High on the flanks of Mauna Loa volcano, above the crystal blue waters of Honaunau Bay, St Benedict’s – The Painted Church – perches amidst the lava flows, surrounded by tropical trees and flowers. It is Hawaii’s own Sistine Chapel, its interior covered with painted scenes from the Old and New Testaments, all the work of one man.
As we approach the entrance, the Church’s simplicity and the way it blends in with the spectacular surroundings is striking. Off to the left and down the hill, orchids and statues festooned with leis, decorate the pocket-sized cemetery where colorful birds flit about.
Beyond, the crystal blue waters of the Pacific Ocean sparkle in the morning sun.
We follow the curving path as it leads to a white church with its white Gothic belfry and lime green roof.
Having photographed and explored many of the great cathedrals and churches of Western Europe with their massive stained glass windows and shiny gold decorations, we are unprepared for what we find inside.
When Father Jean Berchmans Velghe, a Belgian Benedictine priest, arrived on Big Island in the late 1800s, his church stood on the shores of Honaunau, near the sacred City of Refuge. The inhabitants, however, had moved up the mountain where the weather was cooler, and the soil more fertile. Not wanting to be separated from his flock. Father John had the church dismantled and moved on mule-back to its present location.
He then proceeded to cover almost every interior surface with murals, illustrations and paintings, to better assist worshippers who could neither read nor write understand the stories from the Old and New Testaments.
Father Jean was a self-taught artist who, unlike Michelangelo, had few materials available to him. Instead, he painted on plain wood using ordinary house paint. His inspiration was the Cathedral of Burgos, Spain where he had spent some time as a young priest.
As you step through the latticework entry, your eyes are immediately drawn to the aquamarine vaulted ceiling where green palm trees reach to the heights and stars, clouds and birds seem to linger.
Wooden octagonal columns painted in red and white candy stripes line the two sides of the aisle.
Along the walls, panel pictures depict Eve discovering Abel’s body, the appearance of the Cross to St. Francis, writings from the Book of Daniel and Hell among others. Above each Father Jean painted lunettes with small Gothic pinnacles outlined against a green background.
Perhaps his most ambitious decoration of this tiny church is the nave, a vaulted gothic construction that no trained architect would have attempted. The trompe l’oeil decorations include painted columns of green, yellow, red and white, designed to resemble marble. A white ribbon around each is inscribed in Hawaiian with a saying from the St. Benedict medal (which relates to events in the life of the saint).
Some of the panels in the church remain blank, untouched since Father Jean returned to Belgium in 1904 for health reasons before he was able to complete his work.
Nevertheless, the work he has left behind is a unique interpretation of his faith and is much loved and appreciated by the local parishioners.
On a sunny day, the light inside the Church is superb, and you are able to take the photographs without the use of a flash. We raised our ISO to ensure proper exposure. A wide-angle lens is helpful because the church is quite small and narrow. Although the light is good at any time of the day, if you can visit at sunset, you will be able to capture the sun over Honaunau Bay through the open door of the church.
HOW TO GET THERE
The Painted Church is located at 84-5140 Painted Church Road, Captain Cook, Hawaii (Tel. 808-328-2227). Services are conducted in both English and Hawaiian. Check the website for times.
As you drive south on Highway 11, look for the Honaunau post office at mile marker 104 and turn towards the ocean onto Highway 160. About a mile down the road turn right on Painted Church Road. The Church will be on your right with a large car park. If you continue seaward on Rt 160 you will reach The Place of Refuge, Honaunau.
For more images of The Painted Church, visit www.allegriaphotos.com and click on USA/Hawaii.