Tuesday, December 09, 2014

New Sacred Art: The Monastic Refectory in Norcia

Guests listening to the reader
Many NLM readers have long felt great admiration for the Benedictine monks of Norcia, who live the traditional monastic life according to the prescriptions of the Holy Rule, and who, it is now well known, brew some of the best beer in Italy. Among their earliest supporters were Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, and since those days (ca. the Jubilee Year in 2000) the monastery has grown -- indeed, it has outgrown many of its rooms and buildings, necessitating various construction projects to expand facilities. This is good news in a monastery brimming with vocations! I have been blessed, as a friend and an oblate of the monastery, to watch their progress over the years, and now I am glad to be able to share with NLM readers some photographs of the refectory renovation.

A brief history is in order: when the monks first arrived in Norcia, the diocese had prepared a kitchen the size of a bathroom and a dinning room for 8. The first request Fr Cassian Folsom (Prior) made was for a larger space for each. A kitchen to feed 20 was soon built and a suitable refectory prepared, but already after a few years the monks knew that this space also would be too small. (Monks, after all, are known for their hospitality, and there is no better way to show that than inviting a guest for a meal.) Two years ago, they settled on new plan to convert the existing refectory into a kitchen which could feed 100, and to convert an adjacent 15th-century vaulted hall into the permanent refectory. This ancient room, which had hitherto functioned as a chapel, chapter room, and music practice room at various points in its history, offered the right combination of character and functionality.

Several benefactors made substantial pioneering gifts to the project, and in May of 2014 demolition and restructuring work began. The goal for the new refectory was to make a room not only functional but also adorned with a taste of heaven. As Terryl Kinder puts it in her very fine book Cistercian Europe: Architecture of Contemplation (2000):
The resemblance of the refectory to a church was not accidental. Monastic meals were sacramental in character—they were devout celebrations of the gifts of God in community—and the church-like effect of the building was furhter enhanced by a devotional image or picture on the east wall. A carved wooden crucifix adorned the wall at Fountains, while Cleeve had a magnificant crucifixion scene painted on the wall of the remodeled refectory in the second half of the fifteenth century. The Cistercian refectory, in other words, was not a mere cafeteria, but a sacred space intended for the refreshmen of the soul as much as for the nourishment of the body.  (pp. 286-87)
These words apply just as well to Benedictines as to Cistercians, of course. For the monk, the decoration of the room must nourish the soul through beauty while at the same time not being too lavish or worldly, so that he might exercise temperance and moderation. For a visiting guest, the room should be a place to contemplate God’s goodness -- something not all guests are ready to see in a church but are more than happy to see at a meal. Divine Providence intervened by sending the monks of Norcia a masterful young painter, Fabrizio Diomedi, who not only painted the stunning crucifixion scene, but designed every element of the room, from the floor to the delicate woodwork and carvings. (I am happy to say that during my last visit to Norcia I had the chance to meet and speak with Fabrizio, and purchased a hand-made painting of St. Benedict from him. Just his sketches of the proposed refectory were themselves incredibly inspiring!)

On November 22nd, the new refectory was solemnly blessed, and participants in the project were treated to a meal there. On Thanksgiving day (yes, the monks do celebrate that -- one of only three times a year when meat is served in the monastery!), Bishop Renato Boccardo of Spoleto-Norcia honored the monks with his first official visit to the newly renovated rooms, joining them even for the delightful American tradition of breaking the Wish Bone -- and I am told he won! While the monks expressed their thanks to the benefactors who made the project possible, it is thanks to God that such an awe-inspiring project could take form.

The Crucifixion scene
If there's a "moral to the story," it would simply be that great sacred art can still be produced and is still being produced wherever the requisite skills are cultivated and the love of beauty is treasured. Allow me to stress that, while the main Crucifixion scene is completed and the ribs of the vaults have been decorated, the refectory and kitchen are still projects under way: there are plans to paint more sacred images on the walls, and there is culinary equipment left to purchase. The monks would benefit from any support you can offer them to complete the renovation.

Please visit this site if you are interested in participating. And, no matter what, you can always get a 2015 Norcia Calendar!

(NB: Excerpts from this article have been adapted from Fr. Benedict's letter, which appears in the Norcia Winter Newsletter.)

Gothic scrollwork along the ribs of the vaults

Carpentry by Norcia locals

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