"the Monk and the Fish"

Zingerman, Dubrovsky and Yaniger

The atmosphere of the film "the Monk and the Fish": Three Aspects - Architecture, Christian Theology, Graphic design and composition

By: Alisa Zingerman, Xenia Dubrovsky, Rafi Yaniger

“To the student of form, the history of maturity is written in the refinements associated with the projection of surface images. Similarly, the student of literary cinema measures development in terms of plot, character, and symbolic evolutions. As for the former, he may easily recall compositional details… conversely, the literary or dramatic-minded observer is prone to recall scenes, not shots, and discuss in detail emotional or intellectual meanings… the student of cinema should avoid this insidious division into form, subject matter, and content but at the same time be aware of their interrelation.” (Kepes, Gyorgy, p. 160)

We will discuss the design and compositional elements of the film, but will attempt to relate them to the essence of the film, the atmosphere and feeling it generates within the viewer. In discussing the design of the film we can separate the discussion between the ‘static’ elements of design which are evident in still frames of the film, to the elements of design ‘in motion’, apparent only when viewing the sequence of frames in play.

De Wit, relating to his films said: "In my drawings I am extremely sensitive to atmosphere, light and shadow, and space." (Liz Faber and Helen Walters, p. 178) In reference to 'static' design, the main contributors to the peaceful and quiet atmosphere of "the Monk and the Fish" are the watercolor backgrounds. The colors are muted blues and browns painted very lightly in transparent watercolor washes. The film begins in broad daylight and as darkness approaches the colors become even more desaturated, eventually reaching complete monochrome in the nighttime scenes. The contrast between the light washes and the black inked areas in the shadows and contours is very strong, creating a distinct look, reminiscent of book illustrations.

The use of watercolors is especially effective in the main part of the scenery of the film, the sky and water. As Koschatzky writes: "It is not so much the use of water as solvent which gives the medium [watercolors] its name as the transparency it gives, the transparency of clean water" (p. 14). The contour is created in ink brushstrokes with varying width. In close-ups the line weight is heavier, while distant objects have very thin contours in accordance with their diminishing size in perspective.

The monk as the main character in the film occupies a surprisingly small area of the frame throughout most of the film. Most of the frame is taken by either large buildings or sky and water. This creates an impression of vast space surrounding the monk and fish, but we are not curious as to what resides outside the frame, since this vast area is empty, although it is depicted beautifully with varying tones and stains of watercolor. The small figure against a large background makes us sympathize with the monk, besides drawing our attention to him. Another variation of this design is apparent in shots without the monk, where a small window or door against a large plain wall draw our attention. Kepes writes: “A color spot generates different experiences of space depending upon whether it is placed in the middle of the picture-plane, to the left or right, or at the top or bottom. Each unique interrelationship yields a unique spatial feeling.” (p.24) In “the Monk and the Fish” these points of interest are usually placed in the left part of the frame, directing the viewers spatial perception beyond the left side of the frame, as a preparation for the last section of the film when the monk follows the fish a long way, always proceeding in the same direction towards the left of the frame.

The use of rhythm in the design creates great interest, besides the obvious use of rhythm in the actual movement. Donald Graham defines rhythm as “the recurrence of elements in alternation with opposite or differing elements.” (p.231) Rhythm is especially prominent in the design of the architecture with recurring arcs in various sizes. Near the end of the film the monk passes a row of trees spaced irregularly. The spacing is more condensed at the right side of the frame, where the monk enters the frame, so the spacing adds to the sense that the monk is moving into wider and more open spaces. The reflection in the water is very noticeable in the film, and also creates a sense of rhythm. It is an exact upside-down clone of the reflecting objects, and in certain shots, slightly lighter in tone. It is interesting to note that the reflection immediately generates an impression of water without any need of small waves and ripples (or even a shimmer in the reflection).

Concerning 'in motion' design, it is interesting to see what Mitry says regarding cinema: “In a painting or a photograph, perspective provides a ‘feeling’ of depth, size, and the shading of the volumes, the ‘feeling’ of relief. But this ‘feeling’ is less a sensation and more an ‘idea’… In the cinema, on the other hand, the photographs move. Their succession represents movement… we immediately feel the depth of space. It is movement which determines the feeling of space – in fact it effectively creates it.” (Mitry, Jean p. 32-33)

Mitry describes the ‘experience’ of depth and space in cinema, in contrast to the static ‘idea’ of space created by a still picture, which is understood rather than felt. This experience of depth is created by both camera movements, in which the whole background changes, and by the movements of objects and characters within the background space. In animation the movement of the background is usually limited to simple pans, so most of the feeling of depth is caused by movements of the characters and objects within the background (in computer animation camera movements can be simulated realistically, but this discussion is limited to classic, hand-drawn animation).


In ‘the Monk and the Fish’ there are a few shots showing movement in extreme perspective, but most of the feeling of space is generated by the background images,  giving the film a more ‘flat’ look, especially considering the squarish and ‘flat’ design of the monk. This helps give the film a feeling of a painting in movement rather than a simulation of three-dimensional reality.

Another means of accomplishing this feeling is the type of movement applied to the monk in the animation. The animation is characterized by sharp and quick movements that settle into static poses very quickly. This accentuates the impression that we are looking at an illustration, a visual translation of a certain mood and experience, rather than at a representation of reality. Even when walking or running, the monk is not depicted in a natural continuous fashion. He moves across the screen in a series of quick bounces that bridge between static poses, in De Wit’s typical style of animation.

Although it is possible to give many meanings to the film, the plot itself is very basic. The film’s strength lies in this picturesque feeling we have described. It evokes certain moods in the viewer without the need of any dialogue or dramatic story, making it a masterpiece of visual communication.


As it was already noted, in Dudock De Wit's film lots of the screen time and space is dedicated to prolonged shots of the background, especially in its first part. The surrounding plays a significant role in the creation of the film's atmosphere: due to the small size of the protagonist - the monk - the background dominates the space of the frame. The main place that is shown from many angles with great detail, so that the viewer can imagine more or less exactly how it looks and feels like, is the monastery the monk dwells in. Its interior is drawn with great attention and enables the viewer to envisage it as a completely three-dimensional space (though it is interesting to note that the building is never shown from outside.) More than that, the monastery architecture alludes to real buildings that existed at some historical period, and it makes one wonder what exactly was the prototype of the monastery De Wit refers to.

In order to identify it, a journey has to be taken to the roots of Christian architecture. Looking back at the period when Christian architecture might have started, historians observe that "until A.D. 200 … Christian architecture did not and could not exist." (R. Rautheimer, p.24) Until then, the "early believers had neither the means, the organization, nor the slightest interest in evolving an ecclesiastical architecture. They met in whatever place suited the occasion." (ibid.) Such a place could be a private house or an apartment temporarily rented by the congregation. As a result, such a meeting place (ecclesiae) presented, as a rule, a building built within the traditions of Roman utilitarian domestic architecture.

Therefore, when about fourth century purposeful Christian architecture started to emerge, it was still "fully rooted in domestic architecture" (ibid, p.29) and heavily influenced by its classical antecedents (R. Calkins, part 1.) It explains the apparition of the arched aqueduct in De Witt's film, which strongly resembles Pont du Gard (see Appendix, picture 1), the classic example of Roman perfection of arc's construction (ibid.). Without the explanation above, the aqueduct could seem an eclectic borrowing within the walls of a typical Christian building. But yet, what was the look of a typical Christian building? Where and when do we begin to encounter the sloped roofs, small arched windows and inner yards, featured in De Witt's setting, in the history of architecture?

According to R. Calkins (part 2, p.17) it is by the third century, that the Christian congregation grew larger and started to adopt a variety of buildings for their specific purposes, though they contained "no identifiable element that could be related to any certain religious usage." One of such first churches, that, being "rectangular, aisles, truss-roofed, and modest" (R. Krautheimer, p.37) resembles the dwelling-place of the monk in our film, is being reconstructed from the walls that have survived in Rome, S.Crisogono, dated by the very early fourth century. (See Appendix, picture 2) Another example is S. Sebastiano on the Via Appia, its date estimated just the same (see Appendix, picture 3.)

Further, Christianity gained a more official status with the edict of Milan in 313 at the beginning of Constantine's reign. (R. Krautheimer, p.39) During this period Christian architecture grew to serve different functions according to the needs of its worshippers. Since we are bound to the investigation of the monk's residence origins, now it is natural to concentrate on the development of the monastic architecture in the Middle Ages. The growth of monasticism began in the fourth century, when "the church became increasingly bureaucratic and hierarchical" and monks "seeking a purer and more spiritual form of Christianity turned to a hermitlike existence of solitude and meditation." (Calkins, part 5, p.56) They used to dwell in small cells built of timber and sod in solitude or in small community, until St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-547) formulated another form of monasticism. It organized hermits into one hierarchical strictly governed community. (ibid., p.57) Among its rules was that the monastery should be self sufficient, as the above quotes Benedict's words: "…so that there be no occasion for monks to wander about, since there is no wise expedient for their souls." (ibid., p.58) According to this rule, such monasteries as Montecassino (see Appendix, picture 4) were built, built as a small town that has all that is necessary for the life of its inhabitants within its walls. It explains, therefore, the presence of aqueduct leading to the pond in De Witt's movie: it is logical to assume that it was kind of reservoir for the water supply within the walls of the monastery.

There was another especially prominent and commonly spread feature in monastic architecture that was not mentioned yet - the cloister, "enclosed courtyard, surrounded on all four sides by arcaded passageways."(R. Stalley, p.182) As well as aqueduct, "the idea of a courtyard surrounded by open porticoes was inherited from the Roman world." (ibid., p.188) A distinguished example of cloister is seen the Cisterian houses at Senanque, late twelfth century (see Appendix, picture 5.) The popularity of cloister was in no way accidental, and besides its functional advantages it was a place "completely separated from the outside world, a heaven of peace in the heart of the monastery." (ibid.) Such inner yard is also present in the monastery that is under the investigation here, moreover, it is one of its most distinguished features. 

It seems that our investigation after the origins of the monk's dwelling place in De Witt's movie came to a conclusion: all its features evidence that it is a typical example of European monastic architecture. But it is still unclear, does it belong to the earlier period, around the forth century, or to the later eleventh century? Both guesses can be equally reliable. Furthermore, after the eleventh century the monastic architecture developed as more complex and grandiose, such as architecture of Cluny III which represents one "extreme of monastic thinking, the conviction that the more perfect the building, the greater the offering to the Lord." (R. Stalley, p. 175) Of course, the great beautifully ornamented Cluniac architecture does not really come close to resembling the modest monastery drawn by De Witt. However, "as monastic building became more and more grandiose during the eleventh century, isolated hermits and small 'protest' groups abandoned conventional monasteries, seeking solitude amongst the woods and mountains." (Stalley, p. 176) Such group, Cistercians, "refined the nature of monastic architecture," reviving the ascetic strain in European monasticism. (see Appendix, picture 6) May be our investigated monastery belong to this later period? As well, it is necessary to note that monasteries, visually resembling the discussed one, were also built in eleventh century Greece, being examples of typical Byzantine architecture. (R. Krautheimer, p.345.) (See Appendix, picture 7)

So what strain in architecture does our modest monastery belong to? Where could it have been built? And when? The answer to these questions, even after investigation, still stays undefined. Why would that be? At this point, it is necessary to turn to the theory of architecture. Roger Scruton in his book "The Aesthetics of Architecture" names what he counts for the distinguishing features of this art. They are the following: first is "utility or function", second is "its highly localized quality", third is "its character as a public object", and fourth "is its continuity with the decorative arts and the corresponding multiplicity of its aims." (pp.1-19) Looking at our subject through this prism, we reveal that it doesn't answer these definitions. Let's review them from last to the first to check their comparability. The last condition may be true: the monastery drawn by De Witt does relate to decorative art in a way. The next one is also applicable: being a movie it may be stretched to be a public object. But as part of a movie it is in no way localized – it can be taken to any place and shown wherever there is a TV or monitor. Also the issue of utility of function is extremely arguable – the famous saying "art is useless" gains all its might when we deal with animation.

 Speaking of the architectural aspect of an animated short, we often tend to forget that this is no real architecture. And this is not because it doesn't look like one; it is because its functions are radically different. It mustn't be built correctly to stand upright; there are no laws of physics in animation. Its purpose is not utilitarian, it is no facility for the viewer (though it could be for the animated character inside the movie). Its correctness and usefulness is measured by its functioning as part of the movie. It is measured by the extent to which it assists the plot to reach the audience, to transmit some meaning, to tell the story. Along the way, it may resemble some real building, belonging to this or that epoch, but this is not where it ends, it is only a mean to achieve some other goal, to awaken some association, to arouse certain feeling, in short, to create an atmosphere.

And that's why it so difficult to classify De Witt's monastery in terms of the theory of architecture. "In my drawings," says De Witt, "I am extremely sensitive to atmosphere, light and shadow, and space. The abundant use of shadows has become my favourite visual technique." (Liz Faber and Helen Walters, p.178)  So the utter goal of the arched architecture in the movie is not so much to reconstruct some real monastery, it is the stage for playing with shadows that create the beautiful aesthetic effect so typical of De Witt. The cloister is not so much imitation of medieval cloisters, as the ultimate space to emphasize the smallness of the monk's figure, and perhaps his loneliness. The nearly Roman aqueduct and the pool lead us to another point of this research: the water in this movie and its symbolism. 


According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “The natural symbolism of water led to its liturgical use” (p. 660). Water, being a necessity for all living things, symbolizes life. In Christian liturgy, water is a symbol of life and purification.

In his short animated movie, De Wit places the monk most of the time by a pool of water. The monk was watching the still waters, when a fish jumped out unexpectedly. Could it mean that he was watching his own life, pondering about his isolated existence, comfortable but rather dull, like the water in the pool, when he had a revelation?

In Christian symbolism the fish represents Jesus Christ. It appears both as an acrostic and as a symbol. Sanctus Aurelius Augustinus (354-430) writes about the possible origin of the acrostic in “Creations. Divine City”.  In the eighteenth chapter he mentions a prophecy made by Eritrean oracles (Sibylline Oracles). It contains a fragment, where the lines are arranged in such an order, so that their first letters read “Ιησος Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ”, i.e. Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. If one joins the first letters of each word together, one will get ΙΧΘΥΣ which means “fish” in Greek. “Under the name of 'fish', one mysteriously understands Jesus, because in the abyss of real mortality, He could remain alive, i.e. without sin.” (p. 255-259)

In the New Catholic Encyclopedia it says that “The abbreviation ΙΧΘΥΣ… was current by the end of the 2nd century.” Apart from the Sibylline Oracles and Augustine (Civ.18.23), who refer to it, it appears that it is also employed by Lactanius (Div. inst. 7.16-20) Eusebius (Vita Constant. 5.18). The fish appears as a symbol of Christ, side by side with this acrostic, in art, literature and inscriptions. (p. 746)

So what do we have? Our Monk suddenly discovers Jesus. What he does next, seems quite logical for a man who saw a fish. He tries to catch it and put it into a bucket using a fishing rod, to capture and keep it to himself. When we look for symbolism in his actions, it is quite safe to suppose that he simply wants to “grab” his discovery, to be able to “touch”, explore and understand it better. Alas, the elusive fish refuses to be caught. It taunts the Monk, plays with him, always staying close, but out of reach. He chases it along the side of the pool, and ends up falling in, a baptism of sorts. That is when the madness starts. How else would one describe the actions of a man who tries to karate kick a fish to death? He then chases the fish with a butterfly net all along the aqueduct and back to the pool, and ends up falling in again, looking quite aggravated. Failing to grasp his discovery by force, he tries to come to his senses, to go back to the calm life he led before, by returning to the monastery and studying.

However, it does not work. The thought of the fish, of his discovery, keeps him restless and unable to concentrate. He goes back and confirms his fears, for the fish is truly there, and he didn’t just dream it all up. His life has really changed.

Once he made sure he wasn’t mad and imagining fish where it shouldn’t be, he tried to share his discovery with the other monks. When the fish failed to appear at that precise moment, they immediately lost interest. They simply turned around and deserted him. He was left with the fate of beginner prophets – alone and unheard. The monk reacted negatively, panicking and almost falling off the edge. It appears that his burden of knowing was rather heavy for him.

That night, the Monk went back to the pool and lighted twelve candles at the edge of the pool, sitting himself in the middle. It is a well known fact that candles are the most common attribute to most religions’ ceremonies. In our case, the first association is that of the twelve apostles.  It was most likely a prayer of sorts, which went unanswered, for the Monk woke up among melted candles in the morning and the fish did not appear.

The Monk reaches the peak of absurdity by trying to hunt the fish down with a bow and arrow. According to James Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, the arrow is “Not merely a weapon, but traditionally the carrier of disease, especially the plague.”(p. 32) Was De Wit referring to the meaningless wars, among Christians themselves, fought in the name of the Lord? Or was it all about the inner battles, breaking one’s habits and wrong beliefs? Either way, Dudock De Wit shows us that violence can lead us a long way (in that scene the Monk moves very far along the edge of the pool, making it appear endless) but ends up leading us nowhere, for our Monk falls into the water again, tripping on the bucket that he left there. This makes a third and final baptism.

The next scene almost looks like a stroll in a park, very similar to the birch trees in De Wit’s “Father and Daughter”. It seems that the Monk started chasing the fish at first out of desperation, and then, after a rather long swim along the aqueduct, seeing the error of his ways, he starts to simply follow it. After that, with each following scene, the Monk's chase becomes easier and easier. He almost hops down the stairs, after the fish, and then plays 'hide-and-seek' with it between the huge jars filled with water. By the time they pass Egypt (we come to that conclusion upon seeing the two pyramids, modestly placed in the distance), the Monk possibly achieves redemption, for he no longer chases the fish, but walks beside it, so that he doesn't realize at first that the fish took a right turn at the cross-section. That possibly appears as a reminder that even though one might think one knows where one is going, it is not necessarily so, for all is decided up above (or, as in the Monk's case, at water level a little bit to the right).

In the end, the fish no longer needs water, and instead it just hovers around the Monk. The Monk even opens a door for it to go through. After that, he starts to float together with it, and reaching total harmony they become one, floating up into the distance, where he finally embraces it.

It is possible that one of the lessons we can learn from this tale, is that one won't reach his goal by brutal force. One should not impose his initial understanding unto reality, but rather one should let himself be led by the power that is above us.

Another valuable lesson is that one should not leave things like buckets by water edges, for one will undoubtedly trip over and fall into the water, or off the edge itself.





Calkins, Robert G. Medieval Architecture in Western Europe. New YorkOxford University Press, 1998.

Faber, Liz and Walters, Helen. Animation Unlimited: Innovative Short Films Since 1940. Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2003.

Graham, Donald. Composing Pictures. Van Nostrand Reinhold, USA, 1982.

Gratsch, E. J. "Liturgical Use of Water." New Catholic Encyclopedia.  Washington: Thomson Gale, 2003. Pp. 660-661.

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Harper Collins Publishers, 1975.

Kepes, Gyorgy. The nature and art of motion. London: Studio Vista, 1965.

Kepes, Gyorgy. Language of vision. London: Paul Theobald and Co, 1989.

Koschatzky, Walter. Watercolour - history and technique. London: Thames & Hudson, 1970.

Krauthaimer, Richard. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Harmondsworth : Penguin Books, 1986.

Mitry, Jean. The aesthetics and psychology of the cinema. Indiana University Press USA, 1997.

Scruton, Roger. The Aesthetics of Architecture. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Stalley, Roger. Early Medieval Architecture. Part 8 "Architecture and monasticism." OxfordOxford University Press, 1999.

Quasten, J. "Symbolism of Fish." New Catholic Encyclopedia.  Washington: Thomson Gale, 2003. Pp.746-748.

Аврелий, Августин. О граде божием . Санкт-Петербург: "Алетейя,"  Киев: УЦИИМ-Пресс, 1998.

אנימציה כיום, אפריל 2008