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March 17, 1996

Monks Want to Illuminate Design Sites on Internet

By ELIZABETH COHEN
ABIQUIU, N.M. -- At Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery tucked between stark mesas, 24 monks follow the routine of prayer and labor that has sustained their order for 1,500 years.

They clean, chop wood, weave, carve icons, bake bread and design sites on the Internet's World Wide Web.

"I can't think of better work for us to be doing," said Brother Mary-Aquinas, 30, a bespectacled monk in a brown hooded habit and hiking boots, who was once a systems analyst in Denver.

"This work goes back to the ancient tradition of the scribes, taking information and making it beautiful, into art," he said. "In a certain sense, the Web and what will happen in the next decade is a return to that tradition."

Making art out of words is nothing unusual for the order: as long ago as the sixth century, Benedictine monks worked in the scriptoria, or writing rooms, of Italian monasteries creating illuminated manuscripts from the Bible and classical texts.

But for a community that has dwelt in isolation amid the angular and haunting vistas that inspired the artist Georgia O'Keeffe, going on line was not simple.

Before they could embark on their mission to bring the tradition of illuminated manuscripts to the Internet, the monks, who range in age from their 20s to their 70s, had to bring a few worldly necessities to their remote home along the Chama River in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 75 miles north of Santa Fe.

They added to their array of solar panels to generate extra power for 12 personal computers, some of them donated, found an Internet service provider and bought a telephone.

These upgrades were matters of economic necessity. "Twelve new brothers joined our monastery in 1994 and 1995, and we needed to find a new source of income," said Brother Aquinas, who is the director of the scriptorium at Christ in the Desert.

In fact, the monastery, which was founded in 1964, now has 24 monks, enough to reach abbey status, a step they hope to take this year.

"For years it was small -- three to four monks -- and we could get by on revenues from our guest house and our gift shop," Aquinas said.

"Then we got on the Internet -- it seemed a good opportunity to supplement our library so the monks could do scholarly work -- and we found out about the Web. It seemed like a good way to supplement our income since it is difficult to find creative work that adapts to the monastic schedule."

Their home page (http://www.technet.nm.org/pax.html) beckons with bright colors and a style that borrows as much from modern religious art as it does from the medieval tradition of illumination.

"Welcome to Christ in the Desert," it reads, providing a link to a virtual monk, Brother URL, who serves as the on-line guide to the monastery. (The virtual monk's name is derived from the initials for "universal resource locator," the form addresses take on the World Wide Web.)

In real life, the guide to the monastery is Brother Andre, the monastery's guest master, who gives a walking tour of the stunning chapel, guest quarters, library and the scriptorium, which is adorned with colorful acrylic paintings, (as is their Web site).

Thus far, however, the Web site does not include the smell of the monks' homemade bread.

On line, Brother URL gives directions to various places: General information about the monastery, the gift shop, the reservation area for the guest house and an information center for people interested in joining the monastery.

It also indulges in a discreet advertisement, letting readers know how to hire the monks to design a hand-printed and illuminated Web site.

Since their site went up last May, a windfall of requests for their beautiful hand-lettered Web sites and home pages -- at $65 an hour for programming and $110 an hour for art work -- have been pouring in. The hand lettering is done on canvas, and the illuminations are scanned into the computers before being incorporated on Web pages.

Before the monastery's Web site began, the annual income of the monks was about $48,000 a year. The revenues from their new occupation will probably increase that to $200,000 this year, Aquinas said.

Their prospective clients include the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, artists and galleries from around the United States, a conference of Jungian analysts in Switzerland and the Bethlehem Corp., an equipment manufacturer based in Easton, Pa.

The monks also hope to be chosen to design Web pages for the Vatican. These would include all of the pope's speeches and encyclicals, and material from the Vatican's museums and libraries. They hope the pages will be added to the Vatican's current modest Web offering.

"The Vatican wants to maintain a sense of the sacred in their site," said Aquinas, who has been speaking unofficially with designers at the Vatican, and will travel there in a few weeks for more discussions. "The ancient scribes proved this power of illumination on parchment. As modern scribes, we are simply trying to restore that art of illumination by using clean interface design and the multimedia tools of the Web."

Aside from the Web sites they are constructing, the monks are also building a new kitchen and cells for the recently arrived monks, several of whom have brought engineering and computer experience with them. With their new source of revenue, they hope to build an infirmary where they can care for the older monks.

In the adobe scriptorium at Christ in the Desert the rough-hewn tables sit on a hard-packed dirt floor and a wooden crucifix hangs on one wall. Hand-painted illuminations by the monks share shelf space with Windows 95, Adobe Illustrator and Partition Magic in the scriptorium.

Throughout the monastery silence is common, though the sounds of Latin chants or the rush of the river sometimes break the quiet.

The scriptorium though is different as 12 computers (the most powerful with 32 megabytes of RAM) provide a modern hum and the Microtek scanner whirs.

"We have a lot of very talented brothers -- painters, musicians and programmers," Aquinas said. "Everyone is chipping in."


Other Places of Interest on the Web
  • Monastery of Christ in the Desert Home Page

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