This is a revised edition of a lecture given by artist Daniel Mitsui on 1 October 2016 at St. Peter Church in Memphis, TN. The lecture was sponsored by the Wojtyla Institute.
Opinions about art are diverse, strongly held and contradictive. 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 objective lack of objective truthfulness.
This idea 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 line of reasoning: the assumption that in order for a thing to be real (and not just a product of the mind), it must be quantifiable. This is the perhaps the most popular error of modern thinking. At the end of this line of reasoning is a colorless, mechanical view of reality. The Catholic philosopher and physicist Wolfgang Smith described it well:
We are told that [the physical 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 learnt, 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. 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.
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.
The modern mind has acquired the habit of quantifying, sorting and ranking things that are not inherently numerical: beauty, intelligence, friendship, originality, love. This is, to the modern mind, the only way to prove that they are real. Art is recalcitrant to numerical description; hurrah, I say, for art. The criterion of the modern mind does not need to be met; it needs to be dismissed.
My first advice to anyone who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is not to treat art like data. Do not rate it with stars; do not make top-ten lists. Real appreciation is gotten by paying serious attention to a work of art, just looking at it for a very long time. It is in the looking that communication through art happens.
Truth and Good, those things that sacred art intends to communicate, are transcendental; they are names of God. According to Dionysius, the author of The Divine Names, Beauty is another:
The Beautiful which is beyond individual being is called Beauty because of that beauty bestowed by it on all things, each in accordance with what it is. It is given this name because it is the cause of the harmony and splendor in everything, because like a light it flashes onto everything the beauty-causing impartations of its own wellspring ray.... It is forever so, unvaryingly, unchangeably so, beautiful not as something coming to birth and death, to growth or decay, not lovely in one respect while ugly in some other way. It is not beautiful now but otherwise then.... It is not beautiful in one place and not so in another, as though it could be beautiful for some and not for others.... It is the great creating cause which bestirs the world and holds all things in existence by the longing inside them to have beauty.
Sacred art has a permanent content that is knowable from tradition. The art called Gothic, which began in the twelfth century, is fully traditional; its makers did not predicate their originality on a rejection of the art of the past. Rather, they put it into order and expressed it more clearly. Gothic art is the visual equivalent of a medieval encyclopedia. It is as complete and disciplined a system as Byzantine iconography, but aligned to the Latin liturgy and the Latin church fathers. This is why I make it the basis of my own artwork.
I do not think of Gothic 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 an art made according to Catholic principles - principles that are always and everywhere true. They are not merely useful for creating sacred art as it was during certain centuries of European history; rather, they are useful for creating sacred art in any place or time, including our own.
The perspective of this art is fundamentally different from that adopted by art in the following ages. Perspective is more than a matter of convergences and relative sizes; it defines a picture’s entire purpose.
Gothic art is not as intentionally abstracted as its sibling art of Byzantine iconography, but neither does it represent a mundane view; the presence of haloes alone makes that obvious. There are seldom any cast shadows. The size of figures is determined by their importance, their placement by the demands of symbolism, hierarchy and symmetry. Chronologically separate events may be 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 for the first time. Yet even in very late Gothic art - the paintings of Jan Van Eyck or Rogier Van Der Weyden, for example - the compositions are undeniably symbolic, hierarchical and symmetrical. There are no consistent points of convergence for all parallel lines within them. Admittedly (regrettably, I say - this is the 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 right, but it does not entirely make sense to me. If it is a view into heaven, what is a picture of the Crucifixion? Are Jesus Christ, the Blessed 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 a number, it nonetheless has a mathematical order. Consider three ways in which direction is used as a sacred symbol:
The ancient tradition of the Catholic Church is to pray facing eastward; this is the direction of heaven, the direction to which Christ ascended and from 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 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 being who sees events on 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 faroff distance, because the infinite (Our Father Who Art in Heaven) is behind the artist and the viewer. No light within the picture causes shadows to be cast onto the figures, for an overpowering light is again behind the artist and the viewer, illuminating everything, flashing onto everything the beauty-causing impartations of its own wellspring ray.
Considering this, the development in late Gothic art of more detailed anatomy, clothing and landscape is sensible and consistent with the tradition. It did not proceed from the same ideas that the contemporary innovations of the Italian Renaissance did.
In Florence of the fifteenth century, artists invented technical methods for painting and drawing that eventually were adopted all over the world.
The architect Filippo Brunelleschi invented 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 invent 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 draw or paint 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. 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 our retinas, which are concave, not flat; a flat painting or drawing distorts them in the same way that a map distorts the surface of the spherical earth. 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 vision. Psychologically, we place objects in our field of vision in relation to other objects, not in relation to an invisible grid.
What linear perspective accurately represents is what a man will see when he holds still with one eye closed and looks through a narrow frame at something distant. Brunelleschi intended to prove the truthfulness of the newly invented 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, and then a reflected painting in linear perspective of the same building. It worked (the painting looked just like the reflection), 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 photogaph. 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 heighth and depth....
Linear perspective is not a scientific discovery, but a symbolic form; it is a perfect visual expression of the idea that primary reality is an abstraction of quantities and extensions 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 existing within nature. Such a definition would never have been accepted by medieval thinkers, for to them infinity was a divine attribute - something that cannot exist, even conceptually, within created space. To them, endless distance was an oxymoron; a distance exists only by virtue of its bounds. Modern minds have become accustomed to thinking of eternity in the same way, as an endless duration - years upon years upon years upon years. In traditional Christian philosophy, eternity is not a duration at all; it is the now that does not pass.
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 sacred 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.
Now, I want to be very, very clear here; I am not saying that a painting or drawing like this is necessarily a bad thing, or a useless thing. I am not saying that it has no place in the Catholic Church. Its place is perhaps comparable to that of an imaginative prayer, rather than to that of a liturgical prayer.
I am merely saying that painting or drawing like this is a different thing from a work of sacred art from medieval, patristic or apostolic times. And this different thing is not what the fathers of the Second Council of Nicea 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.
This requirement for the artist to follow tradition rather than his own ideas is indispensible; without it, he would not be able to paint or draw from a heavenly perspective. I am not a saint in glory. I have never seen with the eyes of a resurrected body. I have never been caught up into the third heaven, either in the body or out of it. It is only possible for mundane men to make sacred art because God revealed Himself to mundane men, and Himself established the principles necessary to make it.
His Revelation was given publicly and definitively during the lifetimes of the Apostles. The Catholic religion is the perpetuated memory of what was seen and heard then. Some of this memory was, with divine inspiration, recorded in the books and letters of the New Testament. Some of it was perpetuated by tradition: liturgical, exegetical, indeed artistic. While art does not have so exalted a place in the Catholic religion as liturgy or exegesis, it corroborates them and operates with the same divinely-taught principles.
My second advice to anyone who wishes to appreciate or make sacred art is to be guided by holy writ, 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 magisterial documents. This is an epistemological absurdity; the bishops who are tasked with writing these documents need to know what they know somehow! Unless tradition has authority of its own to tell them what they must believe and must do even when they want to believe or do something else, it is merely a legal fiction.
As a practical example, consider the task of painting or drawing the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. True arrangement and disposition of the picture requires the artist to do more than read Munificentissimus Deus. He does not have the liberty to paint or draw whatever he pleases, just so long as he does not contradict the magisterial document. The truth of the Virgin’s bodily assumption into heaven did not spring from 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 language; it likewise pervades Gothic art, especially in its juxtaposition of 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. In the Old Testament truth is veiled, but the death of Christ rent that mystic veil and that is why we are told in the Gospel that the veil of the Temple was rent in twain at the time of the Crucifixion.... 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 lesson, and taught it in their epistles. It was elaborated by the church fathers: Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Gregory the Great. Medieval encyclopedic works such as the Glossa Ordinaria expounded the symbolic meaning of every passage of holy writ. These works still exist, as do the patristic texts of which they are compilations. For my own purposes, I often refer to two popular late medieval summaries of the exegetical tradition, composed more of pictures than words: the Biblia Pauperum and the Speculum Humane Salvationis. These match the most important events in the life of Jesus Christ with their appropriate prefigurements. It is from these that I know to associate the Crucifixion not only with Moses and the brazen serpent, but also with the sacrifice of Isaac and the death of Eleazar Maccabee beneath a war elephant.
In Gothic art, the natural world too is significant. 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; the world is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning.... 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, for in the words of Honorius of Autun, every creature is a shadow of truth and life. All being holds in its depths the reflection of the sacrifice of Christ, the image of the Church and of the virtues and vices.
Medieval authors produced books called bestiaries, herbals and lapidaries, in which the symbolism of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms are explained. It is from these that I know to surround a scene of the Resurrection with a whale, a phoenix, a pelican and a lion. According to one bestiary:
If the pelican has brought offspring into the world, when these grow up they strike their parents in the face. The parents strike back and kill them. After three days, their mother opens her own breast and side, and lies on her young, pouring all her blood over the dead bodies, and thus her love brings them back to life. So Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the author and originator of all creatures, begot us, and, when we did not exist, He made us. But we struck Him in the face; as Isaiah said: I have begotten sons and raised them up, but they have despised me. Christ ascended the Cross and was struck in the side; blood and water came forth for our salvation, to give us eternal life.
Of the lion, it says:
When the lioness brings forth her cubs, they come into the world dead. She watches over them for three days, until on the third day the father comes, blows in their faces, and awakens them to life. In the same way the Almighty Father awoke Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day, as Jacob says: He couched as a lion; who shall rouse him up?
The temptation, for the modern mind, is simply to snicker at the zoological naivety of these words; admittedly, no one has observed these behaviors in pelicans or lions in a very long time. But the authors of the bestiaries were working with the best knowledge they had, and their being mistaken in the details does not prove that their method of interpretation was fallacious. If we no longer find symbols of Jesus Christ in the behavior of pelicans and lions, is it because they are not there, or is it because we have ceased to look for them? Were we to see again 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!?
WhenI first read those words, they were especially resonant, for I had already begun to incorporate microbiological forms in my ornament and to consider their symbolic possibilities. It is one of my ambitions to find theophanic symbols in the scientific knowledge of the present day.
The animals that appear in my drawing of the Sacred Heart include sea horses, embryonic dogfish in their tendrilous egg cases, platypodes, chameleons, lyrebirds and a pangolin. In them, I see symbols of universality; they represent all of creation worshipping its God. Chameleons are creatures that seem to contain within themselves all colors, and lyrebirds are creatures that seem to contain within themselves all sounds. Platypodes and pangolins are beasts so peculiar in their anatomy that they resemble creatures of every class. Dogfish and sea horses (as their names suggest) are aquatic animals that resemble terrestrial ones.
God exists; God is all-good; God 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. An art that adopts a heavenly perspective, from which all of creation reflects the beauty of the Creator, cannot be an art full of nothingness.
Medieval sacred 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 usually amounts to a synonym for boring.
My conscience will not allow me to make boring artwork for God, at least not purposely.
I acknowledge that a minority within the Catholic Church has long advocated for very simple artwork. Its most illustrious representative is Bernard of Clairvaux, who condemned the decorative carving in Cluniac churches, and whose influence ended a flourishing tradition of Cisterican manuscript illumination. Bernard was a great saint, but I wonder how many of those who invoke him as an authority on sacred art know how complete his insensitivity to beauty was. 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 he 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 also of some perceptual impairment. 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 completely insensitive to visual beauty to establish the principles of sacred art. I rather defer to his esteemed contemporaries and friends: Hugh of St. Victor; Suger of St. Denis (the initiator of Gothic art and architecture); and Hildegard of Bingen, who possessed a supersensitivity so great that she could know the color of a calf’s hair while it was yet in utero. This, too, was taken as evidence of holiness.
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).
Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, translated by Colm Luibheid, (New York: Paulist Press, 1987).
Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, translated by Christopher Wood, (New York: Zone Books, 1997).
Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).
Epiphanius of Constantinople, speaking at the Sixth Session of the Second Council of Nicea.
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).