In the early 7th century, an Irish monk named Gallus came to Switzerland, and built a hermitage near Lake Constance. He was reputedly one of the 12 companions of St. Columbanus, who traveled from Ireland to Europe as missionaries, and retired to his hermitage, refusing to take up honors and authority, and leave his quiet cell.
A century later, Othmar was assigned to care for St. Gall’s relics, and is noted as the first abbot of the Abbey of Saint Gall. During the 8th century, and into the 9th, many Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks came to St. Gall, to help copy manuscripts and their work helped develop the Abbey Library, which is justly famed as one of the richest medieval libraries of the world. Additional monasteries were founded from St. Gall, so the style developed there spread.
The abbey library (or Stiftsbibliothek) has begun a major digitization program, and manuscripts, including views of the bindings, are available on Codices Electronici Sangallenses webpage. Those manuscripts are not the only ones – over 70 collections are part of the e-codices webpage – but there are currently 600 manuscripts from St. Gallen. It worth noting that many of the digitized manuscripts are not “great” works of art – they have modest decoration, and are primarily about the text being conveyed.
The decoration style is not purely Irish, but still has much of the geometric interlace the Irish brought over, with more recognizably natural birds and foliage shapes. St. Gall used the Benedictine rule, rather than the Celtic rule of Columbanus, and was in many ways, an active player in the political and ecclesiastical life of Europe, in regular contact with Rome and other monasteries. Because the Abbey was large, and they and their allied houses produced many manuscripts, (and had fewer run-ins with raiders), so there are enough extant manuscripts to describe a particular style.
From here – I go to comb through the manuscripts produced at St. Gallen before the year 900. The main reason for making a cut off at the beginning of the 10th century is to limit the scope to about 150 of production. The 10th C manuscripts have lost much of the Insular character of their text, except for this lovely poetic complaint, written in the front of a text by an Irish Monk, who was unhappy about his reception at St. Gall. I will update this post periodically. My goal is to create a ‘modelbuch’, with a description of how the texts are laid out, samples of text font, and decoration. Stay tuned.
It appears I am the first to pin to the home pages of many of these manuscripts, in many cases. Check out the board at Eleanor Deyeson’s Workshop pinterest page.