Graham Leslie McCallum

The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man


Marianhill Monastery, lies to the north west of the city of Durban. Established by Trappist monks on the 27th of December 1882 under the leadership of Abbot Francis Pfanner. The monastery thrived on the mission fields of Natal and Zululand to such an extent that the monks found it virtually impossible to fulfil the obligations of a contemplative life. In 1909 the monastery was re-constituted as the Congregation of the Missionaries of Marianhill so that the remaining brothers could focus on the harvest.


One of the brothers was a man named Nivard (George) Streicher – and it was he, under the auspices of Abbot Pfanner, who was was responsible for many of the extensive buildings at Marianhill. One building not often seen is that of the cloister. Barred to general traffic, it lies as a sanctuary of peace within its framing building.

(Below) Br. Nivard Streicher. Of interest, Streicher had no training in Engineering or Architecture, making his accomplishments that much more remarkable. One can assign them to inherent mental brilliance.


(below) The construction of the Cloister and Campanile.


I have had the fortune to visit the cloister on two occasions, and was able to take photographs of many of its features, especially the remarkable reliefs that are spaced along the cloister’s inner walls. Each is set in a recessed circular niche that are positioned between each Romanesque arch.




(below) The brick Campanile, whose bells and clock regulates the life of the monastery.



(above and below) Photographs of the exquisite brick-built vaults.


Each is a little masterpiece that says something about the different craftsmen who fashioned them, the time-spans within which they were finished and installed, as well as their subject matter. They deserve to be seen and appreciated not only for their aesthetic appeal, but also for the messages they convey of sacrifice, hard work and faith.



(above) The owl with books is a well known symbol of learning and wisdom. Incidentally, leading off the cloister is a library. No doubt learning played an important role in the functioning of such a large monastery, not to mention the many mission stations, schools and hospitals scattered across Natal like Emaus, Mariastern, Mariathal, Centocow, to name a few.   In Rule 42 of St. Benedict enjoins monks to read an edifying book in the evening, and orders strict silence after Compline.


(above) The staple of life – bread. The sculptor has cleverly positioned the handle of the bread knife in such a way as to increase the viewers perception of depth. As to what the jug contained, one might theorise it holds wine so as to complete the Christian communion symbols of Jesus being the Bread and Wine. The Trappists were well known for the quality of the beer they brewed, and as this was a German Trappist monastery, some might suggest the jug contains this beverage. However, this relief is probably a reference to Trappists being allowed a pound of bread and a quarter litre of wine each day for their sustenance.


(above) The subtropical nature of Durban and surrounds allows for the growing of exotic fruits of many kinds and varieties. In this roundel – bananas/ plantains, pineapples and custard apples are portrayed. The previous two reliefs and the following five have been executed by the same talented hand. They are beautifully worked, with subtlety, realism and depth. “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” Galations 5v22


(above) There is no doubt that the sculptor who created this relief did so with his subject matter in front of him. Anyone acquainted with paw paws (papayas) will recognise aspects of Asimina triloba in this roundel, like the hollow stem and leaf bracts. Again, this is a tropical fruit common to Natal, and no doubt was present on the tables of the monastery. Peculiarly, the paw paw is combined with the pods of the Australian Pink Flame Tree (Brachychiton discolor) whose seeds can be roasted and eaten by humans. These trees are familiar along the streets and in the gardens of Berean Durbanites. “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.” James 3v17


(above) The early Natal Settlers were very dependent on the fruit of cucurbita species. Pumpkins, calabashes and gourds were easily grown or procured from the Zulu population, and therefore fulfilled and important component in the diet. “And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.” Johah 4v6


(above) Trappist monks are vegetarians, abstaining from eating the flesh of four-footed animals. Large vegetable gardens were established at Marianhill, with water being fed along furrows to water the gardens. There is little surprise that several of the reliefs in the cloister are devoted to fruit and vegetables. “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it.” Proverbs 15v17


(above) A relief of a cauliflower, beans and a cucumber. And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” Genesis 1v29


(above) As exquisite relief with the fruit of the vine being the subject. This is a reference to Jesus’ statement.. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. John 15v1-2/v5. This relief possibly carries a secondary meaning, for images of birds eating grapes have been used as a Christian symbol of the temperate man resisting temptation.


The following 9 roundels are devoted to the Passion of Jesus. They have been fashioned in another hand to the other sets, and are made of a bright red clay.

(below) A relief of a cockerel symbolic of Jesus’ prediction to his disciple Peter… “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”


(below) A truly lovely relief of the Crown of Thorns and the three nails. “And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” “After they had nailed him to the cross, the soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice.”


(below) A symbolic representation of a Roman whipping post and scourges. “Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.”


(below) The Veil of Veronica. According to Christian legend, a woman named Veronica wiped the sweat and blood from the face of Jesus with her veil as He was been led, carrying His cross, to be crucified; thus imprinting an image of his face on the cloth.


(below) This roundel of a Latin cross back-lit by the sun lies immediately adjacent to the entrance to the Cloister and directly behind the bust of Jesus that lies at the centre to the cloister’s formal garden. The Latin inscription reads… ‘In this sign you shall conquer.‘ This roundel records the vision the Roman Emperor Constantine had while preparing for battle. It is recorded that he saw a bright cross in the sky, above the midday sun with the phrase “In Hoc Signo Vinces“. The date reads Anno Domini MDCCCCIV (The year of our Lord 1904).marianhill-monastery-jan-2015-196

(below) A relief of a basket holding the drawn nails, a pincer and a length of rope. As Paul admonished and reminded his audience… “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Acts 2v23


(below)  On this roundel we find 4 symbols of Christ’s Passion. The ladder, the spear, the jug of vinegar and a bitter drug, as well as the sponge on a stick. The jug records the offering to Jesus of vinegar mixed with a stupefying drug so as to dull the pain of crucifixion. This Jesus refused so that He could maintain a clear mind…”They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with wormwood (myrrh/gall), and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.” Matthew 27v34 Later, we read, he was thirsty… “And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.” Matthew 27v48. The spear records the moment when a Roman soldier drove his spear into the torso of Jesus to verify that he had died… “But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there blood and water.” John  19v34


(below) A graphically strong and symmetrical image of the under garment (tunic) of Jesus coupled with 3 gambling dices that represent the Roman soldiers (tasked with crucifying Jesus) gambling for His tunic. “now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be.


(below) This roundel records symbolically the preparation for burial of Jesus’ body by Joseph of Aramathaea… “And there came also Nicodemus, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus and wound it in linen clothes with the spices as the manner of the Jews is to bury.” John 19 v39 and 40.





The Trappist monks brought with them their precept – Ora et Labora (Prayer and Work). There is every indication when visiting Marianhill Monastery of both of these activities, especially the latter. The numerous buildings at Marianhill, and the fine craftsmanship evident, is proof of this. The idea was to balance a life of contemplation with that of work. In a sense, the two becoming one, with the monks labour an expression and extension of their faith.

No doubt the monks laboured according to their skills. They would have been trained at other tasks too. A division of labour allowed individual monks to perfect and master their tasks.

(The Gatehouse to Marianhill Monastery, with the motto ORA ET LABORA positioned on the roof’s apex.


(below) This roundel records the date in 1882 when Abbot Francis Pfanner, an Austrian Trappist monk and his fellow brothers arrived at the location alongside the Umhlatuzana  river near the village of Pinetown, and decided to establish their monastery on the farm ‘Zeekoegat’. They would have travelled inland via ox-wagon with all their necessaries. The locals must have observed the activities with some amusement and wonderment.



The following 16 roundels are of a different hand and sculpted of a dark brown gritted clay. They are executed in the naive style.

(below) This relief is of 3 Gardeners.


















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This entry was posted on February 24, 2017 by in Uncategorized.


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