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Hawaii: Big Island

Which Art in Heaven

Murals depicting biblical lessons add color to Kona Coast church

March 01, 1998|SHIRLEY ASANO | Asano is a Palos Verdes freelance writer

HONAUNAU, Hawaii — 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.

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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."

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