Brief History of the Philosophical Hall / Brief History of the Philosophical Hall

During the last quarter of the 18th century, Abbot Václav Mayer decided to build new library rooms for the numerous additions to the library. For this purpose he had the Philosophical Hall built in the location of the original granary. This hall was built by John Ignatius Palliardi, a naturalized Italian architect. The front wall was built as early as 1783, the interior made of walnut was brought from the abolished Premonstratensian monastery in Louka u Znojma. The dimensions of the future hall were adapted to the size of the shelves. The interior was installed in the period 1794 – 1797 by its original author, Jan Lahofer of Tasovice, and modified to early classicist form. The remarkable dimensions of the hall (length 32m, width 10m and height 14m) are emphasized by the monumental ceiling painting by F. Anton Maulbertsch of Vienna. On 8 August 1793 the Abbot started to discuss with F. A. Maulbertsch, whose murals he knew from Louka where Maulbertsch painted a fresco called “Spiritual development of the mankind” on the library ceiling in 1776-78. The basic idea was to express how philosophies and sciences together with religion have been improving since the beginning of the mankind, until they have developed into Christianity. As a guarantee of this search, Divine Providence is put in the middle of the mural, surrounded by virtues and vices. Development of the mankind starts with its dawning, which is combined with Old Testament motifs. In the center of the events there are tablets with the Ten Commandments and Moses, the Ark of the Covenant is behind them. Other figures pictured include Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Salomon and David. On the left-hand side we see the development of the Greek civilization from the mythical times through the period of Alexander the Great all the way to the philosophers Socrates, Diogenes and Democritos. The evolution of science is illustrated on the right-hand side (e.g., Aesculapos, Pythagoras, Socrates in prison). Next to the sign reading 'Wenceslaus secundus, hic primus', which tells us that the founder of the hall, Václav Mayer, was the second abbot to be named Václav, but the first Václav in the library, there is a group of defeated misbelievers as an allusion to the French encyclopedists. Their Encyclopedia, however, is stored in the hall among the first volumes, which indicates the liberal atmosphere in Strahov at the time. The opposite side is dominated especially New Testament scene of St. Paul's speech at the monument of unknown god on Areopagus in Athens. Wenceslas, Patron Saint of Bohemia, stands in the right-hand corner, a banner with the Eagle of St Wenceslas swaying in his left hand. The old woman on his right is his grandmother, St. Ludmila. Underneath him, among the four Fathers of the Church (Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory) stand St. Methodius, who christianized Great Moravia Empire, and the second Bishop of Prague, St. Adalbert. The last in the line, with an enlightened face and holding his abbot's croizer, the founder of the hall, Abbot Václav Mayer, looks into the hall. To his right, other Bohemian patron saints, St. John of Nepomuk and St. Norbert (founder of the Premonstratensian Order) are kneeling. At the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century, the library became famous throughout European cultural circles. Numerous visits by important people are recorded in the oldest visitors book used since 1792. Women were initially only allowed to enter the library sporadically because of the imposition of monastic seclusion. One of the first women was Lady Emma Hamilton, who visited the library in 1800 with her husband, a British archaeologist and statesman Sir William Hamilton, and her lover, the victor of the Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Another significant woman to enter the library, on 17 June 1812, was the Austrian Princess and wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Louise. In the autumn of the same year, she sent to the Strahov Library more books, a Viennese set of porcelain, and, most significantly, a four-volume work about the first Louvre museum. When this exclusive publication had been completed, Napoleon is said to have ordered the whole print run to be destroyed, and kept just three or four complete series. He was afraid that his reputation would be ruined by the fact that the work listed the origin of a whole number of exhibits, stolen particularly in Italy. This book gift was stored in a special high cabinet overlooking the other furniture in the hall. Opposite the entrance doors, on the other side of the hall, there is a bust of the Strahov librarian and archivist Prior Cyril Straka, who made a substantial contribution to the cataloguing work and to the process of making the library and archival materials available to the public, primarily in the first quarter of the 20th century. He was also one of the foremost experts on Czech bookbinding. It was Straka who named the two halls after traditional separate philosophical and theological study subjects. In addition to philosophy, which originally included all the sciences, we can also find works from other disciplines which were taught at universities within the courses on philosophy: astronomy, mathematics, history, philology, etc. There are more than 33,000 volumes in this hall.

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