You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘monks’ tag.

e3f4c832453cc5d0324911942eaee398.jpegBecause of last week’s post about the Thai coronation I got sucked into spooling through pictures of the astonishingly beautiful and crazy sights of Thailand.  We really need to all visit that exquisitely beautiful land! What a place!

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At any rate, as long-term Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall, I once made a (sadly unpublished) book on how to build toy vehicles out of household refuse.  The industrious Buddhist monks of Thailand however did not stop at making toys.  Thus, the temple which most caught my eye was Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew also named “Temple of Million Bottles.”  As you can tell by the name, this temple (and all of its outbuildings like the crematorium and the restrooms) are built of empty bottles which have been carefully mortared together to form an exquisite .  Actually though, the name is a bit of a misnomer–thus far the complex is constructed not of a million bottles but of around a million and a half bottles.

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The project started back in 1984, when some monks decided to clean up the refuse around their temple.  Perceiving the inner beauty of the discarded beer bottles, the monastics chose not to throw them away, but instead to clean them and use the brown and green glass vessels for constructing temple accessories.  The project took on a life of its own as visitors brought ever more bottles–mostly Heineken bottles (green) and Chang Beer bottles (brown).

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Anyone who has ever tried to piece together recalcitrant materials into desired order will start to fathom the scope of the monks’ accomplishment.  Beyond the novelty of the material and the satisfying moral component of seeing something so complete made of something everyone throws away, the temple is simply beautiful though.   Buildings in America are made of heavily regulated prefabricated materials expressly created for crafting buildings…and yet so many new buildings here are appallingly heart-wrenchingly ugly.  Perhaps we could take some lessons from the monks not just in upcycling but also in imagination, patience, and craft.

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Yet even if that isn’t going to happen, you can still contemplate the shadow side of Maha Chedio Kaew: in order for it to exist people drank one and a half million beers.  That is a moral lesson which the Frauenkirche simply does not offer.

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I wanted to share with you a glimpse back into history to one of the most peculiar and specialized cities of western history.  During the middle ages, monasticism was a vast and powerful cultural force.  Indeed, in certain times and places, it may have been the principal cultural force in a world which was painfully transforming from the slave society of classical antiquity into the modern kingdom states of Europe.

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West of the Alps, the great monastic order was the Benedictine order, founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a Roman nobleman who lived during the middle of the 6th century. “The Rule of Saint Benedict” weds classical Roman ideals of reason, order, balance, and moderation, with Judeo-Christian ideals of devotion, piety, and transcendence.   The Benedictine Order kept art, literature, philosophy, and science (such as it was) alive during the upheavals of Late Antiquity and the “Dark Ages”–the brothers (and sisters) were the keepers of the knowledge gleaned by Rome and Greece.  The monks also amassed enormous, wealth and power in Feudal European society.  The greatest abbots were equivalent to feudal lords and princes commanding enormous tracts of land and great estates of serfs.

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Nowhere was this more true than in Cluny, in east central France (near the Swiss Alps), where Duke William I of Aquitaine founded a monastic order with such extensive lands and such a generous charter that it grew beyond the scope of all other such communities in France, Germany, northern Europe, and the British Isles.  The Duke stipulated that the abbot of the monastery was beholden to no earthly authority save for that of the pope (and there were even rules concerning the extent of papal authority over the abbey), so the monks were free to choose their own leader instead of having crooked 2nd sons of noblemen fobbed off on them.

Cluny, Emile Sagot (1805-1888),Cluny XVI siecle, httppasserelles.bnf.fr

Additionally, the monastery created a system of “franchise monasteries” called priories which reported to the authority of the main abbot and paid tithes to Cluny.   This wealth allowed Cluny to become a veritable city of prayer.  The building, farming, and lay work was completed by serfs and retainers, while the brothers devoted themselves to prayer, art, scholarship, and otherworldly pursuits…and also to politics, statecraft, administration, feasting, and very worldly pursuits (since the community became incredibly ric)h.  The chandeliers, sacred chalices, and monstrances were made of gold and jewels, and the brothers wore habits of finest cloth (and even silk).

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The main tower of the Basilica towered to an amazing 200 meters (656 feet of height) and the abbey was the largest building in Europe until the enlargement of St. Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.  At its zenith in the 11th and 12th century, the monastery was home to 10,000 monks. The abbots of Cluny were as powerful as kings (they kept a great townhouse in Paris), and four abbots later became popes.  At the top of the page I have included a magnificent painting by the great urban reconstruction artist, Jean-Claude Golvin, who painstakingly reconstructs vanished and destroyed cities of the past as computer models and then as sumptuous paintings.  Just look at the scope of the (3rd and greatest) monastery and the buildings around it.

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Such wealth also engendered decadence and corruption.  Later abbots were greedy and incompetent.  They oppressed the farmers and craftspeople who worked for them and tried to cheat the merchants and bankers they did business with.  The monastery fell into a long period of decline which ended (along with the ancien regime, about which similar things could be said) during the French Revolution.  Most of the monastery was burnt to the ground and only a secondary bell tower and hall remain.  Fortunately the greatest treasures of Cluny, the manuscripts of the ancient and the medieval world, were copied and disseminated.  The most precious became the centerpiece of the Bibliothèque nationale de France at Paris, and the British Museum also holds 60 or so ancient charters (because they are good at getting their hands on stuff like that).

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We can still imagine what it must have been like to live in the complex during the high middle ages, though, as part of a huge university-like community of prayer, thought, and beauty.  it was a world of profound lonely discipline tempered with fine dining, art, and general good living–an vanished yet eternal city of French Monastic life.

Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Thebaid (Fra Angelico, 1410, Tempera on Panel)

Are you ready for a deeply strange and problematic painting of tremendous beauty?  This is “The Thebaid” a masterpiece from Florence in the very early 13th century (it was probably completed in 1410 AD).   For centuries, art historians have argued over who painted this epic monastic landscape.  For a long time it was believed the painting was by the enigmatic Jacopo Starnina.  Then, for many years, art experts thought the painting was by Lorenzo Monaco, a gothic painter who moved to Florence from Sienna and excelled at painting brilliantly colored saints (although he eschewed the great artistic innovations of his time—such as perspective and painting from life).  Finally, historical consensus has settled on none other than the matchless Fra Angelico as the painter–which seems fitting since this work is so thoroughly a celebration of monastic life (Fra Angelico was a friar…although so was Lorenzo Monaco).  Fra Angelico is famous for bridging the styles of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.  With its angular mountains, stylized churches, and gilded sailing ships, “The Thebaid” is appropriately gothic and old fashioned to be one of his early works.  Yet it also has the first flowering of the flowing rhythm and deliquescent grace which have made Fra Angelico such a famous name in art.

Detail

Detail

Whoever painted it, the painting is a mythological depiction of the Egyptian desert in the Fifth Century AD—a time and place synonymous with hermits and monasticism.  The story goes that Saint Horus, an early Christian ascetic, wandered into the desert outside of Thebes to live as a hermit.  Although initially illiterate, Horus learned the Holy scriptures on his own (or through divine intervention).  So many devout men were inspired by his life of solitude, renunciation, and piety that they too moved into the empty desert.  Thus a thriving community of monastics gathered around the famous anchorite.  The one became many and the once barren desert became a verdant model for monasticism.

Detail

Detail

The picture is certainly a celebration of the cloistered life which a Florentine monk would have known.  The architecture, dress, and agricultural equipment is of the same era as the painter.  Yet the painting also has a timelessness befitting the subject. Within the narrative flow of a community of monks assembling, one can discern beautiful humanizing details such as the infirm elderly monk being carried on a dais by his brothers or the monk in the center preaching to a black dog.  Indeed animals abound within this work and one of the monks seems to be riding a deer while another rides a chariot pulled by lions.  There is a lot going on in this magic gathering of holy men communing with nature!

 

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Here is a gorgeous warm earth color for Thanksgiving week.  Gamboge is a deep yellow/pale orange color of tremendous antiquity.  By ancient tradition, Theravada monks dye their robes this distinctive color to show their devotion to the middle path.  The color is named after the Latin word for Cambodia, “Gambogia”, which was (and is) a center of Theravada spirituality as well as a major source of milky sap from Gamboge trees (genus Garcinia). Such sap is dried into a brown gum resin which is the main constituent of gamboge dye.

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Because the color plays such a large role in the religious life of South Asia, it is well known throughout the world. Gamboge is a lovely and vibrant color in its own right—a perfect medium between orange and yellow.  All sorts of animals, fruit, and flowers can be described as gamboge.  Although Thanksgiving has no color scheme per say, the fallen autumn leaves usually inspire decorations in some combination of gamboge, sienna, and russet.

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Paphiopedilum King's Forest 'Kate's Peridot' (Photo by Ken Jacobsen)

Pigments, hues, colors!  The way light bounces off objects and shines into our primate brains is rife with emotional and moral meaning.  Each color has historical dimensions and conveys allusions to different times and places. Colors evoke feelings and thoughts in a way that almost nothing else can.

In continuing celebration of Holi, the festival of colors, I’m writing about some of my favorite colors starting today with chartreuse.  Half way between green and yellow, chartreuse plays tricks on the brain–sometimes looking like one or the other. It is a quintessential color of spring, appearing in the first buds of willow and the tip of the crocus as it pokes up from the ground.  However a summer field glowing in the sunlight is also chartreuse as are aspen leaves when they begin to change in fall.

Weeping Willow in Spring

The historical roots of the word are as colorful as it is. Chartreuse is named after a delightful herbal liquor made by Carthusian Monks.  Wikipedia tells the story as follows:

According to tradition, a marshal of artillery to French king Henry IV, François Hannibal d’Estrées, presented the Carthusian monks at Vauvert, near Paris, with an alchemical manuscript that contained a recipe for an “elixir of long life” in 1605. The recipe eventually reached the religious order’s headquarters at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, in Voiron, near Grenoble. It has since then been used to produce the “Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse”. The formula is said to call for 130 herbs, flowers, and secret ingredients combined in a wine alcohol base. The monks intended their liqueur to be used as medicine. The recipe was further enhanced in 1737 by Brother Gérome Maubec.

Just why the artillery marshal had a magical longevity elixir is unclear. Twice the monks have been evicted from their monasteries and deprived of their properties (in 1793 because of the revolution and in 1903, thanks to an anti-monastic law).  But even in exile, they kept the secret recipe and they have always come back to distilling stronger than ever.  Because it is so well known around the world, their delightful (and extremely alcoholic) concoction has loaned its pretty name to the lovely color.

Perhaps it is appropriate that chartreuse bears the name of a spirit.  Despite the fact that it is a color frequently seen in the natural world there is also something otherworldly about it.  Think of how many ghosts, aliens, and mystery substances are colored a crazy yellow-green and you will immediately see what I mean.

Beings beyond human comprehension....

You can probably tell that Chartreuse and similar yellow greens are among my favorite colors.  Nothing combines the feeling of vibrant, thriving life with a hint of mystery and ineffability like chartreuse.  That’s enough writing I am going to go out and revel in a world of golden-green shoots!

The Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch, ca 1510)

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