Outback Benedictines adopt cultural business methods


“Your drawing is much better than ours.”: So said Hugo Chapman of the British Museum when confronted with a tempera study of a head from Raphael’s workshop. This head of an apostle is notable not only for its quality but also for its ownership: the community of Benedictine monks of New Norcia, western Australia.

New Norcia Benedictine Monastery

New Norcia is a hodge-podge of curiosities where anything might still turn up. The secret is now out, and since the discovery of the Raphael/Giulio Romano, scholars and auction houses have surveyed the paintings, none more so than Nicholas Lambourne of Christie’s. The works on paper, of which there are tens of thousands, may still conceal finds.

New Norcia is now a tourist attraction, owing to its quirkiness. It is a 19th-century Spanish town, complete with churches and master woodwork imported by Europeans, that just happens to be located 130 km from Perth, where farm land begins to give way to the outback. It may become one of the few Unesco World Heritage Sites in Australia and is also the only place in the world where one can see both a Giulio Romano, and a kangaroo hopping down the street.

The paintings collection is of mostly Caravaggesque oils from Spain and Italy. There are a few good originals, such as a Holy Family and a Rest on the flight to Egypt by Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, as well as works by Tomaioli, Giacinto Brandi, and the circle of Orazio Riminaldi. The majority are copies, as befits a a relatively poor mission sent round the world. The Giulio Romano, on the other hand, has an exceptional provenance. It was bought for purely religious reasons in 1941 at an auction of deaccessioned works from the National Gallery of Australia.

Head of an Apostle from Raphael's workshop, probably by Giulio Romano

As for artefacts and the like, everything has been kept, from the first abbot’s gold teeth to a chalice given by Isabella II of Spain. A forage into the library recently revealed a rare 18th-century copy of a 15th-century Hebrew book, the “Shoshan Sodot”. The library also contains some of the best studies of Australian flora, donated by a botanist who joined the brotherhood.

New Norcia, however, suffers from problems that stem from the fact that it was never intended to be a museum. It was originally a colonial mission of 80 monks, with a school and orphanage for Aboriginals, which in total numbered 500 residents. The school closed in 1991, and the 14 monks nearly shut up shop. With a tenacity not unrelated to religious zeal, they have survived by promoting tourism and branded goods, including guesthouses and fresh bread. The discovery of the Giulio Romano was a direct result of this push.

This business-like restructuring, however, worries the more contemplative monks. New Norcia now has 60,000 visitors per year and a business for its branded foods. Remarkably enough, the latest addition is an exhibition about space travel, inspired by the arrival of a European space agency research station nearby — hardly the contemplation of the heavenly host that the founders had in mind.

The man behind this adaption of New Norcia to museum and cultural centre is Dom Christopher Power, Procurator of the Monastery. He claims that Aus$12 million ($7.2 million, £4.6 million) are needed merely to restore the buildings. Much of his time is taken up with applying for grants and overseeing business plans.

For the art lover, however, the news is good. No religious piece would ever be sold, so New Norcia will not trade its artefacts for financial comfort. Moreover, new works may well come to light. I asked Dom Chris if anything had turned up in the works on paper: “Well”, he said with his polite Australian twang, “I’ve found this etching which might — I repeat might — be by Rembrandt. I’ll ask Nicholas Lambourne next time he visits...”

Click here to visit the New Norcia Monastery web site


Samson Spanier. "Outback Benedictines adopt cultural business methods." The Art Newspaper.

Reprinted with permission from The Art Newspaper.

Copyright © 2003 The Art Newspaper

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