It has been 1,500 years since St. Benedict of Nursia was born in central Italy. Cruelty offended him, as did licentiousness. He lived three years as a hermit; his miracles were many; and sometime before 545 A.D. he wrote a little book that, except for the Bible, was Medieval Europe's most influential text.
The monastic communities, which for many centuries nourished Europe's learning, her literature and art, were governed by that little book -- St. Benedict's "Rule for Monks."
In celebration of the saint's sesquimillenary, many institutions -- among them Yale University, Saint Anselm's Abbey, Dumbarton Oaks and the National Gallery of Art -- have contributed their efforts to a two-part symposium on monasticism and the arts, which began here yesterday.
More than 200 scholars, many of them monks, gathered yesterday at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown to hear papers on such subjects as "'Real Presence' in Early Christian Art" and "Fray Jose de Siguenza and Augustinian Aesthetics in the Building of the Escorial." Today the symposium will move to the National Gallery and tomorrow to Catholic University's Hartke Theater. Next weekend it will convene again at Yale.
Obedience, chastity, poverty, fraternal service and, above all else, humility were the central values of the monastic life envisioned by the saint. Music, sacred texts, wall paintings, mosaics and other forms of art all had roles to play in the monastery governed by the saint's book of rules.
Benedict himself gave much thought to art. He objected to avaricious artists and to skillful painters who thought they were hot stuff.
"If there are artisans in the monastery," he wrote in chapter 57, "they are to practice their craft with all humility . . . If one of them becomes puffed up by his skillfulness in his craft, and feels that he is conferring something on the monastery, he is to be removed from practicing his craft and not allowed to resume it unless, after manifesting his humility, he is so ordered by the abbot. Whenever products of these artisans are sold . . . the evil of avarice must have no part in establishing prices, which should, therefore, always be a little lower than people outside the monastery are able to set, so that in all things God may be glorified."
In conjunction with the symposium, a guide to the Renaissance paintings at the National Gallery of Art that deal with monastic themes has been prepared by Brother Timothy Gregory Verdon, OSB, of Saint Anselm's Abbey here, and is available at the museum.