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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

New Norcia - Museum and Art Gallery

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Welcome to the third and final article on New Norcia. I hope you are enjoying it as much as I did.

The New Norcia Museum and Art Gallery is, like the town, a delightfully hidden gem in the countryside. The collections are constantly being updated, and items brought out from the archives for display. When I visited, there were several main exhibits, two religious painting exhibitions, one European and one of modern paintings on religious themes, a Namitjira display, embroidered vestments, items used in the monastery, various artifacts and photographs as well as an exhibition on life at the school.

The New Norcia monastic library collection totals about 60,000 books and includes 2,500 pre 1801 volumes.

Abbot Salvado had written, “My intention is to establish, little by little, a library in the deserts of Australia.”

He gathered books on his trips to Europe, a lot of them donated by Popes and gifts from Patrons of the Church. Some came from other monasteries in Spain, France, Italy and England. Successive Abbots have added to the collection.

In 1986 two masked men tied up the museum attendant and made off with valuable work of art from the museum. The art works were recovered and it cost over $200,000 to restore them. One was damaged beyond repair. In 2006 the restored works were back on display and this now forms part of their provenance. The thieves were not very clever, they were later court and sentenced to serve minimum of three years. The Benedictine Community even received a written apology from one of them.

Virgin and Child (Studio of Bartolome Esteban Murillo 1617-1682) is one on the stolen paintings that has since been restored.

The paintings have information notes next to them that are very informative. They detail the name of the painting, the artist and year, the provenance, style, iconography and a bible quote. This is brilliant, as it gives you information that allows you to feel more connected with the works.

The European Collection houses some beautiful religious paintings.

The displays change and are updated from time to time. Currently there is a Namatjira display of various paintings by the family members. In the Valley is a watercolour by Albert Namatjira shows the landscape of the heart of Australia. Albert (1902 – 1959) was an Aboriginal artist who was the first Aboriginal to win the Archibald Prize, in 1956. His works brought a view of his beloved outback to many Australians who had never seen this beauty before.

John Casellas was a talented woodcarver, with most of the altars at New Norcia being build and carved by him in the beginning of the 1900s. The Abbot’s Throne made by him is on display in the museum.

In the contemporary exhibition there is an interesting piece by Kate Lindsay and Ken Wadrop. It is a digital print on light box titled Search Engine 2002. It is an image within an image. Over 2000 separate images of Christ were collected from the internet and organised to make up the face of Christ. The search through the internet represents the idea of a spiritual search.

Since it’s inception in 1985, the The Mandorla Prize for religious art is held every two years in Perth. Each award is given a different theme for artists to respond to.

Mandorla (MAN-dor-la) is an Italian word meaning almond. It refers to an almond-shaped halo or aura that we find around the images of Jesus or Mary in Christian art and particularly in icons. It represents the light that emanates from a divine being, or one very close to a divine being.” –

Following the closure of the main award, a selection of finalists is displayed at New Norcia.

Have you ever seen a piece of art that just took your breath away? The painting of Julie Dowling 2000 Winner of the Mandorla Award did just that for me. Born for you Oil 96 x 20 was based on the Scripture Theme: Incarnation – The Birth of Christ (John 1:14).

Julie is an Indigenous Australian artist, whose work, in a social realist style, deals with issues of Aboriginal identity. She identifies culturally and politically as a Badimaya First Nation woman and not as an “Australian Aboriginal”.

The painting was modelled by members of Julie’s own family.

Upon closer inspection you can see the gold on the canvas, ancient dot work, symbols and spirits. Look closely at the halo around Jesus’s head and you can see ochre hands reaching out to humanity. It blends the ancient Aboriginal beliefs in with Western Christian beliefs to create something stunningly beautiful.

In the folds of Mary’s gown there are some of the words of John’s gospel, and in the folds of Joseph’s gown there are some of the words of Matthew’s gospel. There is so much to see in this work of art, it is beautiful and well deserving of its prize.

1986 Winner – Brian McKay was the 1986 winner of the Mardorla Award, with his Oil on Canvas 153 197.5 Logos shows his Australian expression of modernist Art. Even the dark spaces above have words in them that you have to look hard to see. As Jesus dies, his words become clearer and more easy to see.

Scripture Theme: The Word of God (John 1:1-4)

In the Raphael room is the remarkable Head of an Apostle. Original tempera drawing on paper, circle of Raphael and his pupil Giulio Romano 1492 – 1546. This is a fragment of a cartoon for the tapestry Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, currently hanging in the Cappella Paolina, Vatican, Rome.

The Bishops mitre, 17th century silk, vellum, metallic thread, precious metals and stones is believed to have been donated to New Norcia by the Spanish Court of Queen Isabella II and used by Bishop Salvado. This has been painstakingly restored, and a short video shows the efforts this took.

The hand stitched designs on some of the garments are so intricate.

This eclectic museum also displays the desk of Abbot Catalan and a reenactment of a monks cell.

On the third floor is the St Joseph’s Orphanage Exhibition.

A banner entitled “An Acknowledgement of our concerns” states that the present Abbot and Benedictine Community of New Norcia sincerely regret that the shortcomings of their predecessors were insufficiently addressed. They also state that standards of child-care were insufficiently maintained. The exhibition seeks to tell the story of St Josephs.

Sheila Humphries, a past student of the school (for more information about Sheila,see my previous article New Norcia - the guided town tour) painted The Story of our life at St Josephs 2009, Acrylic on canvas. Sheila describes her painting “If you look at the centre of the picture, you will see the girls, a sitting symbol portraying them in different coloured uniforms. Around them you will see again the Aboriginal figure showing the nuns… in the picture you will see different coloured dots in the background representing the earth, grass and different colours of flowers. The circles are the areas we went for walks with the nuns. The large blue dots represent the rosary. The dark blue dots that run through the centre… it’s the Moore River.”

Other displays in this area show tools and work examples of the girls.

Music played a large part of life at New Norcia, the boys even formed a brass band. On display are some of the instruments they used.

On the way out of the museum there is a figure of St Scholastica, the twin sister of St Benedict. St Scholastica is the patron saint of Benedictine nuns, education and convulsive children. This figure c. 1900 is wood, painted gesso, brass with glass eyes, by V. Gr Reixach – Barcelona, Spain. She is usually pictured with a dove, as St Benedict reported that he saw from his cell, his sister’s soul leave the earth and ascend to heaven in the form of a shining white dove. I love how they positioned the light so it shines brightly but gently upon her face.

Plan to spend a few hours navigating your way through this fascinating and memorable museum. It is informative, educational and enjoyable.

The gift shop at the museum is also a delight to browse through. They sell the famous New Norcia bread, wine, olive oil, jams, soaps, religious souvenirs as well as the usual gift shop merchandise and momentoes of your time here.

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Happy Travels!

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