, named after its contents. The north wall is filled exclusively with various editions of the Bible or its parts in many languages. In 1993-94, the interior was restored, with the shelves completely dismantled and the wood treated. Under the original grey-blue paint, the original red lacquer, which as the oldest layer, was given preference, was uncovered at the end of the 1980s. The 20th-century parquets were replaced with a historically and aesthetically closer replica of the original Baroque floor. The original visitor circuit passed through all the main spaces of the library. After prolonged measurements, it was adjusted to its current form, as the humidity in the halls fluctuated so much during the day that both the frescoes and the book bindings were endangered. The second hall, today called the Philosophical Hall, was built during the tenure of Abbot Václav Mayer (1779–1800) between 1792 and 1794.

Philosophical Hall

In the last quarter of the 18th century, Abbot Václav Mayer decided to create new library spaces for the numerous additions to the library. He commissioned the naturalized Italian architect, Jan Ignác Palliardi, to build what is now known as the Philosophical Hall on the site of the original granary. The facade was constructed in 1783, but after acquiring a walnut wood library interior from the dissolved Premonstratensian monastery at Louka near Znojmo, the dimensions of the future hall were adapted to fit the dimensions of the shelves. The interior was installed between 1794 and 1797 by its original creator, Jan Lahofer from Dobšice near Znojmo, and styled into an early classical form. The astonishing dimensions of the hall (length 32 m, width 10 m, height 14 m) are enhanced by a monumental ceiling painting created by the Viennese painter Anton Maulbertsch in just six months of 1794 with only one assistant. The highest rows of books are accessible only from a gallery, to which hidden spiral staircases lead, built in both corners and camouflaged with false book spines.

The Philosophical Hall
The Philosophical Hall was constructed under Abbot Václav Mayer between 1791 and 1797, with the ceiling fresco painted by Anton Maulbertsch and his student in just half a year, completed in 1796.

The painting "The Spiritual Development of Humanity" succinctly illustrates the evolution of sciences and religions, depicting their mutual influences and the quest for knowledge from the earliest times to the period when the hall was founded. The foundation and discovery of true wisdom are rooted in Christianity. At the center of the painting, Divine Providence is positioned, surrounded by virtues and vices, symbolizing the guarantee of this quest. The development of humanity begins at its dawn, naturally associated with Old Testament motifs. Central figures include the Tablets of the Ten Commandments and Moses, behind whom the Ark of the Covenant is situated. Among others, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Solomon, and David are depicted.

On the left side, the evolution of Greek civilization is traced from mythical times through the era of Alexander the Great (depicted in the presence of his teacher Aristotle) to philosophers like Socrates, Diogenes, and Democritus. On the right side, the development of sciences is portrayed (e.g., Aesculapius, Pythagoras, Socrates in prison). Near the inscription "Wenceslaus secundus, hic primus," which communicates that the hall's founder Václav Mayer was the second abbot named Václav but the first in the library, a group of defeated heretics is depicted as a nod to the French encyclopedists. On the opposite side, primarily a New Testament motif is visible – Saint Paul's sermon at the Altar of the Unknown God at the Areopagus in Athens. Here, Saint Paul proclaims the gospel, and people from various nations gather around him, symbolizing the spread of Christianity throughout the world.

The oldest book in the Strahov Library is the Strahov Gospel, which, according to current dating, originates from around the year 860.

In the right corner stands the Czech patron saint, St. Wenceslaus, holding a banner with the St. Wenceslaus eagle in his left hand. Next to him stands his grandmother, St. Ludmila. To the right of the altar, the Church Fathers are grouped: St. Gregory the Great with a tiara and a cross, followed by Saints Ambrose and Augustine in Augustinian habits, with St. Jerome sitting at their feet in cardinal's attire. The Eastern Fathers are represented by St. Gregory of Nazianzus. The figure behind the kneeling St. Norbert unmistakably bears the features of Abbot Václav Mayer. To his right, the other Czech patron saints, St. John of Nepomuk and St. Norbert, founder of the Premonstratensian order, are depicted kneeling.

By the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the library had become renowned in the European cultural scene. Numerous visits by important personalities have been recorded since 1792 in the oldest guest book. Prior to the construction of the Philosophical Hall, access to the library, which was located in the cloister, was only sporadically allowed for women. One of the first female visitors to the new hall was Lady Emma Hamilton in 1800. She visited the library with her husband, British archaeologist and statesman Sir William Hamilton, and her lover, the victor of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Another notable woman who visited the library on June 17, 1812, was the Austrian princess and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Louise. In the fall of the same year, she sent to the Strahov Library, among other books and a Viennese porcelain service, a four-volume work on the art collections in the Louvre. When this exclusive publication was completed, Napoleon allegedly ordered the destruction of the entire print run, keeping only three or four complete sets. He feared that his reputation would be damaged by the disclosure of the origins of many exhibits, primarily looted in Italy. The book gift was stored in a remodeled tall cabinet, which dominates the other furniture in the hall.

In the window alcove, there is a bust of the Strahov librarian and archivist, Prior Cyril Straka, who not only significantly contributed to cataloging work but also to making library and archival materials accessible to the public in the first quarter of the 20th century. He was also one of the best experts on Czech bookbinding. It was he who named the two halls according to the traditional division of studies into philosophical and theological. Besides philosophy, the hall contains works from fields taught in the philosophical course at universities, such as astronomy, mathematics, history, philology, and others. The total number of volumes in this hall exceeds 60,000. Both halls are connected by corridors. In the northern corridor, accessible to the public, is the Cabinet of Curiosities.

The valuable binding of the Strahov Gospel dates back to the high Middle Ages. The oldest parts are circular enamel discs from the late 12th century.

Cabinet of Curiosities

The core of Strahov's cabinet of curiosities was purchased for Strahov from the estate of Baron Karl Jan Eben in 1798. Cabinets of curiosities (Wunderkammer) represent direct precursors to modern museums. Their collections reflect the Rudolfine Renaissance with its interest in the mysterious and the marvelous, as well as the beginnings of a systematic approach to the natural sciences.

A view into the cabinet of curiosities, which gathers collections that complemented the library exhibition with actual artifacts that residents of the time often could not see in their own surroundings. They were therefore a welcome addition for the study of nature and distant cultures.

Upon entering the historical section, natural science collections predominantly of marine fauna are displayed, complemented by collections of insects, minerals, and wax replicas of fruits. A real curiosity is the fantastical "dragon", crafted from special cuts of ray (historically mistaken for a preserved specimen of the dodo, Dodo ineptus). Among the cabinets, there also hangs a 12th-century chainmail shirt and a 17th-century breastplate. The cabinets showcase "archaeological" collections including ceramics, shackles, and Hussite peasant weapons.

Exhibits from Cabinet

A display of some exhibits from the cabinet of curiosities. From the left: a nine-banded armadillo, a Virginia opossum, and a case with semi-precious stones.

The cabinet of curiosities also includes a dendrological library, or xyloteka. Prepared around 1825 by Karel z Hinterlagenu, it comprises 68 volumes, each documenting a different type of tree. The covers are made from the wood of the respective tree, the spine is made of bark with lichens and inscriptions in Latin and German, and the inside contains roots, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, cross-sections of branches, and occasionally pests. On the back wall of the connecting corridor, one can see Achbauer's illusory perspective painting from 1825, which extends the corridor using an optical illusion.

The entrance exhibition presents a facsimile of the Strahov Gospel. This codex, older than the Czech state, is dated to 860-865 in Trier, back when it was still owned by the local St. Martin's Church around 1100. Between 980–985, four full-page illustrations of the evangelists were bound into the codex. These illuminations, representing the pinnacle of the book painting art of the Ottonian Renaissance, were created by one of the most distinguished early medieval masters known as the Master of the Registrum of St. Gregory. The later binding, covered in red velvet, features four large enamel discs with Romanesque ornaments (circa 1180), four Romanesque bronze statuettes, and six polished crystals. Statuettes of the Crucified Christ, the Virgin Mary, and St. John, as well as four Renaissance silver medallions, were added during the re-binding.

In a special display case, other collection items are presented: a model of a warship from the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, next to which military exhibits are placed - a cannon barrel from 1686, five cannonballs, riding boots possibly 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 - valaška. Lying along the podium is a narwhal tusk, historically mistaken for a unicorn horn, and preserved parts of large cetaceans' bodies.


Cabinet of Curiosities
Fresco in the Theological Hall
Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) End of the 19th Century Height 27.5 cm
Case with Semi-Precious Stones Beginning of the 19th Century (19 × 16 × 9 cm)