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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Shedding (Colored) Light on a Monastic Tradition; Or, the Rule of Benedict in Pictures

Saint Benedict in the east window in the former Abbey Church
at Saint John's Abbey and University.

The Books from the HMML Basement blog focuses on the rare books that the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library holds, or on the work that the Library has done preserving rare books and manuscripts overseas. Today's story takes a slightly different twist: A glimpse of the stained glass in the former Abbey Church at Saint John's Abbey--although books will appear later on. 

When the Abbey commissioned Marcel Breuer to design a new Abbey Church in the 1950's, the old church (dedicated in 1882) was decommissioned and converted into a welcome center, today known as the "Great Hall." This is the venue for many concerts, formal dinners, blood drives, poster sessions, and other campus events. It is also the home of the campus information desk.

Today the Great Hall is still one of the chief sights on campus--even with all of the altars, much of the artwork and heavy decoration of the previous decades now removed. Only a few elements of the earlier decoration remain, notably the large Beuronese-style mural of Jesus in the apse and an attractive set of late 19th-century stained glass.

The Beuronese mural painted by Brother Clement Frischauf, OSB, in the 1930's.
Most people who trek to the Great Hall, do so to view the mural, which is stunning in itself. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that this huge work was partially hidden by an altar and baldacchino for several years. [Please note that all photos of the Great Hall and its stained-glass collection in this blog post are my own--please be kind in critiquing the quality of the images!]

While most of the remainder of the Great Hall has been simplified in its decor, with plain painted walls and (today) a gathering of banners, the main elements in the room that hearken back to the earliest days of this room as worship space are the stained-glass windows on three sides (north, east, and south). Installed in 1881, before the church opened, all but one of these windows were manufactured by the Chicago firm of George Misch & Co. (Cf. Fr. Tobias Maeder, OSB, "St. John's First Abbey Church (II)" in Scriptorium 20 (1961); thanks to Brother David Klingeman, OSB, for this reference!). The design for the windows is attributed to the church's architect, the Rev. Gregory Steil, OSB.

The north windows are dedicated to the old law, embodied in the central portrait of Moses and with a series of emblems that allude to elements of the stories of the Old Testament: the tower of Babel, the brazen serpent, Noah's ark, etc.

Stories from the Old Testament: A hand taps a rod
onto a stone and water comes forth.

Stories from the Old Testament: The jewel-covered
breastplate of judgment.
Due to its position in the building (to the north) this window does not get very good sunlight for the amateur photographer. I have not yet been able to get a good photo of the parts of the window, so I can only offer a glimpse of two emblems.

Facing this window to the south is a another rose window dedicated to Jesus Christ and presenting emblems that focus on human salvation through him. These emblems roughly parallel those in the north transept--there the Tower of Babel, here the church as symbol of stability; there the rock brings forth water, here the heart of Jesus springs forth blood; etc.

The south rose window, dedicated to Jesus.

Detail of one of the emblems: the Crucifixion.

Detail: The bleeding heart of Jesus (parallel to the
water springing from the stone).

Detail: The Eucharist.

As you can see from the photos, the emblems on both sets of windows offer an easily recognizable overview of Christian beliefs, based on Biblical and Christian iconography. The intention is to provide a sampling of such possible emblems, not a complete palette depicting the history of salvation.

In addition to these two rose windows in the transepts, there are also several saints offered in the side windows: five Benedictine men to the north (Gregory the Great, Benedict, Placid, Maur, and Boniface) and five Benedictine women to the south (Scholastica, Walpurga, Edeltrud, Mechthild, and Gertrude). Along the side walls are other important teachers of the church: Jerome, Ambrose, Thomas Aquinas, et al., and of course, John the Baptist (the patron of St. John's Abbey) immediately above the main entrance.

It is the east window, over the main entrance of the Great Hall to which I would now like to turn my attention and the remainder of this article.

Rose window over the main entry to the former
Abbey Church at Saint John's Abbey and University

Repeating the format of the previous two windows, the center portrait shows Benedict with some of his customary attributes: a book (the Rule), a crosier (symbol of authority), and a cup with a snake in it (recalling an unsuccessful attempt to poison Benedict).

What becomes quickly noticeable about the surrounding emblems is the more complicated imagery that engages our attention: a heart with a laddar emerging from it, a pair of hands with a hammer and chisel making (or possibly destroying?) a statue, an awkwardly constructed building, etc. In addition, these pictures make a much greater use of captions or explanatory texts.

The opening of the Rule of Benedict: "Ausculta of Fili ..."

A building constructed "without the rule" ("sine regula").

At face value, these eight emblems are essentially a distillation of the Rule of Benedict, presented in a visual manner. As the artist asserts in these two images, life for a Benedictine would be disorderly without the Rule, while a life within the Rule is blessed and leads along the right path (exemplified in the "Y" in the first emblem).

However, this latter emblem awakened a slight memory in me of a book that was sitting in my office last week: Bonifaz Gallner's Regula Emblematica (Vienna, 1780). I had pulled this book from our rare book collection to show to visitors earlier in the week. The simple, library binding (green buckram) belied the beautiful plates within--168 plates that attempt to explicate the Rule visually and promote meditation upon the Rule.

Among these emblems I found the following:

Emblem XIII (13) from Bonifaz Gallner's collection in the Saint John's Rare Book Collection.
I removed the text in this photo, but there is a selection from the Rule below this.

Clearly the two emblems were related. Moreover, I also knew that the printed version of Gallner's emblem collection was based on a manuscript copy that the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library had microfilmed in 1965, when Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, spent a few months at the Abbey of Melk (Gallner's home monastery) microfilming medieval manuscripts. I was able to locate our own color version of this manuscript:

Part stencil, part manuscript, part engraving?
Codex 510 from the Abbey of Melk, Austria.

Thus, we have a line of iconography extending from the early 18th century in Melk, to the late 18th century (printed in 1780 and 1783), to the late 19th century in the Midwestern United States (1881). Eventually, this line would lead to the digital world of today.

Indeed, upon further inspection, I found that all eight of the emblems surrounding the stained-glass Benedict portrait were derived ultimately from Gallner's emblem collection. Here is an overview of these images (click on any of the images to see them enlarged), not in numerical order, I'm afraid:

Emblem XXXV
Emblem VIII

Emblem LXXII


Emblem XI

Emblem XIII

Emblem LXV

Each of these is intended to provide an insight into the Rule of Benedict, but not in a direct manner. These are meant to be read (visually and verbally) and pondered. They provide a framework for interpreting Benedict's approach to monasticism in community. As a framework, they also provide a foundation for the monks of the community, who would have seen these images several times every day as they left the church after the Divine Office and/or Mass.

Knowing very little about Gallner and his collection (beyond the printed copy in the SJU Rare Book Collection), I turned to that trusty guide, Google, and searched his name (and the title of his book). I was delighted to find scores of references to him and his book, only to be somewhat deflated by the realization that nearly all of these were derivatives of the first item on the list: digital copies of his work on, a free online resource for a wide variety of digitized materials. Indeed, I have just recently been adding reference works published by the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library to, myself! HMML now has about 20 titles in the massive holdings at that website.

The two editions of Gallner's book can be found at these links (you can download them as pdf's or in other formats):

1780 edition:

1783 edition:

A great many of the emblems can be found in Google images, although frequently without the matching text from the Rule. If you want the emblems without the excerpts from the Rule, then go to Wikimedia Commons:

However, this site does not appear to include all 168 emblems in the original collection.

You can also view the full color copy from the monastic library at the Abbey of Melk, Austria, on HMML's Vivarium website:

So, I looked at a 246-year-old book in my office, found a clue about some stained glass in a building on our campus, that got tied back to the work that HMML did in Melk, Austria, back in 1965, and then I was connected back to the online work that HMML does today. Not bad for one little moment of diversion!

Now if I can only find time to learn more about the individual emblems and Bonifaz Gallner, that could be a future blog post ...

Saint Benedict, from the 1725 copy of Bonifaz Gallner's Regula Emblematica
(Codex 510 from the Monastic Library at Melk Abbey, Austria;
digitized from HMML color microfilm).

*     *     *

Peace from the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and the Great Hall,

Matt Heintzelman