New Norcia at noon. Dom Christopher Power and I are walking past the cemetery between
St Gertrude's and St Ildephonsus' colleges. In the distance I can see the Abbey Church and, beyond that, the monastery.
The Benedictine monk is telling me some of the history of Australia's only monastic town, established just north of Perth in 1847 and today a popular tourist destination.
"The sun rises over the monastery and sets over the cemetery," he says as he brushes away the flies. It's still spring but the sun has a real bite to it. I wish I'd brought my hat.
"Bishop Fulgentius Torres was no shrinking violet of a Spaniard," Dom Christopher adds, speaking of the successor of one of New Norcia's founders, Bishop Rosendo Salvado.
"Salvado laid the town out according to a cruciform plan; Torres then built on it with spectacular results. Read together, these (two colleges) are real statement buildings."
The word "read" is apposite: I'm in New Norcia to see the exhibition Celebrating Word and Image 1250-1600: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Kerry Stokes Collection.
Housed in the town's splendid museum and art gallery until March 2014, the exhibition features 12 rare French, German, Netherlandish and Bohemian prayer books, choir books and other examples of the illuminated manuscript - that pre-print form of the book produced throughout much of medieval Europe by scribes and artists, often working in monastic scriptoria in the service of God and man - rendered in ornate calligraphy and decked out in burnished gold and silver or luminous pigments derived from precious and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli.
As executive administrator of the Kerry Stokes Collection, Erica Persak told me when I first gazed upon the manuscripts back in Perth: "Despite digital books, people have an interest in these manuscripts because of the sheer beauty of the script and the pictures.
They also tell the story of the history of their times, as well as the development of art. So we're delighted to make these available to the public to see."
Among the manuscripts is an outlandish curio - the extraordinary Nuremberg Schembart book, dating from about 1540.
"The Schembart is one of those late medieval rituals in which our mardi gras also has its origins," the catalogue's co-author, Charles Zika, said over the phone a couple of weeks earlier. He's a professorial fellow in the school of historical and philosophical studies at the University of Melbourne.
As he writes in the catalogue, the Schembart was a pre-Lenten carnival which involved "large numbers of dancers who danced their way through the city to the sound of fifes and tabors, protected by the handsomely costumed Runners".
There were also "fools, animal demons . . . and other grotesque and exotic figures" as well as carnival floats and tableau which each year were ritually set on fire in front of the town hall.
Zika told me the Schembart book, which he says is "in really good nick" (there are only about 80 in existence), was produced by a powerful patrician family as a record of their individual involvement when family members were made captains of the Runners.
"So we have these pictures of Runners in masks wearing the colours and the coats-of-arms of the families," he said. "This is a very, very good manuscript and it's wonderful to have one of these in Australia."
The exhibition complements not only the antique oil paintings in the European gallery but the contemporary Australian works next door, forming a bridge between the old world and the new with its implicit tales of transitional technologies; it also echoes New Norcia's own library.
And it even connects with those "statement buildings" Dom Christopher and I now examine. The colleges' chapels were indeed meant to be "read", with Torres employing such artisans as the Spanish woodcarver Juan Casellas and the monk-artist Father Lesmes Lopez to work on the interiors.
"In those times they paid as much attention to the inside as they did to the outside of a building," Dom Christopher says. "And they loved these totally integrated interiors using all the crafts together."
And the symmetry is unmistakeable. "For the (girls' college) we have St Gertrude, whose object of devotion was Christ; for the boys, St Ildephonsus, whose object of devotion was the Virgin Mary."
He tells me how they had a mass for some of the old boys of the college a while back. "I was thinking 'This is well thought-out'.
All these motherless boys spending their time in this place run by the Marist Brothers: what a great idea to have a feminine focus. It probably met a need. It's a very accomplished piece of work, really."
Celebrating Word and Image 1250-1600: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Kerry Stokes Collection, New Norcia Museum and Art Gallery, runs until March 17. The New Norcia Museum and Art Gallery is open daily 10am to 4.30pm. For more information phone 9654 8056, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit newnorcia.wa.edu.au. The exhibition catalogue is published by Australian Capital Equity ($45).