Strahov Monastery and its magnificent library: a remarkable collection stored in impressive Baroque halls

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Katerina Bulovska
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On Petrin Hill, a white building with two towers has stood overlooking the city of Prague for centuries. King Vladislav II authorized the large structure for a religious community known as the Premonstratensians. In 1140, the construction that would be known as the Premonstratensian monastery in the Strahov area was completed, but it officially started functioning three years later when the Premonstratensian monks settled in the building. Today, it bears the name Strahov Monastery and is one of the oldest of its kind.

Initially, the monastery was made of wood, but some parts were later rebuilt using stone. However, after the fire in 1258, very little was left of the original building, so it had to be rebuilt in the then-popular Gothic architectural style. In the following years, the monastery was plundered twice and bombarded by the French. Then, towards the 18th century, it was once again remodeled, this time with elements of the Baroque architectural style.

The rise of communism put an end to the secluded lifestyle of the monks. Some of them were executed while others were put in jail. Fortunately, with the end of communism, the turbulent times of the monastery came to an end. The surviving monks returned to the monastery and have been there ever since.

View of Strahov Monastery from Úvoz street. Author: Matěj Baťha. CC BY-SA 2.0

For centuries, the Premonstratensian monks are guardians of one of the most beautiful libraries in the world, the Strahov Library. After the last reconstruction of the monastery, the books of the library were kept in the remarkable Theological Hall. Abbot Jeroným Hirnhaim and Giovanni Domenico Orsi were commissioned for the building’s construction, and their extraordinary work was completed in 1679.

Theological Hall

The hall is a true representative of the Baroque style, decorated with beautiful frescoes depicting biblical scenes, rich stucco work, wooden carved ornaments and astronomical and geographical globes dating back to the 16th century. In the Theological Hall, there are more than 18,000 volumes, among them many medieval manuscripts, as well as prohibited books stored in locked cabinets. One wall of the hall is entirely occupied by Bibles translated in different languages. In the hall, there is also a wooden statue of Saint John the Evangelist, the author of the Gospel of John and the inscription INITIUM SAPIENTIAE TIMOR DOMINI (“the beginning of wisdom is fear of God”).

1440 Jan of Šelmberk’s bible, on exhibition in Strahov Monastery’s library. Author: Yelkrokoyade. CC BY-SA 3.0

The collection of books grew as time went on and the Theological Hall could no longer store all of them. That’s when Jan Ignaz Palliardi constructed the Philosophical Hall, and many of the newly arrived editions were transferred here. The fresco in the hall is among the most impressive ever created, called the ‘Intellectual Progress of Mankind,’ the work of the Austrian painter Franz Anton Maulbertsch.

The Theological Hall with stucco decoration and paintings from the 1720s. Author: Jorge Royan. CC BY-SA 3.0

Many biblical and historical persons are depicted on the ceiling, including Adam and Eve, Solomon, Socrates, Alexander the Great, and St. Paul delivering his sermon at the ruins of a pagan temple in Athens. The hall contains approximately 42,000 volumes dealing with philosophy, astronomy, philology, mathematics, history, and other sciences.

The Philosophical Hall from Strahov monastery (Prague). Author: Yelkrokoyade. CC BY-SA 3.0

Women were not previously allowed to enter the library, but the ban began to erode around the beginning of the 19th century. Among the first women who broke the rule were Lady Emma Hamilton and the Austrian archduchess and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie-Louise. She even enriched the collection of books with editions on the first Louvre museum.

Philosophical Hall (Strahov Monastery). Author: Bjørn Erik Pedersen. CC BY 3.0

The Strahov Monastery also has a beautiful church known as the Basilica of our Lady. The Baroque church is richly decorated with beautiful frescoes and altar made of marble. In 1787, Mozart visited the monastery and played on the centuries-old organ that today is part of the interior of the church. Notable sections of the monastery are the Cabinet of Curiosities, which contains numerous artifacts and natural science collections, and the great picture gallery featuring masterpieces from the Gothic and Baroque eras.

Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady is the main cloister church. Author: paddy. CC BY-SA 3.0

Prague is well known for its beer, and so is the Strahov Monastery. Here, the monks have been producing beer since the 13th century, and the tradition is very much alive today. The Strahov brewery serves traditional Czech cuisine and ten variations of unique types of beer.