Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
For the past month, approximately 70 murals painted by Benedictine artist Dom Gregory de Wit have been in the process of repair in the refectory of St. Joseph Abbey.
The murals had been damaged by water intrusion from the roof and moisture that had accumulated first after Hurricane Katrina, followed by the March 2016 flood that inundated the abbey, causing millions of dollars of damage to the campus, said Benedictine Abbot Justin Brown.
Abbot Justin said St. Joseph Abbey holds a Christmas drive annually for a project. In 2018, it was to restore the Dom Gregory murals inside the abbey’s refectory where the monks have their meals.
“We collected $130,000,” Abbot Justin said for the project.
Dom Gregory at the Abbey
It was New Orleans Archbishop Francis Janssens who first invited the Benedictine monks to Louisiana in 1889 to establish a monastery and operate a seminary for indigenous clergy. By 1902, the monastic community had moved to St. Tammany at another site destroyed by fire. In 1907, its current site was established. The current abbey church was dedicated in 1932. (It and the refectory were named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2007.)
Just 14 years later, the Dutchborn de Wit arrived from the Abbey of Mont César, Louvain, Belgium, and was commissioned by Abbot Columban Thuis to paint murals. He had painted murals in the refectory at the Abbey of Metten in Bavaria and stations of the cross in Pontisse, Belgium, and Chateau Terhove, Belgium. He also had exhibits at The Hague, then painted at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana, Sacred Heart Church in Baton Rouge and even the former St. Raphael Church (now Transfiguration of the Lord) in New Orleans.
Dom Gregory started in the refectory, first painting “The Last Supper” on one wall, according to the abbey’s website. It took him nine months to paint the 732-square-foot mural. It is larger than Leonardo’s da Vinci’s “Last Supper” by almost 300 square feet, according to Benedictine Father Adam Begnaud’s book, “Living in Salvation,” detailing de Wit’s murals at the abbey.
On the opposite wall, de Wit painted a mural of the “Good Shepherd.” On the entrance door pediment of the refectory is “Christ, the gate through which the sheep of the flock pass to enter pasture,” Father Adam said.
Using vivid colors and bold outlines, Dom Gregory told the salvation story through food in nine Old Testament stories on the walls; and, on 56 additional ceiling panels, he “shows all creation giving praise to God” with the sun, moon, stars, birds, sea and forest creatures. A portrayal of St. Benedict, the patron of the monks, is included in the refectory.
Craig Crawford, who first did restoration work at the abbey about 20 years ago and for the past month has been working in the refectory, repaired only the damaged sections of the murals by in painting with gouache (using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a resin).
By using this technique, which is reversible, the art work will not be put at greater risk.
“We try to make what we do somewhat reversible, if someone needed to take it off to fix future damage,” he said, part of the code of ethics of conservation.
He worked with painting conservationists Catherine Rogers of Charleston, South Carolina, and Maho Yoshi Rawa of Chicago to first clean the surface grime off of each painting.
“That made a huge difference,” he said. “There was a lot of mold, so we removed it and rendered it inactive and had to completely clean the mold off the beams.” He also addressed black water stains.
Once the in-painting was finished, Crawford had to re-secure painted panels that were falling off the ceiling and in-painted over the flexible screws.
Crawford said Dom Gregory painted each refectory ceiling mural panel on bagasse (sugarcane residue made in textured panels resembling particle board) with a water-soluble paint such as tempura in his studio before installing them in the refectory.
On the walls, Dom Gregory used a technique, according to Father Adam, where he added potassium silicate to the paint so that “when (it is) applied to dry plaster … (it) fuses the pigment to the wall.” The application is more than just a surface coating and suitable for a humid, Southern climate.
“They are in remarkable shape,” Crawford said, considering the environmental shifts that have taken place in the room. “The paint adhered well to it, and there wasn’t a lot of flaking.”
Moved on to the church
Dom Gregory painted solo in the refectory for four years, then brought in Milo Piuz from Switzerland to tackle the abbey church for the next six years, the book said, where he painted directly on the walls.
Dom Gregory painted angels and the Gospel writers (evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the dome of the chapel; a last judgment scene over the doorway of the narthex; male and female saints, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit and the Transfiguration, among the many church paintings. Dom Gregory also designed 10-foot tall statues of St. Joseph and St. Benedict in the church that were carved out of linden wood by Josef Neustifter of Bavaria, the book noted.
“Everyone who comes into contact with Gregory’s paintings discovers an intimate place and role in the continuous narrative of salvation history,” the book said.
The book also credits Dom Gregory’s genius for organization – “his faculty for employing continuous narrative in a way where each panel related within itself as well as to the other paintings in the space.”
Each vignette was framed by Dom Gregory with molding, some of which had deteriorated and was recreated in the abbey’s woodworking shop, said Deacon Mark Coudrain, who heads the woodworking operation.
“This is probably priceless for the monks to have this,” Crawford said about the artwork. “I think he must have been a really inspired person to come up with this design. I think it is a pretty amazing space here. It draws from a lot of periods in art history, but is modern also.”