I’m coming to you from St Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, Kansas, and I’d like to speak a word on behalf of utilitarian art.
As I walk around the grounds of the Abbey, which is also home to Benedictine College, I see a bronze statue of St Benedict outside the student union. Benedict reaches outwards and upwards with his right hand, inviting the student body to go out and do great things for Christ. This hand is the hand of one of the former abbots of the monastery, which the sculptor used as a model for Benedict’s hand. The use of the abbot’s hand for the statue of St Benedict brings Benedict closer to home, and makes him seem like a more recent father for all the students, staff and faculty of the college.
I also notice, as I join in the Liturgy of the Hours in the abbey church, that a large number of the psalm chants are marked by the initials “BKS”, for Fr. Blaine Schultz, the Abbey Choirmaster. Fr. Blaine has written a large amount of the liturgical music that the monastic community sings. This music was specifically written for this particular group of monks on the banks of the Missouri River. There is something encouraging about knowing that you are singing music written by one of your brothers to help you worship God better, a brother with whom you eat, pray, and work every day.
As I exit the abbey church, I pass underneath a giant mural that covers the wall at one end of the monastic choir. This mural depicts Christ’s crucifixion in red and white, with a golden Father watching over the scene and reaching out with arms to embrace, and a white Dove connecting the two. On either side of Christ are angels in blue and purple, carrying the instruments of crucifixion, as well as the chalice of the Last Supper. Christ is flanked by St Benedict and his sister St Scholastica, standing watch in full habit with abbatial croziers. In the four corners of the image are scenes of monks in black – two of monks being blessed by St Benedict as they work (wrapping cloth and carrying rocks, it seems), and two of monks serving others (by anointing the sick, and what looks like shoeing a horse). This mural connects the work and lives of the monastery’s monks to the work of Christ on the cross, offering themselves to – and being embraced by – God the Father. It is an image which connects the monks to their tradition, and encourages them to continue the work that their brothers, following Christ according to the model of St Benedict.
None of this art is meant to be a vehicle for the artist’s self-expression. It is all meant to point the viewer (or singer) to God, such that the artist fades into invisibility. It is also meant to connect the viewer (or singer) to his or her brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who share their monastic commitment. This art finds its value in service, in utility – in the work of charity it accomplishes. Yet it remains beautiful. Indeed, without its purpose, it would lose much of its beauty, which comes not only from its appearance or sound, but from the love for God and others which shines through it.
Think of this post as a public service announcement: We often deride utilitarian works of art as derivative, unoriginal, and mediocre – not true Art. But the power of monastic art to connect us to God and each other should give us pause, and cause us to question the dogma that that Art is best which refuses to serve.
Cole Matson is a second-year PhD student in the Institute for Theology, Imagination & the Arts, researching the Eucharist as a model for communion-building in the theatre. He is the Guest Contributions Editor for Transpositions.
Image credit: Author