Jed Gibbons is an illustrator based in Chicago, IL who specializes in illuminated miniatures.
He can be contacted via jed [dot] gibbons [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.
DM: Few Catholic religious artists would deny the importance of tradition, precedent and history in their work. Yet their interpretations of Catholic art history vary. What people, artworks, events or ideas from the past are especially important to your understanding of what Catholic religious art is, and what it ought to be?
JG: Giotto is one person who comes to mind. From an intellectual and artistic perspective, his incredible iconographic cycle he did in the Arena Chapel in Padua is remarkable. He crafted frontal, side and oblique images with foreshortening that he received little help on from the science of optics of his time. The colors are beautiful and vibrant and his work in the Arena Chapel with his theological knowledge shines through in laying out the iconographic cycle. His work displays two of the requirements of objective beauty spoken of by Thomas Aquinas: radiance (claritas) and harmony (consonantia). Like Fra Angelico he was immersed in the scriptures and theology similar perhaps to the early Church Fathers in which they were able to build this vast resource in themselves and be able to call upon it when needed to tell a story through symbolism, or analogy. Both Giotto and Fra Angelico lived the art of Holy Living. Many of the mediaeval artists and craftsmen did exemplary work as their faith played a roll in it.DM:You speak with great admiration of Books of Hours, and much of your own work is in the style of illuminated manuscripts. The illuminated manuscript was one of the most important media for Roman Catholic sacred art for a thousand years or more, yet mostly disappeared in the past five centuries. Do you think that it could ever become a popular medium again, and if so, what would be necessary to bring this about?
The great mediaeval period, which was Christianitas - the Age of Christianity - was when man transcended his being and the cosmos. This is the period that developed the Churches rich visual vocabulary. Many of the illuminators did works of beauty in the area of devotional art in the Books of Hours, the mediaeval persons prayer book. Brilliant illuminators like Simon Bening, Gerard David, Simon Marmian, Bartelemy van Eyck and Jean Fouquet brought the pages to life for the lay person who at the time did not always have daily Mass, images that they could put on the wall or in their pockets, or other devotions that we take for granted that formed after the mediaeval period, so their work was very important in fueling the mediaeval piety and the mediaeval piety fueled their work. Beautifully crafted and highly symbolic, they were very effective with lectio divina in the daily personal prayer life of the mediaeval person.
I believe that all the above are worthy of imitation both from a physical execution and creative strategy and faith standpoint. I don't mean literally copying it, but applying materials, techniques and creative thought to your own work. I also see Tradition as living and organic (it is after all the mystical body of Christ at work here) so that it can adapt to new technologies of the times and the high visual expectations of today's viewers. By keeping within scripture and Tradition something new will always come about. It is Christ and His Church that takes something old and makes it new. Also Michaelangelo and Bernini who came about in the late mediaeval or Renaissance period are important to me as well and were the ones whom I became most familiar with earlier on.
JG: There will always be a place for the art of illumination in the Church. Illumination entails many disciplines: calligraphy, gilding, painting and bookbinding, just to name a few. Generally speaking there were scribes and there were illuminators. People were usually one or the other. Illuminators did the illuminated miniatures, the small sparkling paintings found in the Books of Hours. I am a painter. I come from an illustration background and that is what I am referring to here. While I have done a small amount of calligraphy, I'm not a calligrapher. That's left to the experts.
As a form of sacred art within the Church structure itself, illumination is appropriate for use in Missals, or at times can be removed from the context of a book to be used as sacred art on walls. I designed and executed the Stations of the Cross for Our Lady of the Assumption Chapel on Enders Island in the form of illuminated miniatures. These are stations that are prayed with all year during retreats on the island. People who pray them walk around the chapel to each one. The relatively small size creates an intimacy with the viewer in a way that a large painting cannot. They light up and become interactive for the viewer and are available during all the nocturnal hours when it is very quite in the chapel.
Illumination has a place in the home as devotional art, which can be used in books or as images on a wall or placed on in-home shrines. I am not talking about replicating or merely copying what was done in the past. Again I do not consider myself a mediaevalist, but I find their thinking and design and execution as valid today as it was 500 years ago. This is because they knew the rich visual vocabulary of the Church, they knew how to incorporate and balance the narrative image with the symbolism. There was no abstract symbolism left on its own and the imagery was narrative to the text or prayers. The 15th century illuminators were the designers and illustrators of their day using complex design strategies in the individual illuminations and over an entire cycle of illumination in a given Book of Hours. They would graft anti-narrative elements onto historical subjects and cycles of illumination to guide viewers to leaps of thought and imagination deemed necessary to achieve a deeper appreciation and character of the sacred. They did this while remaining within scripture and Tradition.
The invention of the printing press gradually replaced all the hand-written and hand-painted pages allowing for mass production of the scriptures, Missals and the Books of Hours in the 14th century. Some of the finest Books of Hours, however were produced in the late 14th & 15th century as a result of the printing press which forced the illuminators to push their craft in new ways in order to stay in business. Many of the books were painted by panel painters who did illumination between large church commissions.
The illuminations in the Books of Hours became perhaps less ornate, and had less gold as some of the more typical borders and other elements that the printing press copied were dropped and replaced with magnificent, naturalistic styles and atmospheric perspective which developed. The focus was now on the conception, design and high quality of the painting, which the printing press at the time could not do. The miniatures in the books of hours became as highly evolved and painstakingly done as large panel paintings in churches because they were done by panel painters such as Gerard David who developed techniques of painting in books with gum tempera, the illuminator's paint which later came to be called gouache.
He used this water-based medium to simulate what he did on large altar panels using egg tempera or oil. When he did altar panels he had a comfortable viewing distance for the art to be seen by the viewer who sat out in the pews. However, with book painting the viewer sees the art at the distance that the book is held so he and other panel painters who became illuminators had to develop techniques of painting with gouache, a medium which dries almost instantly and does not blend like oils or egg tempera. They did this by laying very fine strokes of color next to one another and on top of one another so that the eye blended the color creating the varying transitions of color. They also did fine glazing with delicate washes. They used strong lenses so that the tiny brush strokes were hardly visible to the naked eye.DM: In the creation of religious art, how important is the artist: his intentions, prayers, beliefs &c?
Today an illustrator is able to work at a larger size than the art will be printed and it is then mechanically or digitally reduced which sharpens the image because the painting techniques are less obvious. Many of the techniques of the illuminator are hidden techniques in that they are not obvious so as to not compete or interfere with the sacred image.
So, today I think illumination - particularly the illuminated paintings - have a place in the role of art in the Church both in the context of the book and outside of the book. We are moving quickly from the culture of the written word into the culture of the image. People are conditioned to read images rather than just see them as pictures. They are accustomed to seeing the very small and grasping it quickly. You see this in the advertising and marketing arena. Small icons are everywhere: on your computer, on your iPod, on vending machines and other places. Living in a more global environment the image crosses over barriers that the written word cannot. The Church always took the secular and sanctified it thus making it Her own. When the image is crafted in such a way that the image contains all the elements of objective beauty, and is conceptualized within scripture and Tradition something new always comes about. Its how the Holy Spirit works and it is Christ's behold, I make all things new, which takes this ancient media and makes it part of today.
JG: I believe the intention is only as good as the artist's execution of it. This is assuming that the intention is that of a Catholic artist. Sacred or religious art has come to mean many things to people and falls into various religious beliefs that are often contrary to the Catholic Faith. I think prayer is an important part of the work so that the work itself becomes a prayer, meaning that the work will lead the person into the mysteries of the faith. I often pray the Veni Creator Spiritus; at other times it's as simple as a plea, God help me. I believe that adoration of the Eucharist is important. In order to do this kind of work a certain amount of knowledge of the faith is required. By a certain amount I mean that it is impossible for us to know it all and it takes research and constant learning about the faith to complete each project as each project often reflects a different aspect of the faith. At times art fuels my faith and at other times in my life faith fuels my art. I believe being a Catholic plays a large roll in how the faith is portrayed as we have seen in the recent past when the Church veered away from this when its sought non-Catholic artists and architects. Without faith and prayer, this becomes an absurd way to make a living. With all that, I do believe that the Holy Spirit can work through anybody to achieve His will. We can all be His instruments, His brush or chisel.DM: How important are the subject, content and arrangement of the images?
JG: These are what leads one into the mysteries of the faith. What leads one to Christ, what makes the invisible visible and parts the veil for the viewer. Sacred art is visual communication and its purpose is to evangelize, to teach. Its content must be theologically accurate and its arrangement pleasing to the eye so that that it leads people into the particular facet of the faith it is trying to impart.DM:How important are the materials and the artistic methods used to create it?
The subject, content and arrangement comes from a formula that may not sound very spiritual and is one that is borrowed from the secular world: Objective + Strategy + Creative = Result. This was used by many mediaeval craftsmen although it was not defined as such. This is taking the client's objectives (what is the art for? whom is it for? how is it to be used and where? who is the audience? what is the charism of the religious order requesting it? who is the patron saint,? &c) and devising a strategy to make present the desired subject, (putting all the former together in a way that makes the work meaningful), to which the creative [abilities of the artist respond] (the concept and execution), in order to produce the result: the education and elevation of the mind to heavenly realities and into the particular mysteries of the faith.
JG: The materials used in crafting a Scared work should be the best available and affordable to the craftsman and the client. Although I do not consider myself as a medievalist I do see value in medieval art and the materials it was crafted with. Using beautiful materials while building an intrinsic value adds spiritual value to the work through symbolism of color which is heightened for the viewer through materials such as paint made from semi-precious stones, gold and silver because all of these reflect the light in different ways and intensities and are part of what I call transforming the mystery of color into the color of mystery. It adds radiance and suggests the heavenly light that fills the space of heaven. Of course this can also be achieved by different means and materials. Sacred art in a sense should at first be attractive, like eye candy to lead the viewer in. It should be able to connect with them first at the material level, through the beautiful colors, materials and craftsmanship. Then as the detail keeps drawing the person in farther they become emotionally connected as the work begins to unfold a story which leads them farther to begin asking What does this mean? and What does that mean? and they arrive at the spiritual level where they are inquiring and learning about the mysteries of the Faith.DM: Your own work is done using some very precious materials and traditional processes. Can you describe some of the specific things you use to create your art, and their significance?
JG: Today, building an intrinsic worth into the art has been lost. In the mediaeval period the Church always used the best materials it could to produce sacred art. Gold, which represents the heavenly light that fills the space of heaven, and genuine ultramarine blue made from Lapis Lazuli were the highest expressions of color used in the Middle Ages. The materials play an important role in sacred art because the role of sacred art is to evangelize - and in order to do that, the work must speak to the viewers on the material level, in order to get them to the emotional and spiritual levels of the work. Brilliant beautiful colors were dry-ground, made from gold, silver, semi-precious stones, earth, plants and insects. These colors each had their own characteristic and were able to reflect light in different ways that manufactured paint in tubes today cannot. Genuine ultramarine blue, being made of a semi-precious stone, had a crystalline structure to it that reflected the light and gave a depth and dimension. The name ultramarine comes from the Latin, ultramarinus, which means from across the sea as it came from Persia. In the 13th century, Cennnino Cennini developed his recipe for taking the stone and making the beautiful, sparkling blue. His recipe can be found in his Il Libro dell' Arte. In the Middle Ages, the Virgin came to wear blue and this costly color which represented the firmament as well as truth and beauty was the blue designated for her.---
Vermilion, cinnabar, caput mortuum, malachite, azurite, opirment and lead white, are all beautiful colors lending a very sublime character to the work which helps break through the clutter and elevates the work to new levels. The historic colors are very different in the way they work compared to manufactured pigments today. It takes practice and experimentation to learn how they work. Illumination is a very tactile medium. You have to know your materials because your materials often dictate the design. While I use a lot of these historic colors and various mordants upon which the gold is laid, I do not let them get in the way of the craftsmanship.
Every age sets new visual expectations that keep getting higher and higher. That is the craftsmanship and accuracy of what's being presented. Today the computer has trained the eye to expect many things like typography, shapes and so forth to be very accurate, where the early mediaevals were not concerned with perspective, correct ellipses, perfect lines. Their idea of perfection was different. So the importance of the materials is important to the work today to meet its demands. The illuminators were brilliant alchemists who knew their materials well and did ground work for us today. For me, the alchemy is taking the beautiful colors such as the gold and semi-precious stones and other materials hewn from the earth and sea and through the symbolic use of color and imagery transforming them into a beautiful work which elevates the mind to God.
[I thank Jed Gibbons for his thoughtful answers to my questions and for his time. This is part of a series of interviews that I am conducting on the subject of Catholic religious art. The images that accompany these interviews remain copyright their creators, and are used here with permission. As goes without saying, I do not necessarily share the opinions that the subjects of these interviews express.]