I first presented this lecture on 1 October 2016 at St. Peter Church in Memphis, TN. This event was sponsored by the Wojtyla Institute. The text was later published in Dappled Things.
I expanded and revised this lecture, and presented it again on 12 August 2017 at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, IL. This event was sponsored by the Catholic Art Guild.
Notions about art are diverse, strongly held and contradicting. Facing such conflict, many hoist a flag of surrender and say that art is just a matter of personal taste. Some even fly that flag triumphantly. They heatedly argue that art is not a thing worth arguing; they insist that nothing about art is objectively true except its lack of objective truthfulness. Art cannot easily be quantified or ranked; therefore, they say, everything said about it is mere opinion.
This way of thinking is not entirely new; de gustibus non est disputandum has been uttered for centuries, although I suspect that it has only recently been understood in an absolute sense. I see an error at the start of this way of thinking: the assumption that in order for a thing to be real, not just a product of the imagination, it must be calculable. This is the perhaps the most common error in the modern mind. At the end of this way of thinking is a colorless, mechanical view of reality. The philosopher and mathematician Wolfgang Smith described it well:
We are told that [the universe] consists of space, time and matter, or of space-time and energy, or perhaps of something else still more abstruse and even less imaginable; but in any case we are told in unequivocal terms what it excludes: as all of us have learned, the physical universe is said to exclude just about everything which from the ordinary human point of view makes up the world.... What is being bifurcated or cut asunder are the so-called primary and secondary qualities: the things that can be described in mathematical terms, and those that cannot.
New technology impresses this way of thinking even more deeply. Computers have it built into their every function, for they actually cannot heed anything unless it is reduced to a number. And technology imparts its bias to its users. To a man with a hammer, the adage goes, everything looks like a nail; to a man with a computer, everything looks like a datum.
Logically speaking, the bifurcation postulate is tantamount to the identification of the so-called physical universe (the world as conceived by the physicist) with the real world per se, through the device of relegating all else (all that does not fit this conception) to an ontological limbo, situated outside the world of objectively existent things.... Let it be said at once that this reduction of the world to the categories of physics is not a scientific discovery (as many believe), but a metaphysical assumption that has been built into the theory from the outset.
The modern mind has acquired the habit of attempting to quantify and rank things that are not inherently numerical: beauty, intelligence, personality, friendship - as though primary reality exists within some Cartesian grid upon which the things we see and hear and feel must be plotted! This is, to the modern mind, the only way to make them real. That art is recalcitrant to numerical description merely proves that it does not satisfy the modern notion of reality. But reality is older that the modern notion; so is art. Neither depends on it.
My first advice to anybody who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is never to treat art like data. Do not rate works of art with stars; do not sort them into top-ten lists. You will appreciate them better just by looking at them for a very long time. It is in the looking that communication through art happens.
Truth and Goodness, those things that sacred art is meant to impart, are transcendental; they are names of God. According to Dionysius, the author of The Divine Names, Beauty is another:
The superessential Beautiful is called Beauty, on account of the beauty communicated from Itself to all beautiful things, in a manner appropriate to each, and as Cause of the good harmony and brightness of all things, which flashes like light to all the beautifying distributions of its frontal ray.... From this Beautiful comes being to all existing things, that each is beautiful in its own proper order.
This doctrine implies that even the coarse material world, the lowest level of the universal hierarchy, partakes in the divine essence; Him whom Dionysius calls the superessential Light and the invisible Sun shines even there. Thus the bodily senses may be used unashamedly, for they are the means by which we perceive the visible beauty that is an image of the invisible beauty - so wrote Hugh of St. Victor, one of the great intellectuals of the twelfth century and a faithful interpreter of this theology.
His contemporary, Suger of St. Denis, gave the same ideas artistic expression. In rebuilding and furnishing his abbey church, in decorating it with a symbolic program of stained glass, monumental sculpture and goldsmithery, Suger attended the birth of Gothic art. He wrote:
When - out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God - the loveliness of the many-colored gems has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial, on the diversity of the sacred virtues: then it seems to me that I see myself dwelling, as it were, in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of the Earth nor entirely in the purity of Heaven; and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.
Gothic art is the basis of my own art. I do not think of Gothic art as a mere historic style belonging to a certain time and place; that would make it a very boring thing. Rather, I think of it as the best example of art made according to true Christian principles. These are not merely useful for creating religious art as it was in twelfth-century France, or in medieval Europe in general; rather, they are useful for creating religious art in any era, including our own.
The perspective of Gothic art is common to the early Christian art that anteceded it, and fundamentally different from the perspective of the Humanist, Baroque and Neoclassical art that followed it. Perspective is more than a matter of convergences and relative sizes; it defines a picture’s entire purpose.
Gothic art is not as abstract as Coptic or Byzantine iconography, but neither does it present a natural and mundane view; the presence of haloes alone makes that obvious. There are no cast shadows. The size of figures is determined by their importance, their placement by the demands of symbolism, hierarchy and symmetry. Chronologically separate events are depicted together in the same scene. Nothing important is hidden behind another object, or cut off by the edges of the picture.
Over the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Gothic art became more detailed in its presentation of anatomy and clothing. Landscapes appeared in the background. Yet even in very late Gothic art - the paintings of Jan Van Eyck, for example - the compositions are symbolic, hierarchical and symmetrical. There are no consistent points of convergence for all parallel lines within them. Admittedly (regrettably, I say; this is one fault I find in them) some cast shadows appear, but they rarely fall on anything other than the ground or a wall.
So what, then, does Gothic art represent? Is it a view into Heaven? This sounds correct describing a picture of the Last Judgment, or of a prophetic vision. But it does not entirely make sense describing a picture of an event that has happened on the Earth. If it is a view into Heaven, what is a picture of the Crucifixion? Are Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and John the Apostle acting out a pageant for us on a heavenly stage? Who is playing the part of the bad thief, some angel in a costume?
What, then, does it represent? The answer is revealed in the arrangement and disposition of the image. For while Gothic art cannot be reduced to quantities and extensions, it nonetheless has a mathematical order. Its mathematical order is the opposite of that imagined by the modern mind; quantities and extensions are not the final measure of reality, but are themselves sacred symbols. Consider three ways in which direction is significant in Gothic art:
The ancient tradition of the Church is to pray facing eastward; this is the direction of Heaven, the direction Jesus Christ ascended and whence He shall return. In a Gothic church, the sanctuary is oriented to the rising sun of the vernal equinox.
Another tradition associates north with the Old Testament and south with the New; the events of the Gospel occurred in the northern hemisphere, where north is shadowy, and south is sunlit. Chartres Cathedral, for example, has statues of prophets and patriarchs on its north porch and statues of Apostles and martyrs on its south.
The right hand of God represents Mercy, and the left hand Justice; this is attested many times in holy writ. This is why, in a traditional picture of the Crucifixion, the good thief is invariably to Christ’s right hand and the bad thief to His left.
Mercy and Justice are themselves related to the New and Old Testaments, and thus it is possible to align all three of these directions. Here is a picture of the Crucifixion. There is the good thief at the right hand of Christ, beneath the Sun, symbol of the New Testament; that must be south. There is the bad thief and the moon; that must be north. So what, then, is the perspective of the picture? The artist and the viewer are looking westward.
Consider a picture of the Last Supper. Jesus Christ faces the artist and the viewer. The Holy Eucharist is celebrated ad orientem, so the perspective of the picture must be ad occidentum. In a picture of the Ascension, Christ faces the artist and the viewer as He ascends to the east; again, they are looking westward.
Why should this be? Because Gothic art represents not a view into Heaven but a view from Heaven. It adopts the perspective of a heavenly citizen who sees events on the Earth - sees them, that is, with eyes that are not bound by time or space. Thus a picture of the Crucifixion is truly a picture of the Crucifixion, not of a reenactment. But it is the Crucifixion seen from eternity.
From eternity, happenings of different times may appear in the same inspection. Nothing is hidden due to distance, obstruction or shadow. There is no single vanishing point in the far-off distance, because the infinite (Our Father Who art in Heaven) is behind the artist and the viewer. There is no light source within the picture casting shadows onto the figures, for an overpowering light is again behind the artist and the viewer, illuminating everything with the beautifying distributions of its frontal ray.
Considering this, the development in Gothic art of more detailed anatomy, clothing and landscape is sensible and consistent with the ancient traditions of Christian art and theology.
The same principles that inspired the makers of Gothic art were understood by musicians. Their great invention of the same era was polyphony. In the newly consecrated Gothic cathedrals, singers sang at the same time different notes; then different rhythms, different melodies and different words. Yet the music was not cacophonous, but harmonious and exceeding beautiful. It must resemble what the world sounds like from eternity, what it sounds like in the ears of the unfallen Adam, or of the bodily assumed Virgin Mary.
Historians of art and music employ a remarkable number of misnomers; Gothic art, for example, has nothing in particular to do with the Gothic people or the Gothic tongue. In English-language scholarship, the term Northern Renaissance is often used to describe late medieval art like the paintings of Jan Van Eyck, and the term Renaissance Polyphony to describe late medieval music like the Mass settings of Josquin DesPrez. This too is misleading, for it incorrectly suggests that these proceeded from the ideas of Italian Renaissance Humanism.
In Florence of the fifteenth century, Humanist artists made innovations in painting and drawing that eventually were adopted all over the world. The architect Filippo Brunelleschi developed the method of linear perspective that is still taught in elementary art classes. This requires the artist to establish the horizon line of the picture and to fix vanishing points on it. These indicate infinite distances; all parallel lines within the picture converge toward a single vanishing point. Leon Battista Alberti, another architect, wrote the first treatise on the method.
Leonardo of Vinci attempted to develop a method of shadow projection compatible with linear perspective. He was not entirely successful, but theorists of later centuries finished the task. The method requires an artist to fix not only vanishing points but also light sources; the manner in which shadows are cast by objects in the painting or drawing onto other objects in the painting or drawing is determined analytically.
The conventional wisdom says that the artists of the Italian Renaissance simply discovered the way to paint or draw realistically - that ancient and medieval men had always seen the world this way, but were not clever enough to figure out how to make pictures that matched what they saw.
Yet even a little consideration reveals that the system of linear perspective is unlike the reality that we perceive with our eyes and minds. We do not see with one unmoving eye, but with two eyes that move. When they focus on objects at a particular distance, objects at other distances split into transparent double images. Mentally, we place objects in our field of sight in relation to other objects, not in relation to an invisible grid. We do not see straight lines as straight, for one part of them is always closer to our eyes than the others. Our visions are received by retinæ that are concave, not flat; a flat painting or drawing distorts them in the same way that a map distorts the surface of a spherical planet. These distortions are exaggerated around the edges of the projection, especially if a large area is mapped. In a painting or drawing in linear perspective, these distortions can only be hidden by narrowing the field of sight.
What linear perspective accurately represents is what you will see when you hold still with one eye closed and look through a narrow frame at something distant. Brunelleschi intended to prove the truthfulness of the new method; he set up a viewing-box by the portals of the unfinished cathedral building in Florence. Looking into the box through a small hole, a viewer could see the baptistery down the street, then a reflected painting in linear perspective of the same building. It worked (the painting looked just like the real baptistery), but only because the viewing-box created all of the specific conditions just described!
Neither does the similarity of paintings in linear perspective to photographs prove their truthfulness; cameras too are designed to create these specific conditions. And technology imparts its bias to its users. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; to a man with a camera, everything looks like a photograph. Have you ever seen somebody look at the real world that God made, then crane back his neck, close one eye and hold up his thumbs and forefingers at arms’ length to create a small rectangular frame for his field of vision? This is no way to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth....
Linear perspective is not a scientific discovery, but a suggestive form; it visually expresses the idea that reality exists within a grid of homogenous space. Alberti actually instructed artists to paint or draw while looking through a frame in which a perpendicular grid of strings had been fixed. The vanishing point suggests that infinity is an endless distance within created space. Such a definition would never have been accepted by apostolic, patristic or medieval Christians, for to them infinity was a divine attribute - something that cannot exist, even conceptually, within nature. The modern mind has become accustomed to thinking of eternity in the same way. To quote again Wolfgang Smith:
The popular idea of eternity is helplessly confused, for it reduces evidently to the concept of endless duration, which is an inherently contradictory notion, seeing that duration is defined by its terminations. Now eternity is endless, to be sure; but it is not a duration. Nor can we conceive of it as a limit by envisaging a sequence of durations approaching infinity. For it is not duration - however long - but the instantaneous moment that mirrors eternity.
What, then, is eternity? It is a state, or a plenitude of being, as both St. Augustine and Plotinus have observed, where has been and will be can find no place. There everything is concentrated within a single point, as it were: it is being that fully owns itself, without any scattering or dispersion. And yet it is not homogenous, but structured, if one may use that term; not empty, but perfectly full.
What, then, does a pious painting or drawing made with linear perspective and cast shadows represent? Not a view from eternity; the cast shadows fix everything in the picture at a single time of day. Not a view from Heaven; here the artist and the viewer imagine themselves as a mundane man who happens to be present at a holy event. If this man were to stand afar, hold still, close one eye and look through a narrow frame, the picture is like what he would see for a tiny length of time.
Now, I want to be very, very clear here; I am not saying that a painting or drawing like this is a bad thing, or a useless thing. I am not saying that it has no place in the Church. Its place is comparable perhaps to that of an imaginative prayer, rather than a liturgical prayer.
I am merely saying that painting or drawing like this is a different thing from a work of sacred art from apostolic, patristic or medieval times. And this different thing is not what the fathers of the Second Council of Nicæa had in mind when they declared:
The composition of religious imagery is not the painter’s invention, but is approved by the law and tradition of the Catholic Church. The tradition does not belong to the painter; the art alone is his. True arrangement and disposition belong to the holy fathers who established it.
Christian tradition is based on memories of real events, on things that Jesus Christ said and did and revealed. Some of these memories were, with divine inspiration, recorded in the books and letters of the New Testament. Some were carried forward through the centuries by liturgical and exegetical traditions, and even by iconographic formulæ. Gothic art, despite its sudden appearance in the twelfth century and its rapid technical advancement, is nonetheless fully traditional; its makers did not predicate their originality on a rejection of the past.
Gothic artists working in new media - whether stained glass windows and monumental sculptures in the twelfth century, or oil paintings and woodcut prints in the fifteenth - continued to place the good thief to Christ’s right hand and the bad thief to His left. They understood iconographic formulæ to be bonds of memory to the apostolic age.
It is an all-too-common error for the faithful in the present day to confuse tradition itself with its legal enforcement by ecclesiastical authority - as though tradition were nothing more than a stack of documents bearing the correct signatures. This is an epistemological absurdity; the bishops who are tasked with writing these documents need to know what they know somehow!
My second advice to anybody who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is to be guided by holy writ and by tradition itself: liturgical prayer, the writings of the church fathers and the art of the past. Do not make the mistake of thinking that tradition only counts once it has been expressed in an official document. Do not wait for somebody to give you permission to stand fast and hold to it.
As a practical example, consider the task of painting or drawing the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. True arrangement and disposition of the picture requires an artist to do more than read Munificentissimus Deus. I do not have the liberty to paint or draw whatever I please, just so long as I do not contradict the official document. The truth of the Virgin’s bodily assumption into Heaven did not spring spontaneously out of Pius XII’s infallibility in 1950; it existed from the time that the event actually happened. It was known in 1950 because the memory of the event was perpetuated in the liturgical tradition and the writings of the church fathers.
These give a narrative of what occurred: the Apostles were miraculously gathered to the Virgin’s bedside; she died a painless death; a burial place was prepared in the Valley of Josaphat; as the Virgin’s body was taken there, it was assumed into Heaven and reunited to her soul. To reject this narrative altogether, to paint or draw something else, is to consider the memory of the event untrustworthy - the memory upon which knowledge of the event entirely depends.
The arrangement and disposition of sacred art belong to the holy fathers because they say the same things as the holy fathers, in the same manner. Allegory pervades patristic exegesis; it likewise pervades Gothic art, especially by juxtaposing scenes from the New Testament with their Old Testament prefigurements. To quote the art historian Emile Mâle:
God who sees all things under the aspect of eternity willed that the Old and New Testaments should form a complete and harmonious whole; the Old is but an adumbration of the New. To use medieval language, that which the Gospel shows men in the light of the sun, the Old Testament showed them in the uncertain light of the moon and stars.... This doctrine, always held by the Church, is taught in the Gospels by the Savior Himself: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
The Apostles Peter and Paul learned this doctrine and taught it in their epistles. They were followed by the church fathers: Origen of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo, the most prolific of them all. It was St. Augustine who articulated an important rule of symbolic exegesis, that the literal sense of the words remains sacrosanct:
Believe before all things when you hear the scriptures read that the events really took place as is said in the book. Do not destroy the historic foundation of scripture, for without it you will build in the air.... All that the scriptures say of Abraham really happened, but he is at the same time a prophetic type.
God has always written His allegory with fact. Greater meanings do not obliterate lesser meanings. Moses really saw the burning bush, and it really prefigured the Virgin Birth. The Queen of Sheba really visited Solomon’s throne, and it really prefigured the Adoration of the Magi. Abraham really led his son Isaac to the altar of sacrifice, and it really prefigured the Way of the Cross. Jonah really emerged from the great fish, and it really prefigured the Resurrection.
Another important rule is that the sacred scriptures are polysemic; there need not be a one-to-one correspondence between type and antitype. An event of the Old Testament may prefigure several events of the New; it may also be a moral instruction, or a symbol of Heaven. As Gregory the Great wrote:
For just as it happens that from one lump of gold there are some who fashion necklaces, others rings, and still others ornamental bracelets, so from one science of sacred scripture all of its interpreters gather up various ornamental embellishments, as it were, by way of innumerable understandings of the text. All of these ornamental embellishments add to the beauty of the celestial bride.
The church fathers interpreted all of the numbers that appear in the sacred scriptures symbolically, for it was God who ordered all things in number and measure and weight. Three represents divinity, for God exists in three Persons. Four represents mankind and the created world; the time and space inhabited by mankind have four basic divisions, the seasons of the year and the cardinal directions that correspond to the rivers flowing out of Paradise and (as St. Augustine noticed) to the four letters of the name Adam: anatole, dysis, arktos, mesembria.
The interaction of Heaven and Earth, of God and Man, is represented by twelve and seven, the product and sum of three and four. This is why twelve and seven appear again and again in holy writ.
St. Augustine saw in the 153 great fish caught by the Apostles on the Sea of Tiberias the means of salvation: ten commandments added to seven gifts of the Holy Ghost make seventeen, and the sum of the integers from one to seventeen is 153. He considered Gideon a prefigurement of Jesus Christ in part because the number 300 is written in Greek numerals as the cross-shaped letter Tau; thus Gideon’s army of 300 men represents the Holy Rood. Hugh of St. Victor wrote elaborate mystical treatises on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark.
Allegory exists not only in the sacred scriptures, but also in that other book written by the finger of God, the natural world. For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. To quote Emile Mâle again:
As the idea of his work is in the mind of the artist, so the universe was in the thought of God from the beginning. God created, but he created through His Word, that is, through His Son. The thought of the Father was realized in the Son through whom it passed from potentiality to act.... The world therefore may be defined as a thought of God realized through his Word. If this be so then in each being is hidden a divine thought.... True knowledge, then, consists not in the study of things in themselves (the outward forms) but in penetrating to the inner meaning intended by God for our instruction.... All being holds in its depths the reflection of the sacrifice of Christ, the image of the Church and of the virtues and vices.
I have long been fascinated by the natural order established on the first days of Creation. By dividing day and night, God created temporal realms; then, by dividing the sky from the waters above and below it, He created vertical realms; then, by dividing the land from the sea, He created horizontal realms. God established the dimensions qualitatively, not quantitatively; He established them by making the perceptible differences between light and dark, sky and water, land and sea - not by extending homogenous time or space, as along the axes of a Cartesian grid. Indeed, in the prelapsarian world, time and space did not have the passing and distancing effect that they have in the fallen world; they were immeasurable in these terms.
On the fourth, fifth and sixth days, God revisited the dimensions in sequence, filling them with things that move: celestial bodies to mark seasons and days and years; creatures that fly upward and that swim downward and that move horizontally over the land. William of Conches wrote:
The beauty of the world lies in things being in their own element, such as stars in the sky, birds in the air, fish in water, men on the Earth.
The scriptural taxonomy of celestial bodies and terrestrial creatures considers first their placement and movement relative to the Earth, whether around it, above it, within it or on it. This is, of course, utterly unlike the astronomical and biological categories that are now presented to us as scientific fact. But it is neither arbitrary nor ignorant.
There is a difference between a scientific discovery - such as the existence of the moons of Jupiter, or of the American continents and all the plants and animals therein - and a change in perspective. I contend that with a true perspective, the order of the world presented in holy writ, traditional Christian theology and Gothic art remains valid.
We are, of course, told that this is not so; that it is, for example, an irrefutable fact that the Earth moves around the Sun and not the other way around. But is this a scientific discovery, or a change in perspective? Although the outlook of Galileo remains fixed in the modern mind, the physical science of the past century actually seems to favor the latter answer, for it considers centrality an arbitrary designation, considers rest and motion relative terms.
If the solar system were imagined as an orrery floating untethered in a large room, heliocentrism would be the worldview that results from standing on the floor, grabbing the model sun and holding it still while the planets whirl about it. Geocentrism would be the worldview that results from grabbing the Earth instead; were you to do this, you would see the Sun and the Moon orbiting the Earth, the other planets orbiting the Sun, and their own moons orbiting them. None of the internal workings of the orrery would break either way. Physical science cannot say that the choice to grab the Earth is wrong per se, although it cannot say that it is right per se either; you could just as easily grab the asteroid Ceres or Halley’s Comet. But if there is a reason to adopt a particular worldview based on revelation rather than experiment, the question is no longer scientific.
Inescapably, the perspective of the sacred scriptures and Christian tradition is geocentric; this is the literal sense of their words, which remains sacrosanct. The Apostles’ Creed states that Jesus Christ descended into Hell and ascended into Heaven. Presumably, these words mean something more profound and more sublime than that Jesus Christ went toward the center of the Earth, and then went away from its surface in the opposite direction; perhaps they mean that He passed ineffably between ontological levels. But greater meanings do not obliterate lesser meanings. The witnesses to these holy events described them as descent and ascent, and in no other way. Nobody who believes that the Creed actually means something can maintain that they intended these words to be arbitrary, or entirely unrelated to descent and ascent as humanly understood and experienced.
When I draw the Descent into Limbo, I have no choice but to represent it as a movement down through the ground, and when I draw the Ascension into Heaven, I have no choice but to represent it as a movement up through the sky.
Certainly, some of the notions that Christians of apostolic, patristic and medieval times held are provably false; I feel no obligation to depict these. The Ptolemaic model of the solar system does not match what we see in the night sky. No one-to-one correspondence exists between the seven notes of the musical scale and the planets, because there are more than seven planets. But it remains possible for us to look at the universe with what Maximus the Confessor calls symbolic vision, apprehending in whatever we see the invisible reality beyond it.
The Sun is a traditional symbol of the New Testament; Jesus Christ is called the Sun of Justice. The association remains apt, and even becomes more apt now that the Sun is recognized as an orbital focus of the other planets. These may be considered symbols of different saints or virtues.
The Moon, which has no light of its own but merely reflects that of the Sun, remains an apt symbol of the Old Testament. For this reason, I draw the saints of the New Testament with golden haloes, resembling the sun, and the saints of the Old Testament - all the patriarchs and prophets who descended into Limbo before the death of Christ - with silver haloes, resembling the Moon. Most of these are crescents, but those behind the heads of men and women who stood in the presence of the incarnate Christ are full.
The side of the Moon that is hidden from the Earth is an apt symbol for God’s relationship with the Gentiles during the Old Testament; presumably it existed, but nothing about it has been divinely revealed. For that reason, in those instances when a pagan (the Sibyl of doomsday, for example) has the rôle of a prophet, I draw the halo as a crescent moon facing the opposite way.
It remains possible to interpret the stones of the Earth as symbols of virtues, as Marbod of Rennes did in his hymn on the Heavenly Jerusalem:
Sardonyx, with its threefold hue,
Or to see allegories of Jesus Christ in vegetables. Adam of St. Victor, in a Christmas sequence, considered the almonds that grew on Aaron’s rod:
Sets forth the inner man to view:
Where dark humility is seen,
And chastity with snow-white sheen,
And scarlet makes his joy to bleed
In martyrdom, if faith shall need.
Christ the nut, its hull His passion,
The symbolism of animals is more famous yet, and more commonly encountered in sacred art. The medieval bestiaries explained why pictures of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are juxtaposed with pictures of a pelican. A pelican, they said, feeds its dead chicks blood from a self-inflicted wound in its side, thus raising them to life; it is a type of Jesus Christ who gave us eternal life by shedding His blood on the Cross.
Closing round His human fashion,
And His bony frame its shell;
The incarnate Deity
And Christ’s tender sympathy
In the kernel mark ye well.
The temptation for the modern mind is simply to snicker at the scientific naïvety; admittedly, even I do not think that pelicans actually do this. Like the events of the Old Testament, natural facts must be literally true in order to have any symbolic validity. But the legends of medieval zoology are so charming that I hesitate to abandon them altogether; my practice now is to relegate any that are unworthy of actual belief to damask patterns or architectural ornaments; that is, they appear in my drawings only on things that are made by people.
I still respect the authors of the bestiaries, who were working with the best knowledge they had. The mistaken details do not prove the method of interpretation fallacious. If we no longer find symbols of Jesus Christ in the behavior of pelicans, is it because none are there, or is it because we have ceased to look for them? Were we again to see with a theophanic worldview, might not our current knowledge yield even more profound symbols? At least one religious artist of the early twentieth century thought so. In 1911, the priest Felix Granda wrote:
Through the microscope we can see the infinitely varied microorganisms; more powerful images have never come to the imagination of the artist. Should we not take advantage of this immense arsenal of scientific data that they provide to us, to make richer and more varied our decorations, and to teach the truth contained in the verse of the Kingly Prophet: O Lord, Thy thoughts are exceeding deep!?
When I first read those words, they were especially resonant, for I had already begun to incorporate microbiological forms into my ornament and consider their symbolism.
Among the animals that appear in Jesus Christ’s halo in my drawing of the Sacred Heart are chameleons and lyrebirds. In them, I see symbols of universality, for chameleons seem to contain within themselves all colors, and lyrebirds seem to contain within themselves all sounds. I hope eventually to discover animals that can stand for the other three bodily senses, so that the five together can represent the entire perceptible world worshipping its God.
God exists; He is omnibenevolent, and He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible. Because of these truths, all things, by the simple fact of existing, are in some way good, in some way (however small) like God. Only nothingness (which, by definition, is no thing at all) is altogether unlike God.
God is simple, absolutely so, but He is not simple like nothingness is simple, or like a mathematical formula plotted on a Cartesian grid is simple. His simplicity, like His eternity and His infinity, is not homogenous. It is not empty but perfectly full. An art that adopts a heavenly outlook, from which all of creation reflects the beauty of the Creator, cannot be an art full of nothingness.
Traditional Christian art is notable for its lack of blank space. Its makers filled whatever space was not occupied by the principal figures with gold leaf, knotwork, geometric patterns or stylized vines. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they also used landscapes for this purpose. I like to fill blank space with tiny plants and animals, in the manner of Flemish millefleur tapestries. There is no intentional vacancy in Gothic art, nor in mine. The art historical term for this is horror vacui - fear of the empty.
It may be apparent by now that I do not aspire to create art that is praised for its noble simplicity. That phrase is oft discussed within the Catholic Church; there is heated disagreement over what it truly is supposed to mean. I do not have an answer to that question; all I know is that, in its practical application to art, it amounts to a synonym for being boring. My conscience will not allow me to make boring art for God, at least not purposely.
I do not draw to please those who hold their bodily senses in distrust; who worship God with closed eyes and stopped ears; who, insofar as they like sacred art or sacred music at all, like it for being easy to ignore so that they may better think pious thoughts to themselves. I do not think that prayerful means easy to ignore, and I do not think that worship means think pious thoughts to yourself.
I acknowledge that a minority of Christians from the beginning has advocated for very simple art and music and has considered anything more a distraction from prayer. Its most illustrious representative is Bernard of Clairvaux, who famously condemned the decorative carving in Cluniac churches, and whose influence ended a flourishing tradition of Cistercian manuscript illumination. Bernard seems to have been oblivious to many forms of beauty. His friend and biographer, William of St. Thierry, wrote:
He hardly used his bodily senses. He lived a whole year in the novices’ cell and yet did not know that it had a vaulted ceiling. He passed very often in and out of the monastery church, which had three windows in the apse, yet he thought there was only one.... He had largely lost even the ability to distinguish different tastes. If, for example, oil was mistakenly put before him and he drank it, he was not aware of it until he wondered why his lips felt oily. Raw blood was served to him by mistake, and he is known to have used it day after day in place of butter.
William takes this as evidence of holiness; I cannot read this account without seeing evidence of some perceptual impairment with a natural cause. Undeniably, a man who cannot taste the difference between raw blood and butter can be a great saint. But I would not want him to teach me how to cook.
Nor do I want a man altogether insensitive to visual beauty to establish the principles of sacred art. I rather defer to his esteemed contemporaries and friends, some of whom I have mentioned already: Hugh of St. Victor, Suger of St. Denis, Honor of Autun and Hildegard of Bingen.
St. Hildegard possessed a supersensitivity so great that she could see the color of a calf’s hair while it was yet in utero. This too was taken as evidence of great holiness. She saw the world illuminated by a supernatural brightness - at all times, not only when in ecstasy, and with no impairment to her natural vision. She described it:
The light that I see is not local and confined. It is far brighter than a lucent cloud through which the sun shines. I can discern neither its height nor its length nor its breadth.... This light I have named the reflection of the Living Light.
This woman whose perception was bathed always in the reflected light of the invisible Sun articulated a defense and theology of music, from which, I think, a defense and theology of art in general can be derived. To the prelates of Mainz, who had temporarily forbidden her from singing the Divine Office, she wrote:
Adam lost that angelic voice which he had in Paradise, for he fell asleep to that knowledge which he possessed before his sin, just as a person on waking up only dimly remembers what he had seen in his dreams.... God, however, restores the souls of the elect to that pristine blessedness by infusing them with the light of truth [so that] they might, by means of His interior illumination, regain some of that knowledge which Adam had before he was punished for his sin.
The experience of Adam in Eden was not only ever musical, but ever beautiful in all ways. You delight in music because you are nostalgic for Paradise; you delight in beautiful pictures for the same reason. If sung words, melodies and musical instruments are means of elevating the mind toward blessedness, so too are works of visual art.
And so the holy prophets, inspired by the Spirit which they had received, were called for this purpose: not only to compose psalms and canticles (by which the hearts of listeners would be inflamed) but also to construct various kinds of musical instruments to enhance these songs of praise with melodic strains. Thereby, both through the form and quality of the instruments, as well as through the meaning of the words that accompany them, those who hear might be taught ... about inward things, since they have been admonished and aroused by outward things. In such a way, these holy prophets get beyond the music of this exile and recall to mind that divine melody of praise which Adam, in company with the angels, enjoyed in God before his fall.... For, before he sinned, his voice had the sweetness of all musical harmony. Indeed, if he had remained in his original state, the weakness of mortal man would not have been able to endure the power and resonance of his voice.
My third advice to anybody who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is not to consider sacred art a completed task, not to consider any historical artifact to be a supreme model to be imitated without improvement. To make art ever more beautiful is not to take it away from its source in history, but to take it back to its source in Heaven. Sacred art does not have a geographic or chronological center; it has, rather, two foci, like a planetary orbit. These correspond to tradition and beauty. One is the foot of the Cross; the other is the Garden of Eden.
Works quoted or referenced:
Wolfgang Smith, Cosmos and Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief, (San Raphael CA: Sophia Perennis, 2008).
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, (New York: Vantage Books, 1992).
The Works of Dionysius the Areopagite, translated by John Parker, (London: James Parker, 1897).
Hugh of St. Victor, In Hierarchiam Cœlestem, quoted by Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, translated by Hugh Bredin, (Yale University Press, 1986).
Suger of St. Denis, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its Art Treasures, translated by Erwin Panofsky, (Princeton University Press, 1979).
Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, translated by Christopher Wood, (New York: Zone Books, 1997).
Epiphanius of Constantinople, speaking at the Sixth Session of the Second Council of Nicæa.
Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).
Augustine of Hippo, Second Sermon on the Old Testament, quoted in The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).
Gregory the Great, Sermon on Ezekiel, quoted by Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, Volume I, translated by Mark Sebanc, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Volume X, translated by Marcus Dods, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1873).
Emile Mâle, Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century, translated by Marthiel Matthews, (Princeton University Press, 1978).
Vincent Foster Hopper, Medieval Number Symbolism, (Columbia University Press, 1938).
Hugh of St. Victor, De Tribus Diebus, quoted by Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, translated by Hugh Bredin, (Yale University Press, 1986).
William of Conches, In Timæum, quoted by Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, translated by Hugh Bredin, (Yale University Press, 1986).
Wolfgang Smith, Ancient Wisdom and Modern Misconceptions, (Tacoma WA: Angelico Press, 2013).
Otto von Simson, The Gothic Cathedral, (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1962).
Marbod of Rennes, Cives Cœlestis Patriæ, translated by John Mason Neale, Collected Hymns, Sequences and Carols of John Mason Neale, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1914).
Adam of St. Victor, Splendor Patris et Figura, translated by Digby Strangeways Wrangham, The Liturgical Poetry of Adam of St. Victor, (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Company, 1881).
Bestiary, translated by Richard Barber, (London: The Folio Society, 1992).
Felix Granda, Mi Propósito, (Madrid: Talleres de Arte, 1911).
William of St. Thierry, quoted by Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, (Princeton University Press, 1993).
Hildegard of Bingen, Epistle to Guibert of Gembloux, translated by Joseph L. Baird, The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Hildegard of Bingen, Epistle to the Prelates of Mainz, translated by Joseph L. Baird, The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen, (Oxford University Press, 2006).