Regular Faculty

Monks & Friars & Food...Oh My! Exhibition Notes

Food Images in Christianity and the Monastic Life

by C. J. Renz, OP

Since its inception, the Christian Community has used food not only for physical sustenance but also for its rich symbolic power to communicate the deeper truths of eternal life in Christ Jesus.

In particular, monastic (religious) life provides a means to bring together the secular and religious cultural experiences of food. The present exhibit, “Monks & Friars & Food . . . Oh my!” provides a visual exploration of this relationship between religious life and food. Both playful and serious in its approach, the exhibit presents sacred and secular pieces. Some are spiritually uplifting; others are playful, and a few are shocking. Together, they demonstrate the responsibility each one of us has to engender faith in our food so as to provide a public witness to universal call to stewardship of life.

From the earliest days of Christianity, several food images predominate:

  • Jesus as the Paschal Lamb (victim) – "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29).

  • “The Lord's Supper”/The Last Supper

  • Ichthys (Gk., “fish”) according to tradition, ancient Christians used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes during their persecution by the Roman Empire. The ichthys is an acronym which translates into English as "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior." Drawings can be seen as early as the 1st century in the catacombs of Rome. In this marble funerary stele (Vatican necropolis, 3rd c.) of Licinia Amias, the motto is given as: Ikhthus zôntôn ("fish of the living"), with a visual depiction of fish and an anchor.

 Funerary steele

  • In medieval Europe, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of offering her own blood, by wounding her breast, when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican became a symbol of the Passion and self-offering of Jesus in the Eucharist. Traditionally entitled, "The Pelican in her piety," the symbol is found in many different media, including stained glass, mosaic tile, embroidered fabrics, and illuminated manuscripts, as in this 15th c. copy of the De Consolatione philosophiae by Boethius (Alexander Turnbill Library, MSR-19).

Boethius Pelican

Examples of each of these symbols are presented in this exhibition.

Monks, Food, and Satire

The exhibit includes several examples of the strong reaction of secular society to various behaviors of monks and friars, as well as to the traditional beliefs of Catholic Christians.

Based on an English patriotic ballad written in 1731, "O the Roast Beef of Old England," (or the "Gate of Calais") is a satirical work first painted in 1748 by William Hogarth (1697-1764). In 1749, William Hogarth fashioned a print of his recently finished painting, O the Roast Beef of Old England. This autobiographical work commemorates his arrest in 1748 as a suspected spy while sketching the English crests on one of the old gates of Calais. In retaliation, the artist used the opportunity to throw barbs at the French and their religion.


William Rowlandson (1756-1827) satirized religious life in this hand-colored print entitled, "The Holy Friar," (1807), along with its companion, "The Monastic Fare," on display in the Gallery. This piece included verses from "I am a friar of the Orders Grey,", the refrain reading, "What Baron or Squire or Knight of the Shire, Lives half so well as a Holy Friar."

Rowlandson - "The Holy Friar"

Ignaz von Born (1742-1791) wrote Monachologia: Or the Handbook of the Natural History of Monks (1782) as a satire in support of Emperor Joseph II of Vienna to establish religious tolerance for all his subjects and independence from Rome. Written in Latin, the work was translated into numerous other languages. In 1852, the Scottish publishing house Johnstone and Hunter published the first English translation, done by Count Valerian Krasinski, a Polish immigrant to England. Included in this edition were ten sketches drawn by A. Arnst and lithographed by Schenck and McFarlane, including "Papal Invasion of England" (below) and an illustration based on the purpose of the book - the genus known as "monk", discovered to be the species connecting man with monkey:


Monachologia - Missing Link        Monachologia - Papal Invasion

In the Monachologia, the Dominican friars are described as having olfactory senses "developed in the most wonderful manner, so that it will smell at any distance wine and heresy."

In his 1835 Recollections of an Excursion, William Beckford penned an artful recollection of his 1792 trip to the oldest and largest monastery of Portugal - the Cistercian Abbey of Santa Maria of Alcobaça. The present kitchen was built in 1752, and included a chimney lined with glazed tiles and an oven that was so large it was said to be able to roast ten oxen at one time (left). Through the center of the kitchen ran a rivulet diverted from the Alcoa River in order to supply fresh water - and fish! - to the kitchen at all times (right).

Alcobaca - fireplace     Alcobaca - sink

Beckford described it as the "most distinguised temple of gluttony in all Europe." In contrast, the 1789 account by James Murphy noted, "during my residency of three weeks, I found the greatest temperance and decorum, blended with hospitality and cheerfulness . . . . Those who declaim against their oppulence would do well to enquire whether there be a nobleman or gentleman in Europe possessed of a revenue equal to that of this Monastery who diffuses so many blessings among his fellow beings as the Fathers of Alcobaça."

By the end of the 18th century, Europe began to turn a more jovial eye towards religious life. Built in 1905, the Black Friar Saloon displays a playful array of "frolicking friars" in bas-relief on both the exterior and interior of the building.

Black Friar Pub exterior     Black Friar Pub interior