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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Benedictines and their Books

From a pictorial life of Benedict, based on the
Second Dialogue of Gregory the Great,
printed in 1587. The complete book can
be viewed in Vivarium at:,16772

From the very beginning, Benedict of Nursia was devoted to the life of the Book, that is, the Bible. In fact, when he left Rome about 1500 years ago, it was to head into the hills near Subiaco, Italy, in order to be alone with his Bible.  Were it not for the aid of a local monk, he might have starved there.  As his work progressed, Benedict eventually found himself called to head a community of monks.  His experiences led him to record his "Rule" that provided a framework for monastic communal life.  Thus, Benedict is often depicted holding a copy of his Rule.  In other instances, it is clear that the book that Benedict is holding is the Bible itself.  In fact, the Rule rarely refers directly to books, but it does provide many references to various forms of "reading" and communal prayer--both of which would have required a lot of books.  Below is a small sampling of pictures showing Benedict and/or Benedictines with their books. The sources for these pictures are mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries and are all in the Special Collections at Saint John's University.

Saint Benedict showing his Rule to Saint Placid, Saint Maur, and other followers.  From a 1505 printing of the Rule in Latin, bound with a copy of the Second Dialogue of Gregory and a work by Bernard of Clairvaux. This will soon be added to Vivarium. This volume is about 5 inches tall.

The Rule of Benedict in Latin, from a 1544 edition in the Arca Artium collection. Note the use of the woodcut borders that continue on throughout the volume.  This small item is about 4 1/2 inches tall, or small enough to fit into a shirt pocket.  The opening letter "A" (for Ausculta = "Listen") receives special treatment in a woodcut, as well.

A fragment from the so-called Benedictine Psalter, printed in Mainz in 1459, in the workshop that also produced the Gutenberg Bible a few years earlier.  This large Psalter, commissioned by Benedictines for liturgical use, demonstrates the Order's interest in the new printing technology.  This particular page, with the damage to its edges and discoloration, was printed on parchment instead of paper, and later used in a book binding. From the Arca Artium collection and in Vivarium at:,13541.

 Here are a few followers of Benedict, with their books.


Saint Walpurga of Eichstätt holding her book and hovering over her monastic foundation.  From a life of Saint Walpurga in the Saint John's Rare Books Collection:  Lebensbeschreibung der heiligen Aebtissinn Walburg, by Philipp von Rathsamhausen (Eichstätt, 1792).  Soon to appear in Vivarium.

A good book is awfully hard to put down.  Saint Eulogius from the Imagines sanctorum Ord. S. Benedicti, by Karl Stengel (Augsburg, 1625). Vivarium:,15000

It can be so hard to find a quiet reading place ...  From the Corona lvcida in coelo iam fvlgens, by Karl Stengel (Augsburg, 1621). Soon to be in Vivarium.

If you are going to read books, you might write some as well. Bishop Haimo from Stengel's Imagines sanctorum Ord. S. Benedicti (see above).

These are but a few examples of the Benedictine interest in reading and books. The Special Collections at Saint John's University offer many, many more!