Which Art in Heaven
After three sun-washed days on the Big Island, to make up for our self-indulgence, we abandoned our Kohala coast resort when the clouds rolled in and headed south for church in Honaunau. Not for just any church, but for St. Benedict’s Painted Church: a charming turn-of-the-century wood structure frosted with murals of Biblical scenes and images.
St. Benedict’s is the oldest and most renowned of Hawaii’s three surviving painted churches--all decorated by Roman Catholic missionaries. The others, all in the Big Island’s Puna District, are the Star of the Sea (also known as the Kalapana Painted Church) and St. Theresa’s Church in Mountain View. (A fourth, Maria Lanakila near Kealia, was destroyed by a 1950 earthquake. Only a fragment of its interior artwork remains in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.)
A pilgrimage to St. Benedict’s was, perhaps, too easy a penance for my husband and me. It didn’t require traveling down torturous roads, trudging up steep hills or standing in long admission lines.
The church occupies a historic stretch of the Kona Coast, and is easily reached by car. Listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, it is sandwiched between two other culturally significant sights. One is Kealakekua Bay, where a monument stands to Capt. James Cook, the first European to “discover” the Hawaiian islands in 1778. Cook died there a year later in a skirmish between his men and native warriors. The other is Pu’uhonua o Honaunau, a national park that was, as early as the 1400s, a place of refuge for those who had violated sacred law and would otherwise have been punished by death.
St. Benedict’s is on Painted Church Road, which snakes between the highways Hawaii 11 and 160. The day we drove it in June, the pretty, narrow, mostly residential byway was festooned with blossoming plumerias and coffee trees, from which hung bunches of ripening yellow and red coffee beans.
The church sits on a rise above the street, and I at first mistook it for a dainty summer house because of its bright coat of white paint, latticed entryway and gabled Gothic belfry.
A Hawaii resident named Sally told me she was married there and that when she booked it for her wedding ceremony, she was warned that the church’s open-door policy meant tourists might wander in during the service. “A few people showed up,” she said. “But that’s the way it is over here--very casual.”
And so it was. You just walk right in to the tiny church. No official tour guide bustles up with an explanatory brochure or offers to shepherd you around the sanctuary.
The church’s pristine white exterior did not prepare me for the burst of color within its cool, musty sanctuary, where every available inch of wall space is vividly painted. Only the plain wood pews and floors are spared. I felt as if I had stepped inside the pages of a richly illustrated Victorian storybook.
A few paragraphs of history are posted on the church door. Through it we learned that St. Benedict’s was constructed and the murals painted between 1899 and 1904 by a Belgian Catholic missionary, Father Jean Berchmans Velghe, known as Father John. Wishing to win converts and teach doctrine to his mostly unlettered congregation, Father John made use of the medieval method of instruction by adorning his church’s interior with biblical and other religious scenes and imagery. And since Father John’s narrative paintings were designed to speak for themselves, the modern tourist needs little explanation to interpret their meanings. However, there is a bit of additional help provided by captions painted on the bottom of the murals.
No one seems sure what the local people thought of Father John’s six dreamlike murals--three on each wall flanking the altar--or of his trompe l’oeil recreation, behind the altar, of the Gothic dome of Spain’s famed cathedral in Burgos, or of his delicately tinted and decorated church vault. But for the viewer today, the effect is charming.
In St. Benedict’s, as in the Gothic cathedrals it is patterned after, the altar sits at the east end, and a vaulted ceiling arches over the nave, a surprise in a room small enough to fit inside a tennis court.
I surveyed the artwork at leisure with only my husband and a sedate middle-age couple for company. As every wall beckoned with its own story, I turned my attention first to the narrative frescoes on the south and north walls.
In “Hell,” the first mural on the right as you face the altar, a savagely gloating Satan presides over a multiethnic group of lost souls. Art critic Alfred Frankenstein, in his 1961 book “Angels Over the Altar,” identifies among the damned a crowned Hawaiian queen who persecuted early Catholic missionaries. Poetically enough, this painting has suffered the most from time and exposure to the rays of tropical sunlight.
In sedate contrast, a reclining maiden of Pre-Raphaelite pallor graces the next painting down on the right-hand wall. She represents “A Good Death.”
Nearest the altar along the same wall is a painting of “Cain and Abel.” The strong features and dark hair of Eve and her sons left me musing whether Father John’s flock was meant to or did draw parallels between this biblical story and their own tribal wars or struggles against foreign encroachment. A year before construction of St. Benedict’s began, the U.S. had won the Spanish-American War and annexed Hawaii as its territory.
I wondered how the local people must have viewed Father John’s depiction of “The Handwriting on the Wall at the Feast of King Belshazzar.” The divine warning--”You are found wanting. Your kingdom ceases. Should die”--is written in Hawaiian.
Political implications aside, I questioned, too, what reactions the priest elicited when he unveiled his two murals of supernatural events, “The Temptation of Jesus,” and “The Appearance of the Cross to St. Francis.”
In “Temptation,” a white-gowned Jesus with flowing gold mantle has just cast a tempter devil off a cliff. Jesus is painted disproportionately large in relation to the background. In this, Father John is following folk art. Scale, as used here and in other of the priest’s paintings, is determined by the symbolic significance of his subjects, not by academic rules of proportion.
St. Francis receiving stigmata (bodily marks representing the wounds Christ received on the cross) is pictured in the final mural, closest to the altar on the left side.
The balance of the artwork was less narrative, and its appeal, more visceral. But I delighted in the effective trompe l’oeil painting of the Burgos Cathedral’s dome. The Belgian priest must have wanted to create the illusion that his church was a spiritual extension of that Spanish cathedral.
But my favorite feature of the church is the painted grove of palm trees that seems to sprout from the pedestals atop the columns rising to the nave’s vaulted ceiling. The palm fronds fan out across the vault, painted in bands of golden yellow, pinkish red and lapis blue to represent the sky at sunset. The “sky” is also dotted with charming gold metallic stars. What struck me as I walked out of the sanctuary into the gray and humid day was that the folk artist-priest had spread over his congregation a canopy of heaven resembling the native Hawaiian sky at its loveliest.
Outside, quaint graveyards wait to be explored, along with paths lush with tropical foliage including ti plants, a papaya tree and bougainvillea. On a sunny day, you can glimpse the ocean from the church steps. For shoppers, an open-air souvenir stall with a thatched roof invites browsing among baskets of inexpensive religious trinkets for sale on the honor system. It’s a very casual, very Hawaiian arrangement.
As we pulled out of the parking lot and glanced back at the church, I couldn’t help thinking that critic Frankenstein wasn’t altogether correct in calling St. Benedict’s “a little corner of medieval Europe among the coffee trees.” Father John had, after all, painted heaven with a distinctly Hawaiian look.
After our outing to St. Benedict’s, we headed south toward Puuhonua o Honaunau, a national park situated on the shores of Honaunau Bay, where St. Benedict’s was located before Father John moved it to its present location. The park encompasses both historic Hawaiian palace grounds and the puuhonua or place of refuge.
We used a map of the grounds, keyed to numbered attractions, to take us on a self-guided tour of this open air museum run by the National Park Service.
Points of interest include a petroglyph of a man; house models made of native wood and grass thatching; a royal fishpond; an antique Hawaiian checkers game, with rules available from the park’s information counter; and a reconstructed traditional temple, complete with a grimacing pair of guardian wooden tikis--a favorite photo op for visitors, who wait in line to pose.
Ka Lae, the southernmost point in the United States, was our afternoon’s final destination. We took Hawaii 11 down from Kona to the Kau District to reach the 12-mile turnoff to South Point. This single-lane road rose and dipped with the gentleness of ocean swells as we drove past cow pastures, a grove of eerily whistling white windmills and what my husband declared “the last power line.” At land’s end we pulled into a small red dirt parking lot.
No sign proclaimed that the wind-swept bluff before us was South Point. The last such indicator was about 10 miles back. Only the presence of a few other tourists assured us that we had attained our goal. We clutched our hats as we stepped uneasily over the craggy black lava headlands to peer 30 feet down into the Pacific Ocean.
To mark the occasion we took photos, careful not to step unwarily backward lest we fall down into one of the deep canoe-mooring holes believed to have been drilled into the rock by early Polynesian settlers.
Our consciences appeased, we drove back up the coast through a light, warm rain, ready for several more lazy days under rainbow-painted skies.
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Getting there: United has nonstop service between LAX and Kona, Hawaii. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $488.
What to see: St. Benedict’s Church, P.O. Box 209, Honaunau, HI 96726; telephone (808) 328-2227.
Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, Box 129, Honaunau, HI 96726; tel. (808) 328-2326. Admission: $2 for adults; children 16 and under are free.
For more information: Hawaii Visitors Bureau, Big Island Chapter, 75-5719 W. Alii Drive, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740; tel. (808) 329-7787.
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