[NYT] Monks Want to Illuminate Web Sites

Rohit Khare (khare@pest.w3.org)
Sat, 16 Mar 96 23:19:24 -0500

Tim, shall we hire these guys? :-)

Some truly amazing work at: http://www.chirstdesert.org/pax.html

Rohit Khare


Monks Want to Illuminate Design Sites on Internet


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

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

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

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."