Fr. Nathan Zodrow discusses Brother Claude Lane’s icon of the baptism of Jesus, a piece that hangs in the guesthouse at Mount Angel Abbey. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Fr. Nathan Zodrow discusses Brother Claude Lane’s icon of the baptism of Jesus, a piece that hangs in the guesthouse at Mount Angel Abbey. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
ST. BENEDICT — In the course of 140 years on a hilltop overlooking the undulating farms of the Willamette Valley, Mount Angel Abbey has received enough donations of sacred art to fill several museums. Meanwhile, abbots have commissioned important works and monk-artists have produced memorable pieces.

Until recently, much of this collection hung in the cloister or was stored away. But with a 2019 renovation that expanded the guesthouse to 42,000 square feet, there were bare walls aplenty. Now, the monks have placed some of their most beautiful art where guests can see it.

“History shows that monasteries have very often been places where art is produced and valued and where a Christian culture is created,” said Abbot Jeremy Driscoll. “Praying and pondering the Christian mysteries, the monks of Mount Angel nurture and promote a transformative way of seeing humanity through the arts and the cultivation of a culture centered on the good news of Christ.”

Abbot Jeremy explained that a monastery is a place where monks will spend their whole lives. They realize that future monks and guests will come to the same place. “There arises rather naturally as a dimension of the whole project a desire to create a place of beauty, to create beauty that will last,” he said.

Father Nathan Zodrow, a former abbot appointed to curate the abbey’s art collection, said one part of the Christian mission is to revere beauty, since God is the source of all that is beautiful.

“Benedictines all over the world want to surround themselves and their guests with windows into the divine mystery,” said Father Nathan, who arrived at Mount Angel a half century ago.



Art even before a building

Before the monks built an abbey in Oregon, they acquired several large paintings to hang on the hoped-for walls.

In 1881, housed at temporary lodgings in Gervais, Father Nicholas Frei took a steamer from Astoria to San Francisco to study English. While there, he found a secondhand store that had a painting of St. Jerome, likely done in the late 16th century. Father Nicholas also discovered a piece that showed St. Benedict outside his cave being clothed as a monk and another of the Virgin Mary. The Swiss monk carted the large pieces back to Oregon on the ship.

“They had almost no money, so he couldn’t have paid much,” said Father Nathan.

The monastery was built within a year, but a decade later a massive fire destroyed it. Young monks had been assigned ahead of time to retrieve the precious paintings in case of emergency. St. Jerome and St. Benedict made it, but the monk assigned to Mary somehow didn’t get to her.

One of the early Benedictines hailed from a wealthy Swiss family that helped acquire replacement art for the abbey. Later, the monks received donations of haunting works from Portland artist Amanda Snyder (d. 1980). And Archbishop Robert Dwyer, who died of cancer in 1976, donated his extensive mid-century collection, including pieces by Austrian enamellist Gertrude Stöhr (d. 1984).

Mount Angel Abbey is beloved not just in Oregon, but along the entire West Coast. Benedictine Father Gabriel Morris, himself an artist, made a preaching and fundraising trip to California at mid-century and received the gift of a large painting he carried back on a bus. In 1944, Sarah Price of Pasadena, California, gave the abbey a group of landscape paintings by her husband William Henry Price (d. 1940). She also offered some of her own works. Also, the Stations of the Cross that many people pray as they walk up the abbey hill were images donated by a California family in the 1890s.



Artists in the cloister

A Mount Angel monk-artist, Father Dennis Marx (d. 1982), used found objects in his pieces, like the chains that form the fringes on Jesus’ garment in a stunning life-size mosaic of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The piece is the focal point of the guesthouse dining room.

Brother Claude Lane is the latest and most prolific of abbey artists. An iconographer, he has created scores of icons that hang not only in the abbey but in St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and other churches. Brother Claude, 69, has slowed down, but he is teaching younger monks the sacred art.

They abbey hired Texas artist Lynne Chinn to make mosaics of some of Brother Claude’s icons. The abbey’s largest work of art is Chinn’s monumental mosaic version of Brother Claude’s icon of the Annunciation, a nine-foot-tall piece near the entry of Annunciation Hall.

Chinn also is almost done with a series of mosaics based on Brother Claude’s icons signifying the seven sacraments. Those also hang in Annunciation, a seminary academic building outside the cloister.



Mid-century art

About 100 original pieces of art hang in the abbey guesthouse. A good portion of the collection comes from the mid-20th century, a post-war period marked by experimentation of form and a dose of despair.

A piece high on Father Nathan’s list is “Our Mother of Sorrows” by the French artist Maurice Rocher (d. 1995). Donated by Archbishop Dwyer, it depicts a weeping Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary’s eyes are black voids. Her clothing is muted black with tragic thick black lines. The background seems to be a storm of war. The cross itself is small, as if the artist wanted to convey that God seemed shrunken or sidelined for the moment — but still there.

Father Nathan said art like that asks big questions, such as “Who are we? Who is God? How could this happen?”



Expanding viewership

About a year ago, the abbey established the Mount Angel Institute, which guides and sponsors projects and activities related to the monastery’s culture and mission. Art is one of the aspects.

“Art can add to the prayerfulness and give another window into the Gospel, into spiritualty,” said Father Nathan. “You never know what piece is going to speak to someone.”

The abbey has posted virtual art tours on its website. Father Nathan and several young monks at present are documenting the abbey art collection in a database. For the future, he wants more people to be able to see the art.

“One thing we don’t have that would be logical would be to have a gallery where we could rotate art,” said Father Nathan, who is working to locate a good place at the abbey. He has plans to form a partnership with local art galleries to show some of the pieces.

Art is valued highly in all Catholic tradition, not only the monastery.

“Works of art always ‘speak,’ at least implicitly, of the divine, of the infinite beauty of God,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI. “Sacred images, with their beauty, are also a Gospel proclamation and express the splendor of the Catholic truth.”

Learn more

The abbey offers a virtual exhibit of some of Brother Claude Lane’s icons at mountangelabbey.org/monastery/art