The Online Archive of California includes a nineteenth-century lithograph entitled “Hermit and the Burnt Tree” by Swiss artist C. C. Kuchel, which depicts the small figure of a man sitting before a great redwood. URL at: http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/tf067nb32k/.
In the eremitic tradition of Coptic Christianity, hermits are known as anchorites. Their obscurity in the Western world is due in part to the irregular status of Copts versus the major Christian denominations, the scarcity of translations, and the exoticism of geography and culture.
A sense of these characteristics can be found in a book by the Coptic prelate Pope Shenouda III entitled “What is an Anchorite?” translated and posted on the Coptic Hymns web site. The page is part of the larger section on Coptic spirituality that includes stories about desert saints and hermits. Brought to our attention by a friend of Hermitary.
The German-Swiss architect Peter Zumthor has created the “Field Chapel” dedicated to Brother Klaus or Nicholaus of Flue, the early modern Swiss hermit and visionary. An article from the Guardian entitled “Solitary Refinement” by Jonathan Glancey describes the chapel:
The apparently simple form of Zumthor’s building proves to be far richer than it first appears. The concrete has been poured by Herr Scheidtweiler, family and friends, over a wigwam-like timber frame. Once the concrete had set, this frame was set on fire, creating walls inside the chapel that are strangely blackened and haunted with the ghosts of the timbers that once supported them. The floor is a frozen pool of molten lead, while the roof is open to the sky and, by night, the field of stars above. Rain and sunlight tumble and fall through this oculus to create atmospheric patterns of shade and glistening weather.
Zumthor’s chapel is numinously dark inside, but when you look up, the oculus itself resembles the flare of a star – a reference, presumably, to Brother Klaus’s vision in the womb. Being here alone is close to feeling, if not understanding, the faith that sustained the Swiss hermit.
So, here is a building containing just one room, with a roof that fails to keep out the rain, made of rough concrete, burned timber and lead. It has no electricity. No running water. No plumbing. No lavatories. No wind turbine. No solar panels. No air-con. No pictures hang on its walls. It offers no obvious, or accepted, sense of comfort. And yet it is compelling and very beautiful, offering solace.
Frank Bottomley is a medieval and local historian concentrating on Yorkshire, England. His monograph “Yorkshire’s Spiritual Athletes: Hermits & Other Solitaries” is a wonderful resource which he makes available free at his website. (The text appears complete in the main link, but the appendices only include one of several projected items in the table of contents.) The work extends the detail of venerable predecessors like Rotha Mary Clay’s Hermits and Anchorites of England.