[A day out]
When I think of old libraries, I picture dark bookshelves lined up, sentry-like. Walls encased in wooden panelling, embellished with gold lettering commemorating the achievements of an endless list of names. A dark, be-quiet-the-books-are-sleeping atmosphere.
But my expectations (prejudices?) are as far from Admont Abbey Library as it is possible to get. Opening the door, I look straight down a bright, open hall, flooded with light. There is no dark panelling here, just the fresh white paint, curves and golden detailing of the Late Baroque, leading the eye upwards to the ceiling frescoes above, where marshmallow clouds and a permanent blue sky open the library up into infinite space.
Designed in 1764 and completed in 1776, the room was constructed by Austrian master builder Josef Hueber. He was a passionate believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, saying: “Like our understanding, spaces too should be filled with light.” And this is exactly what his architecture created, a space that opens up towards the light at every opportunity, working with the paintings that complete it.
This is a place where it is impossible to separate art from architecture. The two flow into each other, creating a seamless whole. Decorative and solid pillars overlap; painted galleries and walls add an extra storey before marking out the picture plane of the ceiling frescoes above.
Looking at history paintings created on this sort of scale makes it easy to understand why this genre remained at the top of the artistic hierarchy for so long. Each cupola is home to around twenty allegorical figures and angels, representing different aspects of knowledge, from genealogy to medicine to architecture. They explore the relationship between religion and the arts and sciences (although – unsurprisingly – the theme of divine revelation is given precedence, decorating the largest and highest central cupola). The frescoes were painted by Bartolomeo Altomonte in the summers of 1775 and 1776. Especially impressive when you consider that the artist was already 80 years old when he started work. Creating thematic groups, he painted cupolas focussing on canonical and secular law, history, philosophy, theology, the natural sciences, arts and technology.
The figures remain obediently within the picture plane, keeping the viewer’s gaze directed upwards, looking into the skies. They are spread evenly throughout the space, interacting only with their immediate neighbours, focussing purely on the aspect of knowledge they are to represent, linked by pathways of light pink cloud. The personifications of the natural sciences are probably the easiest to decipher. One figure draped in flowing blue cloth inspects the stars above through a telescope, representing astronomy. Her neighbour is Geography, who is using a pair of compasses to measure out distances on a globe. Turning a little, you can see Mathematics pointing to a list of numbers on a white tablet as well as Architecture holding a ground plan. Mineralogy on the opposite side is harder to identify (this is when I wish I’d brought binoculars) – she is carefully investigating a basket of rocks, brought to her by an angel. Physics is also more difficult to work out, holding a model of the celestial sphere. Turning again, you’re at the best position to admire the main figure group: Medicine is clothed in black, handing a prescription to Pharmacy, who glances up from a reference book on herbs, perhaps looking to identify the plants in the vases behind her. Opposite her, Chemistry uses distillation to separate chemicals to use in medicine, working bellows to build up the heat. There are further details too, emphasising the theme: a muscular statue representing anatomy, an angel behind Medicine holding the Staff of Asclepius, depicting the Greek god of healing, and a male figure wielding pestle and mortar, grinding herbs into fragments.
Surrounded by the library’s generous space, you turn automatically, dizzyingly, from one group to the next, immersed in the painted world above, working out the allegories. There may be no specific story being told here, but this makes the figures no less fascinating.
Before returning to the minimalist museum world beyond the wooden door, I stop and savour the whole again. The impression of effortlessness, of light and colour. This is a library without any sense of stuffiness, a space that welcomes you and wants you to stay.
Admont Abbey is located in the County of Styria, Austria, around 10 km away from Gesäuse, a stunning national park. The abbey also houses a Museum of Contemporary Art, a National History Museum and a Museum of Fine Arts, and is surrounded by themed gardens. There’s also a restaurant for hungry visitors selling deliciously made Austrian food.