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Monday, March 21, 2011

St. Norbert's Monastery

Saint Norbert. 

When I think of a monastery I picture a very austere place, bare, somewhat dank, with tiny little rooms with cots for the monks, a large church, and gardens, a brewery and a winery, and bees.  If I'm in a romantic mood and thinking back in time there is a scriptorium, where monks copy books.  Closer to the present time there is a library, but it is sparse, severely decorated, and without a copious amount of books.

Possibly my connotations come from growing up near the San Fernando Mission, where my little friends and I often went to beg for oranges and creep down into the cellars when the padres weren't looking.  Actually the padres were very kind, but insisted we stay in the public areas, and let us have all the oranges we could eat from the fields that then bordered the mission.  There was evidence of winemaking, although I really didn't know much about it, but no brewery.  I must have gotten that from movies.

Years ago I became curious about St. Norbert.  In learning about him I came across a beautiful monastery that quite exceeded my conceptions.  It is the Strahov monastery in Prague.  It is the second oldest monastery in the city, and quite extraordinary.


Saint Norbert of Xanten, born in 1080, was the son of a count and related to the imperial house of Germany and the House of Lorraine.  As was custom at the time (and I'm sure still is), the wealthy and connected controlled the Church and its politics.  Until he had a horseback riding accident, he had no interest in the Church but found his faith, and his place within the Church was bought and he moved up the ranks quickly.

St. Norbert of Xanten.

His ideas caused some ruckus, so he quit and became an itinerant preacher and travelled in northern France where he is said to have performed a number of miracles. Eventually Pope Calixtus II asked Norbert at the Council of Reims in 1119 to found a religious order, which he did in 1120 at Prémontré, France.  Later on several assassination attempts were made on him, and he was a player in the "Great Schism" which formally divided the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

When he died in 1134, his body was claimed by two parties.  For centuries the Monastery of Strahov tried to get his body, and finally on May 2, 1627, he was brought to Prague and interred in the monastery where he still lies today.  He was canonized by Pope Gregory XIII in the year 1582.

The order he founded was called the Premonstratensians, after Prémontré near Laon in northeastern France.  They are also known as the Norbertines, or in Britain and Ireland as the White Canons.  Canons differ from monks.  Monks are essentially lay people who live a contemplative and cloistered life.  Canons are clerics who engage in public ministry.  It is, of course, much more involved than that, but that's the basic gist.  Canons live according to precedents set by Saint Augustine.

St. Augustine (left) handing the Augustine Rule to
Norbert (right).  From the 12th century manuscript
Vita Sancti Norberti.  

Six years after St. Norbert died, King Vladislav II built a monastery on the road to Prague Castle.  It wasn't successful until 1143, three years later, when a group of Premonstratensians moved in.  The monastery began to prosper and became a center of spiritual and intellectual life.  The original wooden buildings were rebuilt with stone, but it was redone entirely in gothic style after a fire destroyed it in 1258.

It continued to prosper until it was sacked by Hussites in 1420.  It began to decline until the end of the 16th century and was plundered and sacked again during the 30 Years War (1618-1648).  Suffering one more time in 1742 from being bombarded by the French army, most of the gothic buildings were replaced with ones in baroque style.

In 1950, monastic orders were forbidden in Czechoslovakia.  Their members were interned, imprisoned and/or executed.  Their property, including the Strahov library, was made part of the new Museum of National Literature.  The archives, music collection, picture collection and other exhibits were dispersed to other state institutions.  With the collapse of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the confiscated property, including its library was returned.  
It is now an active pilgrimage destination, a museum, and an incredible library.

Bible of Jan de Selmberk from 1440.

The Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady is dedicated to St. Norbert.  It is decorated with frescoes painted in 1774 featuring motifs of the Virgin Mary and scenes from Norbert's life.  It also features an organ that Mozart played when he visited in 1787.  In a chapel once devoted to St. Ursula but now to St. Norbert lies buried an ebony coffin within a gilded brass sarcophagus.  This contains the remains of St. Norbert. 

The apse of the basilica.
The sarcophagus of St. Norbert.

But the Stahov's most astonishing feature is its library.  Divided into two halls, the Theological Hall contains religious texts and the Philosophical Hall contains philosophical texts.  There about 18,000 religious texts and 42,000 philosophical ones, many of them rare.  The library has been plundered repeatedly, but was rebuilt after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  The Theological Hall was constructed in 1679.  The acquisitions were so plentiful that by the end of the 18th century more room was required and the Philosophical Hall was built.

Above the texts in the Theological Hall are carved and gilded wooden decorations with cartouches.  The pictures in the cartouches and their titles tell what type of books are contained on the shelves below them.  The hall also contains a collection of 17th century globes.

The Theological Hall.

In the Theological Hall there is a compilation wheel which is a device used by 17th century scribes to compile texts.  The various texts that were to be copied were placed on a shelves.  The books were always displayed at the same angle, even when spun, thanks to a mechanism inside.

In addition to the two halls, some of the 200,000 books are in adjacent depositories.  Many are old works printed between 1501 and 1800.  There are over 1,500 incunabula and 3,000 manuscripts stored in a special treasury room.

The Philosophical Hall.
The ceiling fresco was done by Anton Maulbertsch, the
Viennese painter, over six months.  It depicts the "Intellectual
Progress of Mankind", showing the mutual impact of science
and religion on each other.

The monastery has cabinets of curiosities - those fabulous precursors to museums - taken from the estate of Karl Jan Erben in 1798.  The cabinets include parts of a dodo bird, specimens of insects, minerals, ocean specimens, and a large electrostatic device.

There is a dendrology library that consists of 68 volumes made around 1825, each one documenting a different wood.  Similar to the wooden books at the University of Padua, the panels are made from the wood of the featured tree.  The spines are titled in both Latin and German and made of bark with lichen.  Inside the books are the corresponding roots, leaves, flowers, fruits, pieces of branches, and pests.

One of the dendrology books.

The entire complex of the Strahov Monastery is still being reconstructed.  Today it bears little resemblance to the original cluster of wooden buildings.  A monument to a religious order and its perseverance through the travails of history, it once again strives for greatness.

Images from the Stravosky Klaster website.

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