The Best Monastic Documentaries

The monastic life is about as far as one can get from the flashy world of the entertainment industry. And yet, it has been the subject of some very good documentaries over the last fifteen years or so. For those curious about the various monks (and nuns) of the world, I thought I would provide a list of a few films with which to start.

Into Great Silence (2006)

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A Carthusian prays in his cell, from Into Great Silence (Source)

This stirring art film by Philip Gröning was produced over several years. Every shot is deeply meditative. We, the viewers, are drawn into a contemplative pose along with the monks themselves. As might be expected, there is very little dialogue – indeed, very little sound at all. We get a powerful sense of the holy silence that envelops the Carthusians of La Grande Chartreuse. Yet when the monks do speak, such as in an interview with an ancient, blind monk that comes towards the end of the film, the words mean something. The chant of the night office given prominent place in the film evokes all the centuries of virtually unchanged monastic life that have come down to us from St. Bruno. This film is hands down the most important and most spiritually insightful documentary about monasticism, and it has continued to exert a powerful influence on most such documentaries since.

Veilleurs dans la nuit (2011)

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A liturgy at Le Barroux (Source)

The monastery of Sainte Marie-Madeleine du Barroux, founded in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, preserves much of the great tradition of French Benedictine life. It is one of the very few monasteries on earth which has preserved the form of tonsure once known as “the monastic crown.” It is also famous for its grand and elegant celebration of the liturgy, as well as the great holiness of its founder, Dom Gérard Calvet. This French documentary does a good job depicting their life through a mix of commentary and interviews. It is of an entirely different style than Into Great Silence, but it relates more actual information about the monks themselves.

Quaerere Deum (2011)

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Some of the monks of Norcia with their famous beer (Source)

Filmmaker Peter Hayden of Wilderland Media has done some great and poetic work publicizing the various new monasteries founded in the old world by Americans. The first of these was the Monastero di San Benedetto in Norcia, established in 2000. It is only appropriate then that Hayden should have looked at them first. He produced a “day in the life” style documentary bearing clear influences from Into Great Silence. The slow pace, lack of commentary, and meditative minimalism all recall the best parts of that earlier work. Norcia itself – or what it was before the terrible earthquake of 2016 destroyed much of the town – emerges as a living community “seeking God.” A subdued sense of joy shines throughout.

Benedictine Monks, Ireland (2017)

 

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Br. John Baptist in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, Silverstream. Photo taken by the author.

Peter Hayden’s second work on the monastic renewal is a more obviously promotional piece of filmmaking than Quaerere Deum. A profile of Silverstream Priory, Benedictine Monks, Ireland depicts the community life of adoration and reparation led by the monks there. Scenes from Mass, chapter, and refectory alternate with candid shots of the monks at work and leisure. Interviews with the Prior and Subprior provide spiritual as well as historical context. As someone who knows the monks personally, I found it a pretty good exposition of their spirit. That peculiarly Benedictine sense of place is evoked through gentle Irish music at various points. And the combined wisdom of Dom Mark and Dom Benedict is a great grounding to the beautiful visuals. I was very taken with the image of Dom Cassian, then only a postulant, in prayer at the pillar and candle.

My only criticism is that, in spite of all these good features, the film fails to capture the overwhelming sense of the supernatural that hangs about Silverstream. I’m not sure if it was the darkness of the year during filming, or the slightly uneven cinematography, or the lack of scenic order that scuttled it for me.  Benedictine Monks, Ireland needs a heavier dose of the contemplative stillness that so strongly marks both Into Great Silence and Quaerere Deum. Still, it’s a nice introduction to the place for those curious about the Benedictine Monks of Perpetual Adoration.

Présence à Dieu (2015)

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Matins at Sept-Fons, from Présence à Dieu (Source)

This short film, first brought to my attention by Fr. Joseph Koczera SJ, does a good job showing what a traditional monastery can look like, even if it embraces the new Mass and the vernacular office. Notre Dame de Sept-Fons is currently the largest Trappist monastery in the world, at least in terms of membership – it is also manifestly young and diverse. The film shows why the Abbey keeps getting vocations. A near constant soundtrack of chant carries the viewer along. Présence à Dieu is also full of the Abbot’s exposition of the Rule, which is a nice plus.

God is the Bigger Elvis (2011)

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Mother Dolores Hart, wearing her trademark beret, from God is the Bigger Elvis (Source)

This one differs from the others in a few key respects. First, it’s an HBO production, rather than an Indie film. Secondly, it’s about nuns rather than monks. And third, there is a delicate sense of humor throughout that is a refreshing change from the other movies. It tells the story of Mother Dolores Hart, a starlet of the 1950’s who appeared in several features alongside Elvis before becoming a nun at the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis in Connecticut. She is now the prioress of the community. The documentary looks at her life and vocation as well as the daily ins and outs of the monastery. Not to be missed!

Life in Hidden Light (2016)

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A scene in the refectory from Life in Hidden Light (Source)

Monasticism is not confined to the Benedictine family. As Life in Hidden Light reminds us, the Carmelites also have a great tradition of contemplative monasticism. Clearly influenced by Into Great Silence, this film does a great job balancing meditative cinematography and interviews with the Discalced Carmelite sisters of Wolverhampton. One in particular that stands out is the old, mostly deaf nun who speaks about the “mess” of the world and the love of God. I was reminded of Into Great Silence‘s blind Carthusian (not to mention the slightly grotesque Jesuit in “The Enduring Chill,” by Flannery O’Connor). The old nun’s message is a sound, salutary one that we should all hearken to in this day and age.

There are probably other such films out there, but these are a few that might be a good starting place for those interested in the monastic life.

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Mormon Artists You Should Know

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Wulf Barch’s prize-winning piece, The Labrynth, or the Book of Walking Forth by Day. 2011. (Source)

One of my recent discoveries has been the Mormon art world, formerly a dark continent for me. With the passing of the late Mormon president, I thought I might offer a window into an aesthetic realm that, I suspect, is still largely unknown to many. Most non-LDS people will have heard of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Some may be aware of the imaginative Book of Mormon illustrations by Arnold Friberg. And anyone who’s been on the internet long enough will recognize the utterly bonkers right-wing propaganda produced by Jon McNaughton. However, few know the very impressive offerings by contemporary Mormon artists.

 

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Abinadi before King Noah (Abinadi Appearing before King Noah). Arnold Friberg. Note the curious mixture of Biblical motifs and Central American aesthetics. We have here a typically Mormon image. (Source)

Apparently, BYU has an excellent Fine Arts department. The jewel in their crown is Wulf Barsch, a Bavarian émigré who studied under the Bauhaus Masters, themselves trained by Klee and Kandinsky. After some flirtations with the Viennese school of Fantastic Realism, best represented by Ernst Fuchs, Barsch, we read, “studied Egyptian and Islamic culture and history.” These influences would come to the fore in his later work. He was baptized a Mormon in 1966, went to BYU to study Fine Art, and stayed there for some forty years.

Barsch’s work is marked by a few cardinal motifs. He always uses vivid colors, often structured by two juxtaposed elements: a blurred realism and a lightly sketched geometric design. This combination gives his work the slightly dizzy air of a dream – or, better yet, of a mystic vision, of some terrible sacral truth unveiling itself. The viewer becomes the prophet.

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The Real Voyage of Discovery, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch’s study of Islamic art and its long tradition of sacred geometry has borne much fruit throughout his career.

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The Measure of All Things, Wulf Barsch. 2009. (Source)

Barsch’s prophetic accents are heightened and canalized by a keen ritual sensibility. On those occasions when he does depict architectural details, they usually reflect the norms of temples: Classical, Masonic, and Mormon.

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Jupiter Square, Wulf Barsch. Note the use of a Magic Square. (Source)

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Et in Arcadia Ego, Wulf Barsch. 2010. The tiled floor, the pair of broken columns, and the orientalist flavor of the pyramids and palms all suggest a Masonic aesthetic. (Source)

He will sometimes write on the painting, adding a secondary symbolic layer to the image.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. No doubt this will be of particular interest to fans of a e s t h e t i c s (Source)

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source).

Observe, if you will, the piece above. Looking at this painting, we are struck by the contrast between the garlanded, barely visible columns and the stark yellow and red scene beyond. The most immediate impression comes from the color, which forms, as it were, the raw material of the art-world we see. Yet we can also glimpse geometric drawings in the yellow field and the outline of the columns. That which is artificial melts away before the manifestation of the absolute. Lesser being fades, even as it is heightened beyond its limitations under the demands of human artifice. Yet even in contemplating the absolute, we recognize something like our own reason. There is an intelligence there, an ideal that is only dimly mirrored in this dark world below. In short, Barsch has presented a model of mystical experience.

Or take another painting. Below, we see is, at first glance, little more than a tropical landscape. We can feel the heat through the stereoscopically blurred palm fronds. Yet upon further consideration, we find a celestial scene in the blue window – an impossibly delicate set of constellations in a field of bright bleu celeste. There is at once a sense of familiarity and otherness. Are we inside or out? We experience a de-familiarization of the scene. This sensation comes, appropriately enough, through the viewer’s discovery of heaven in the painting. Likewise, the soul feels a similar sudden reversal upon the discovery that there is a God. The subtle intrusion of the transcendent changes the way we look around us.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch is intensely interested in the way the numinous appears through creation. His vision is almost sacramental, with one important caveat. The presence of the transcendent that he describes is not resting in the material realm but in its ideal configuration. He represents this ideal world, as well as our access to it, by use of the Labyrinth, a frequent symbol.

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The Labyrinth, Wulf Barsch. 2006. Note that it lies within the cliff, under the trees. (Source)

The same idea animates his Magic Square (2006). The titular magic square appears in the silhouetted palm tree, as if exposing its underlying mathematical nature. It’s as if Barsch is showing us God’s blueprints.

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Magic Square, Wulf Barsch. 2006. (Source)

Barsch has won multiple awards, including the prestigious Rome Award, over his long and prolific career. He has also carried his talents across media. For example, here is one of his lithographs.

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Title Unknown, Wulf Barsch. (Source)

Barsch continues to exert a major influence on the oeuvre of younger Mormon artists. Whitney Johnson, David Habben, and Nick Stephens all exhibit signs of Barsch’s lingering artistic vision.

A very different representative of contemporary Mormon artistic trends is Brian Kershisnik. An American who originally trained in ceramics at BYU, Kershisnik later moved to painting. He now produces spiritually sensitive figurative images that somehow capture the freshness and simplicity of the American West.

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Descent from the Cross, Brian Kershisnik. Currently on display at BYU Museum of Art as part of their exhibit, “The Interpretation Thereof: Contemporary LDS Art and Scripture.” (Source)

His religious art is very often in conversation with the canons of the Western tradition. Nevertheless, he infuses a certain ordinariness into scenes from the Bible. If Barsch presents a spiritual vision drawn from Mormonism’s Masonic and Orientalist past, then Kershisnik returns to its Low-Church Protestant roots. Even his crowds of angels look just like us.

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Nativity, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Those angels, by the way, are profoundly interested in human life. Even fairly quotidien scenes betray an unseen presence.

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Divine Inspiration, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Many of his characters are, quite literally, rough around the edges. In them, we can detect the faintest hint of Chagall. Particularly as so many of Kershisnik’s non-Biblical subjects seem to inhabit a stylized world hovering on the edge of allegory.

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Dancing on a Very Small Island, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Kershisnik is fundamentally an artist of human dignity, and the quiet joy that springs from that dignity.

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Holy Woman, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

He also brings an understated sense of humor to much of his material, as in Jesus and the Angry Babies.

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Jesus and the Angry Babies, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

Note in A Quiet Shining Dance of Sisters how Kershisnik draws together line (the mirroring of the two profiles) and color (gold) and texture (the mosaic effect in the upper half of the image) to suggest a spiritual union that goes beyond the merely physical elements of the titular dance.

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A Quiet Shining Dance of Sisters, Brian Kershisnik. (Source)

There are a few other Mormon artists worth knowing. Take, for instance, painter and illustrator Michal Luch Onyon, whose colorful and somewhat naive works are sure to delight. Or landscape artist Jeffrey R. Pugh, whose bold and strong brushstrokes evince the confidence of the West. He also created one of the more numinously beautiful depictions of Joseph Smith’s alleged vision, Early Spring, 1820. Finally, take a look at Nnadmi Okonkwo’s sculptures. The Nigerian’s graceful depictions of the human form are a testament to the respect afforded to women, and strike a beguiling balance between traditional African forms and American methods. His work is a testament not only to his considerable talent but to the great lengths which the Mormon church has traveled in its delayed acceptance of black members.

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Title Unknown, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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Title Unknown, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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Mountain Aspen, Michal Luch Onyon. (Source)

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A Day in the Life, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Cumulus Creepers, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Early Spring, 1820, Jeffrey R. Pugh. (Source)

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Friends, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

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Guardian, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

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Title Unknown, Nnamdi Okonkwo. (Source)

The remarkable proliferation of Mormon fine artnot merely the kitschy stuff which characterizes so much religiously inflected work todayis certainly a sign of the faith’s expansion and self-confidence. Catholics should watch the continuing development of a specifically Mormon aesthetic as the LDS presence in society continues to grow.