The Convent of St Gall, a perfect example of a great Carolingian monastery, was, from the 8th century to its secularization in 1805, one of the most important in Europe. Its library is one of the richest and oldest in the world and contains precious manuscripts such as the earliest-known architectural plan drawn on parchment. From 1755 to 1768, the conventual area was rebuilt in Baroque style. The cathedral and the library are the main features of this remarkable architectural complex, reflecting 12 centuries of continuous activity.
St Gall is a typical and outstanding example of the large Benedictine monastery, centre of art and knowledge, with its rich library and its scriptorium; the successive restructurings of the conventual’s space attest to its ongoing religious and cultural function. The Convent exerted great influence on developments in monastic architecture following the Council of Aachen.
It was in 612 that the lrish monk Gallus withdrew into the valley of Steinach to lead the existence of a hermit. In 747, the abbot Othmar established a community of Benedictine monks in the place made famous by St Gall and at the same time founded a school.
During the 9th and 10th centuries, the abbey of St Gall was one of the most renowned centres of Western culture and science. Its apogee coincided with the abbacy of Gotzbert (816-37) to whom was sent the famous plan on parchment known as the Plan of Saint Gall; this was probably sent by the Bishop of Basel, Heito, Abbot of Reichenau. Following the Council of Aachen, this architectural design accompanied by 341 annotations constitutes the ideal plan of a Benedictine abbey, including a scriptorium and a library. Excavations carried out at St Gall by Sennhauser show that this innovative plan was partially realized.
In 818, in the course of the Carolingian reform of the Church by Ludwig the Pious, the abbey, as a monastery immediately subordinate to the empire, received an imperial privilege of immunity, making it independent of the Diocese of Constance and placing it under the direct protection of the Crown. In 883 the East Frank Ludwig II the German conferred upon it the right to choose its own abbot, and finally, in 854, it was released from the obligation to pay tithes to the Bishop of Constance. The Abbey of St Gall had at last attained full autonomy.
The abbots had since 1206 been Princes of the Empire and ruled over the town of St Gall, the Fürstenland, and after 1468 over the County of Toggenburg. The Princely Abbey ruled at that time over the territory surrounding the town, while simultaneously being cut off in its monastery from the town itself, which in the meantime had gone through the Reformation and become independent. The Reformation had in fact for a time threatened the dissolution of the abbey itself, but after 1531 clerical sovereignty was restored, although freedom of religious practice was conceded to Toggenburg. Abbey rule in effect ended when French troops marched into St Gall in 1798. In 1805, the abbey was dissolved. Its clerical and administrative successor was to all intents and purposes the newly created Bishopric of the same name, which, although at first set up as the twin Diocese of Chur and St Gall, was made legally independent and then separated from Chur in 1847.
In 1836 the church became a cathedral: only the foundations and some elements of architecture, discovered as a result of probes undertaken after 1960, remain of what was once the splendour of the Carolingian monastery. Indeed, it has been reconstructed several times. Its present appearance, marked by the full-blown Baroque style of the cathedral (former abbatial) and the library, are the result of the construction campaigns of the 18th century.