On January 5, 2016, I visited the rococo library of Admont Stift.
The Benedictine monastery, Admont Stift, was founded in the 11th century in a wide valley in the Austrian alps. Today it claims to be the largest monastic establishment in Austria, including considerable land holdings and businesses including a winery and apothecary. Its buildings appear relatively modern, due to a devastating fire in 1865 that required almost complete rebuilding, and its prosperity is evident from its up-to-date facilities for visitors.
The baroque library of Admont Stift survived the nineteenth-century fire intact. Its large hall claims to be the longest of any monastery library worldwide, and its shelves hold 70,000 volumes.
From the extensive facilities for visitors, including up-to-date ticket counters, restrooms, parking lots, and restaurant, it appears that the library attracts many tourists. They are encouraged by the single admission price to also visit the art and natural history museums in the same building. The art collection gives a quick review of changes in artistic styles from medieval through renaissance and baroque to rococo, before focusing on the monastery’s ecclesiastical treasures: reliquaries, vestments, chalices, etc.
The natural history museum is more extensive. It proves to be a deliberate reproduction of a “cabinet of curiosities.” The monastery had extensive collections that perished in the 1865 fire. The monks subsequently rebuilt a remarkable collection of stuffed or pickled wild-life, pinned insects, botanical specimens and minerals. One room presents a multi-media and child-friendly introduction to the local natural environment. But most of the museum preserves an older approach that emphasizes cataloguing and comparing species.
The museums of natural history and art join with the library in projecting the Benedictine ideal of the pursuit of learning, all learning, as a devotional ideal. The library shelves secular subjects in the south end and theological subjects in its north end, while saving the central rotunda for scripture and its ancient interpretation. The museums, then, extend this vision of universal scholarship centered around scripture to include artifacts and specimens.
But whereas the museum’s architecture and decoration is entirely functional, the library’s is quite the opposite: most would agree that rococo style is as far from functional as one can possibly get. Why the contrast?
A clue can be found in reliquaries displayed in the monastery’s art museum. Many here are made of gold and silver and decorated with jewels. All this to display and preserve small bodily relics—a piece of bone or hair or cloth. A reliquary proclaims the extraordinary significance of the apparently mundane objects it contains. The most elaborate in the Admont Stift treasury is a “monstrance” for displaying the host—the wheat wafer transformed by a priest’s blessing into the body of Christ and presented to congregants during Catholic Mass. A thin wheat wafer would be placed inside this gilded stand decorated with 2,175 gemstones to emphasize the superlative value of the host.
The rococo monastery library functions like the monstrance to proclaim the superlative value of its contents—in this case, of its books. By the eighteenth century, books had become common objects. Against the tendency to think of them as mundane, the rococo library encases them in rich art and decoration to show every visitor the importance of its contents. The library is a reliquary that emphasizes the treasure of religious, cultural and scientific knowledge.