Schol­ars fret about fate of ‘holy grail’ Ger­man abbey books

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

It was filthy, cramped and in ma­jor disarray, but when art his­to­rian Eva Lindqvist Sand­gren en­tered the li­brary in Altomuenster Abbey, off-lim­its to all but the Ger­man monastery’s nuns for more than five cen­turies, she im­me­di­ately knew she was look­ing at a ma­jor trea­sure.

The dusty shelves held at least 500 books, by her es­ti­mate, in­clud­ing pre­cious il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts from the 16th cen­tury, chants used by the uniquely wom­en­led Brid­get­tine Or­der and pro­ces­sion­als burst­ing with col­or­ful re­li­gious and or­na­men­tal dec­o­ra­tion in their mar­gins.

Un­like most Brid­get­tine li­braries, the tomes had sur­vived the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion, the 30 Years War and Ger­many’s “sec­u­lar­iza­tion,” when the state took most church prop­erty. It rep­re­sents the most com­plete col­lec­tion of the or­der known to­day. “I had en­tered a time cap­sule,” said Lindqvist Sand­gren, a se­nior lec­turer at Swe­den’s Upp­sala Univer­sity.

Sur­prised by the spon­ta­neous de­ci­sion by Altomuenster’s last re­main­ing nun, Sis­ter Apol­lo­nia Buchinger, to open the li­brary, 20 schol­ars in­clud­ing Sand­gren made plans to re­turn and metic­u­lously cat­a­log the re­mark­able col­lec­tion. But be­fore they could, the Vat­i­can or­dered the abbey in the Bavar­ian town of 7,500 closed and locked up the li­brary, which also con­tains some 2,300 stat­ues, paint­ings and other works of art.

If plans go ahead to close it down, all of the abbey’s prop­erty - the books, the art­works, the city block-sized abbey and the acres of forests and fields that make up the monastery grounds - would be turned over to the dio­ce­ses of Mu­nich and Freis­ing. Altomuenster is the end of a sub­way line from Mu­nich, one of Ger­many’s most ex­pen­sive cities, and its land alone is thought to be worth tens of mil­lions of eu­ros (dol­lars) - as­sets that Sis­ter Apol­lo­nia thinks the dio­ce­ses are eager to get their hands on.

Since 1496, the for­mer Bene­dic­tine abbey in Altomuenster has housed a fe­male re­li­gious or­der founded by Saint Brid­get in Swe­den in the 14th cen­tury. It is one of three monas­ter­ies of the orig­i­nal branch of the schol­arly, monas­tic or­der op­er­at­ing to­day. But with its num­bers in de­cline, Sis­ter Apol­lo­nia now lives there alone. The Vat­i­can re­quires at least three nuns to train novices to be­come nuns, prompt­ing the de­ci­sion to shut the abbey down.

The Fran­cis­can nun the Vat­i­can put in charge of the abbey’s clo­sure, Sis­ter Gabriele Kon­rad, says the li­brary’s col­lec­tion is just be­ing kept safe but she’s re­fused to grant the schol­ars or any­one else ac­cess to the books. “The value of the li­brary is the en­sem­ble, be­cause it’s never been taken apart,” said Corine Sch­lief, an art his­to­rian at Ari­zona State Univer­sity who vis­ited the li­brary with Sand­gren. “If this should be taken apart and di­vided up be­tween books that col­lec­tors would give tens or hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars for and those only of in­ter­est to schol­ars, it would lose a lot of its value.”

Sch­lief, Sand­gren and other aca­demics have writ­ten an open let­ter to the Vat­i­can, Sis­ter Gabriele and the Mu­nich dio­ce­ses urg­ing that the li­brary be kept to­gether and made avail­able to the pub­lic and of­fer­ing to cat­a­log it.

Sis­ter Gabriele and the Mu­nich dio­ce­ses in­sist there is no plan to sell the books, and that their ex­perts are per­fectly qual­i­fied to han­dle them. Mu­nich-Freis­ing Vicar Gen­eral Msgr. Peter Beer dis­missed spec­u­la­tion of any land-and-trea­sures grab by the dio­ce­ses.“There’s a false im­pres­sion that we’re tak­ing in riches and gems and gold and ev­ery­thing imag­in­able - that’s non­sense,” he told the AP at his of­fice in Mu­nich. “We are tak­ing on costs more than any­thing.” His of­fice also down­played the li­brary’s po­ten­tial value or his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, telling the AP it in­cludes “a large num­ber of an­tiphonar­ies from the 18th cen­tury, most in very used and some in dam­aged con­di­tion,” and that six an­tiphonar­ies books con­tain­ing re­li­gious chants - from the Mid­dle Ages have “al­ready been stud­ied by schol­ars.”

That’s made the group of schol­ars who wrote the open let­ter and others even more sus­pi­cious. From the hun­dreds of pho­tographs they took, they know there’s much more - in­clud­ing an il­lu­mi­nated man­u­script from the 1500s in Bel­gium, which might be ex­pected to fetch 100,000 eu­ros ($105,000) or more if sold to a pri­vate col­lec­tor, said Schier. Volker Schier, an­other ex­pert from Ari­zona State Univer­sity, noted that even fi­nan­cially in­signif­i­cant books are his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant. Ledgers, cook­books and even an­tiphonar­ies help tell how the nuns lived over the cen­turies.

“Altomuenster is the holy grail,” he said. Beer bris­tled at the of­fer of help from the group of schol­ars. “You can be as­sured that we do not need any help from the US to un­der­stand how to treat cul­tural as­sets of sig­nif­i­cance for Europe. We have a slightly longer his­tory and slightly longer ex­pe­ri­ence,” Beer said. The dio­ce­ses plan to dig­i­tize all books dat­ing from be­fore 1803 and make them avail­able on­line for re­searchers - but Sch­lief says that’s not enough. “Dig­i­ti­za­tion is laud­able, but it never re­places the books them­selves, which now need to be care­fully stud­ied and cat­a­logued,” she said.

—AP

The un­dated re­pro­duc­tion shows a re­li­gious book which was found in li­brary of the abbey in Altomuenster, south­ern Ger­many.

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