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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Laborare est orare

John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890)
Laborare est Orare (1862)
Oil on canvas
support: 972 x 1759 mm
Tate Gallery, London



Cistercian monks are shown working in a stone-walled Leicestershire field, and harvesting crops.


The title (part of one of the famous sayings of St Benedict) suggests the strict rule of life at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. The Abbey in Coalville, Leicestershire is shown in the distance, the first male only abbey to have been built in England since the Reformation. It was founded in 1835 as a continuation of the dissolved Garendon Abbey, which provided a spiritual sanctuary between 1133-1538.

Like Augustus Pugin, the architect of the abbey, Herbert was a Roman Catholic. It was through Pugin`s influence that Herbert converted to Roman Catholicism sometime around 1840. From then on he painted religious subjects.

Herbert shows himself drawing piously in the foreground alongside the Trappist monks.

The artist described his work as:

"And some fell upon the rock: and as soon as it was sprung up it withered away because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns growing up with it choked. And some fell upon good ground: and sprung up and yielded fruit a hundred fold. Gospel of St. Luke.


The monks of St. Bernard's Abbey, Leicester, gathering the harvest of 1861.


The boys in the adjoining field are from the Reformatory under the care of these Religious."

The scene pictured above is one of a rural Arcadia.

Unfortunately, the Reformatory School at the Abbey was not a great success. The story is described in Whitwick Reformatory at Whitwick online

“Part of the Abbey was transformed into the Whitwick Reformatory, more properly known as Mount St Bernard Reformatory or the St Mary Agricultural Colony. It was opened in 1856 for `delinquent' Catholic boys and quickly became the largest in the country with up to 250 boys being held there. There were many riots and the boys often intruded on the monks` peaceful way of life. With such large numbers and lack of funds, and as many of the boys were already hardened criminals from the back streets of Liverpool, several riots and mutinies took place.

In May 1863, eight constables from Loughborough stayed on the site for two weeks quelling a riot. A constable was seriously injured.

A year later, another riot took place and police from Loughborough, Shepshed and Leicester were drafted in to restore order. The Chief Constable of Leicestershire personally conducted the operation and the incident was the subject of a debate in the House of Commons.

In 1881 after sixty boys escaped, a decision was made to close the reformatory. It opened again briefly in 1884 when boys from the Liverpool reformatory destroyed the ship on which they lived and were sent to Whitwick while alternative accommodation in Liverpool was organised.”


The abbey continued after 1884.


About a hundred years after the artist painted the painting, some seed arrived at the Abbey and was seen to fall “upon good ground: and sprung up and yielded fruit a hundred fold.” Or more than a hundred-fold.

Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi (1903 – 1964) lived at the Abbey from 1950 until his death in 1964. He was buried at Mount St Bernard on 22 January.

Present for the funeral liturgy were several Nigerian priests living in London, including his spiritual son, Fr Francis Arinze, the future Archbishop of Onitsha, Cardinal and President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

His body was exhumed in 1988 and reburied in the priests' cemetery near the cathedral of Onitsha, where he had been ordained a priest 51 years earlier.

The abbey`s website is here.