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An Oasis for the Soul | Praying in a museum, reclaiming sacred art

Monday, March 08, 2021

By Br Albert Elias Robertson, O.P.This Lent, the student brothers invite you to discover those places that have become 'oases' in their spiritual journey, significant places in their lives where they withdraw to encounter God. Today, Br Albert writes about a favourite space of beauty and contemplation...

My vision of the life of the Desert Fathers has never quite been the same since I saw a painting, possibly by our brother Fra Angelico, which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The scene belongs to a genre called Thebaid, taking its name from the desert around the Egyptian city of Thebes where early Christian ascetics tried to escape the life of the city. These scenes usually show a wilderness landscape, not really what we would think of as a desert, covered in rocky outcrops. On each and every single outcrop, or hiding inside the hill in a cave, there is a monk engaged in some kind of ascetical discipline. But what I love most about these scenes is that it doesn’t just show saints in ecstasy or performing some kind of miracle. Instead they show the everyday life of the saints like Antony the Great, so in one scene a saint is drawing water from a well, or in another is depicted preparing food. I think we often imagine that the Desert Fathers were isolated hermits, but the Thebaid scenes show just how busy the desert was, a veritable city of holy activity. We also, of course, get some sense of this from contemporary accounts which record that these holy men and women drew considerable crowds, and so the idea of a holy isolation sometimes became difficult to achieve.

Religious life has always been like this, and the striking irony at the heart of all religious life lived in community is that we come together to be alone. Our life is — to varying degrees — solitary. We spend time together, engage in apostolic work, but we also spend long stretches in our rooms at prayer, study, and more everyday tasks. The pandemic has, in many ways, altered my sense of what it is to find an oasis, particularly as our priory has few people, and sometime nobody, crossing its threshold in the same way that it did a year ago.

As you might be able to tell from what I’ve said so far, my oasis — before lockdown — used to be sitting in an art gallery. In Oxford we’re lucky enough to have one next door, the Ashmolean, which has a small collection of paintings on display as well as the occasional special exhibition. When I lived in London before entering the Order, I would pop into the National Gallery, sitting on one of the benches to take in a painting. Most of us probably don’t associate art galleries as the best places to get away from people, and that’s true most of the time, but I was lucky enough to live five minutes away from the National Gallery, and arrive in time for the quietest period in the day. But even at busier times of the day, museums can be an oasis of calm and quiet, there’s something of that coming together to be alone feeling about going to a gallery, and the fact that you’re so often around people means that you have to teach yourself to concentrate even while there’s a degree of chaos around you.

One of my favourite museums is the Frick in New York. The building was originally the mansion of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick where he lived until his death in 1919, and converted into a museum after his wife’s death in 1931. Walking into the gallery on a hot summer's day, and spending an hour walking looking at the collection is a real oasis in the middle of a busy, crowded and loud city, and the climate control and air-conditioning also helps with the heat! One of the highlights of the gallery is the picture which has been used to advertise this series, Bellini’s St Francis in the Desert. Frick acquired the painting in 1915, and it’s one of the collection’s greatest treasures.

Why art galleries? Part of the answer is that one can reliably expect to find some religious scenes, and so the gallery offers the opportunity to pray and perhaps to reclaim something of the religious use of the painting or statue as a window or icon for the contemplation of a particular mystery. Most of the images in museums were commissioned for particular churches, and some of the sacred objects in museums, considered curiosities but valued for their craftsmanship, still contain the relics of the saints. The objects take on a new quality when you can give them some of their original meaning and use.

Praying the rosary, you can often see the particular mystery with fresh eyes, and the Scriptures take on a fresh life because of a painting you’ve seen. But it’s not just religious scenes: different art offers a different experience, so when Br Bede says that he drinks in the colours of the sunset, sometimes it’s simply the intricacies of colour and shape and texture that hold my attention.

Not having this during lockdown has been difficult, but it’s encouraged me to watch more things online, with many museums now offering extensive online talks on their collections. Looking at an image on a screen is annoying — particularly given how much time we spend on them at the moment — but I’ve discovered that a number of museums have extremely detailed pictures of their collections, and allow you to zoom in on particular pieces, so perhaps lockdown has offered a new opportunity there.

I suppose a Dominican oasis is also a place we go to for spiritual refreshment, but come back with something to pass on. During the first lockdown, Br John interviewed Fr Richard Conrad, who perhaps more than anyone has taught me how to use sacred art to explain theological concepts. If you haven’t listened to it, here it is.

Br Albert Elias Robertson O.P.

Br Albert Elias was born in Surrey and went to university at the London School of Economics, where he read Social Anthropology before going to Oxford, where he read for an MPhil in Material Anthropology. After studies, he had a propaedeutic year in three Anglican parishes in north London. He became a Catholic in 2013 and worked for a short time in London living at St Patrick’s Soho before entering the noviciate in 2015. Br Albert helps to run the Thomistic Institute and so has an interest in promoting the theology of St Thomas as well as Patristics. In his spare time he likes to read novels [lots]. | albert.robertson@english.op.org

All the posts from the series An Oasis for the Soul:



Susan commented on 15-Mar-2021 02:54 PM
Thanks so much Brother Albert Elias,

This was beautiful and instructive.

I hope that one day, if you have not already, you will have the absolute blessing of seeing Caravaggio’s “Seven Mercies”, still hanging in a church in Naples. I saw it last autumn and it has changed my life. I spend holy time looking more and more into the corporal and spiritual mercies (per helpful CTS booklets) as well as staring at the painting and am trying , with God’s help, to devote the rest of my life to living the Mercies.

Thanks again on your lovely words and movie re the St Francis / desert sunrise painting at the Frick. Had never seen this painting before and it certainly has a lot to teach us about appreciating God’s creation every day, among the seemingly insurmountable stress.

God Bless You and please send more of this!


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