28 February 2018


William Morris is of course one of the towering figures in the 19th century medieval revival, the Arts & Crafts Movement and fine press bookmaking, and a major influence on my own art. I have learned many things from studying the celebrated volume of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer published by his Kelmscott Press; yet nothing in that book has impressed me so much as the two-page specimen and few versals prepared for The Chronicles of Froissart, a book left unfinished at Morris ’s death in 1896.

Here, Morris abandoned the strictly orthogonal borders and versals of the Chaucer; the spiky, lively delineation of the left bas-de-page is something that I have imitated in at least three dozen of my own drawings.




22 February 2018

CAN I REALLY MAKE a LIVING at THIS? (part 3 of 3)

Can I really make a living at this sort of art? Is the market big enough to support one more illuminator or sacred artist?

I was asked these questions recently by a talented painter who had just begun to sell her work. This is the third part (of three) of my reply:

Religious art is necessarily traditional, and an artist making it in the present day has a challenge that no artist of the past had. With so many museums and galleries and rare book libraries making digital records of their collections, it is possible to obtain a file (sufficient for printing) of almost any historic masterpiece. That isn’t too much of a concern when making original drawings, because there are certain places where only original drawings are accepted. But if you sell prints of your work, you end up competing against the old masters for business!

In the fifteenth century, a painter who was a slightly-less-talented imitator of Jan Van Eyck might still be the most celebrated artist in his native city. In the nineteenth, he might be one of only a few in the world making those sort of paintings, thus successful in his own domain. But if he were selling prints of his work now, people would start to ask: Why shouldn’t I just buy a print of a Jan Van Eyck painting instead?

So it is advantageous now to make religious artwork that does not too closely imitate past artwork, even if there is nothing wrong, on a religious level, with being imitative. A lot of my patrons say that what they appreciate most about me as an artist is that I advance the tradition rather than just represent it. I think this can be done while keeping correct principles - the arrangement a disposition that belong to the holy fathers (as was said at the Second Nicene Council) and the presentation of space and time and light that agree with the scriptures and the liturgy and the fathers. The expanded flora and fauna in my drawings, the integration of Gothic art with Northumbro-Irish and Persian and Japanese art, the experiments with double-sided drawing: these are the sort of things that especially draw interest and praise.


While the task of an artist is to create a new market for his artwork, the potential size of that market is limited to those who find the artwork agreeable. There just are not very many traditional Catholics, so I depend also on patronage from people on different sides of the many fractures within the Catholic Church and from people without it entirely. (Honestly, I am hoping that more Protestants will take notice of my work.) I can honestly say that accepting patronage from all directions has not required me to compromise the content of the artwork; I think that what I have drawn can stand pretty well as a personal Credo - that I can profess belief in what it depicts. Early in my career I accepted some commissions that I should not have (New Age type things), but this was not out of financial necessity so much as my being too bashful to decline a request politely. Nowadays, I am pretty confident that when I am commissioned to make a religious drawing, I can figure out a way both to uphold tradition and to satisfy the patron - even when I find out that the patron does or says or believes things that I find profoundly disagreeable.

One thing that I’ve come to appreciate as a perk of the artistic profession is that people are inclined to like you. When someone asks me what I do for a living, and I say I’m an artist, they almost always smile and express admiration for that and assume that I am interesting and intelligent. Moreover, they are slow to take offense at anything I say in the context of discussing the artistic process. My lectures present a lot of provocative ideas, and I have worried about audiences reacting hostilely. They never have; I don't think that a scholar or journalist or theologian or priest would get such benefit. Indeed, I think that most people are more open to being convinced of something by art than by verbal argument.

I would recommend for now that you avoid making opponents among other religious artists or criticizing their work in public. That was something I realized I had to give up when I became a full-time professional. It will prompt others to belittle your own work in retaliation, and will repel more patrons that it attracts. I certainly do, privately, consider some religious artists to be incompetent or lazy or dishonest. But their patrons certainly do not need to hear that from me; their patrons are very likely to be interested in my artwork also, but not if I tell them that their taste and judgment are poor. And as I said, fine art isn’t exactly a market; other artists aren’t exactly competitors. I tell myself when they offend me that if every single person applying his creativity in the advertising industry were to give it up and become a really, really bad religious artist instead, the world would be a better place.



21 February 2018



I am always interested to find ways to present natural forms that are beautiful and detailed, yet still compatible with a medieval style. The artists upon whose influence I draw for this task include Benozzo Gozzoli, Sultan Muhammad and especially Eyvind Earle. I am surprised that an amazing Flemish painter (or possibly school of painters) of the late fifteenth century escaped my notice until recently.



15 February 2018

CAN I REALLY MAKE a LIVING at THIS? (part 2 of 3)

Can I really make a living at this sort of art? Is the market big enough to support one more illuminator or sacred artist?

I was asked these questions recently by a talented painter who had just begun to sell her work. This is the second part (of three) of my reply:

As I wrote earlier, only about half of my income comes from original drawing. The other key (of mine, at least) to making a living as an artist is to make use of the artwork that I have already made. A copyright to a work of art can be more lucrative than the work of art itself (especially here in the United States, where big evil media corporations and wealthy cults have such strong interest in keeping their intellectual property out of the public domain. If the current laws continue to stand, my artwork will be making money for my heirs eighty years after I am dead). Don’t ever surrender, sell or share a copyright. And be sure to have a (very) high-quality scan or digital photograph of every work of art you make, backed up on multiple data storage devices, kept in different locations.

Obviously, I don’t want to cheapen my artwork by reproducing it carelessly. A religious artist should use his life’s work to fight against falseness and trivialization. I don’t want to set up a Zazzle or CafePress store where my artwork would be printed on iPhone cases and coffee mugs. I can’t claim to be a total purist here, or I would not even scan it and display it online at all, but I do try to give careful consideration to what is implied by the different ways of reproducing it.

In an age of flashy mass media, people generally do not look at pictures long enough to notice their details or learn from them; a couple of seconds, if the studies taken in art museums and galleries are accuratue. So I am willing to present my pictures in certain popular forms if they have the effect of making people pay attention to them longer. I’ve had three coloring books published, and I am looking into jigsaw puzzles.

I design a lot of ornament and lettering in the process of making my drawings, and I have been trying to find ways to make this profitable also. I have a line of print-on-demand fabrics in the works. All of this, though, is experimental at this point; giclée prints and letterpress prints are what actually make up a substantial portion of my income.

Giclée prints are made from a high-resolution digital scan or photograph, by a spray-jet printer, on thick archival paper. My drawings are small enough that I can scan them myself and prepare the print files (remove dust, fix the color balance et cetera) using Photoshop Elements. I do not own my own printer; probably I would save money if I did, but I don’t want to deal with another machine - so I send the files to a commercial print shop. What is nice about giclée prints is that, even though they are more expensive per-print than offset or letterpress prints, there is no need to order a lot of them at once. I only ask the pressmen to run them as I receive orders. That way, there is no risk of losing money by investing in a lot of prints that do not sell.

And since most of the people who buy religious images do so for the sake of devotion (not as collectors or investors) there is no reason to limit the editions. The buyers don’t care that much about a signature on the front or a number, and will pay about the same for a print without those. The practice of limiting editions started in an era when prints were made from irreplaceable metal or wood plates that wore out over time, and thus had the purpose of quality control. It still has this purpose in traditional printmaking where the plate, block or stone is prepared entirely by hand. But no modern printing method in which the image passes through a digital stage requires this; here, it is just an artificial way to raise prices.


I have mixed feelings about making and selling digital prints at all. I think that digital prints are to original artwork as CDs are to live music. I don’t mind musicians making and selling CDs; I own plenty of them. Recorded music is useful for research and education. But I also see very plainly that it is fake, and that a society in which most people are convinced that listening to music is a matter of accumulating data and pressing buttons on electronic devices is a society that will not produce or support many real, good musicians. My wife is a singer, conductor and sometime composer, so I am especially sensitive to this. As Catholics, making a distinction between what something truly, substantially is and what it looks or sounds like is at the center of our religious experience. And any fake thing that we are asked to treat as real (just because it looks or sounds real) undermines that.

So I try my best not to say or do anything to imply that a digital print is a substitute for original artwork. I consider the relief (letterpress) prints that I sell under the Millefleur Press imprint somewhat different. Relief printing involves actual contact between paper and a plate, and a reflected image in a single color of ink. Essentially, it is the same method used by Gutenberg, and I believe that the printing press emerged in late medieval Europe due to the cult of relics and the distinctions between their different classes (I explain this at the end of my lecture Invention and Exaltation). Admittedly, the process of making a printing plate from one of my drawings involves a digital stage (a 1200 dpi bitmap file that is printed as a film positive that is photochemically burned into the plate). But I nonetheless feel more comforatble presenting relief prints as works of art in their own right - derivative works of art, works of art of a lower class, but works of art nonetheless, especially when I color them by hand.

However, the risk involved in making relief prints is much higher, because I need to pay for the press run and materials up front. And while there are people who get excited about letterpress, linseed-oil based ink and handmade laid paper and understand how special these things are, there are a lot more people who would rather have a digital print in full color. Realizing this, after analyzing sales for a few years, I set aside my most ambitious plans for Millefleur Press. One day (when my drawing hand starts to shake, I suppose) I plan to spend my time formatting and publishing fine press books and presenting my life’s artwork therein. But that is no task for the present, when I still need to worry about making ends meet.

A more immediately profitable way that I have found to use my existing work is simply to copy it (by hand, as original drawings to sell). This is becoming a more and more important part of my business. It is such a simple idea that I am surprised it took me so long to realize it: making two very similar drawings earns me twice as much money, but takes a lot less than twice as much time because the research and composition need not be repeated. I am at a point where I cannot devote any more time to drawing that I already do without neglecting my family or risking repetitive motion injuries to my hands and wrists. This is a way to produce more artwork in limited time. I have never been in the habit of making preparatory sketches or rough drafts; if you are, think about making them in such a way that they could become salable works themselves.



14 February 2018



In certain medieval churches, large veils were suspended at the entrance to the choir, hiding the altar during the entire season of Lent. Several magnificent examples, in which pictorial summaries of Salvation History are woven, embroidered or painted, survive.

Those at Baldramsdorf, Gurk and Millstatt Abbey are well-known, as is the magnificent one, shown here, held in the collections of the cathedral in Zittau. It was made in 1472.

What impresses me most about these works is that they present many events from the Old and New Testaments in a coherent order, and that they attest to the survival of ancient iconographic traditions at the very end of the Middle Ages.



08 February 2018

CAN I REALLY MAKE a LIVING at THIS? (part 1 of 3)

Can I really make a living at this sort of art? Is the market big enough to support one more illuminator or sacred artist?

I was asked these questions recently by a talented painter who had just begun to sell her work. This is the first part (of three) of my reply:

First, know that there are a lot of different ways to go about being a professional artist, and those I know who make religious art their specialty have very different modus operandi. I have a friend who makes artwork that is comparable to mine (small drawings in the manner of illuminated manuscripts) but his business is very different. He travels and teachs a lot, and I rarely ever do; I depend very much on a website for promoting my artwork and selling prints of it, and he doesn’t even have one.

I can only really speak about my own way of making a living here, and other religious artists are succeeding (or at least surviving) in very different ways - by exhibiting in galleries, illustrating picture books, teaching, getting grant money or something else that I do not do at all. I can attest that my own way has provided for me and my family for almost eight years. And it makes some sense for an artist in your situation, making the transition from an amateur to a professional.

Basically, this is how I operate. About half of my income is from original drawing, either commissions or sales of drawings made on speculation. Most of my drawings are commissioned; for several years, almost all of them were, but I am deliberately allotting time to speculative work now, because I want greater control over the content and to start a magnum opus project (the Summula Pictoria) illustrating the Old and New Testaments.

I frankly hate using computers, but I do depend on them for making my artwork known. Patrons find it through my website and social media accounts; there are payment buttons for buying existing drawings or prints, and instructions to e-mail me about possible commissions. Anyone who buys or commissions something or expresses interest in a commission I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter, sent every few months.

The rest of my income is from selling printed works derived from the drawings. I make a little from writing articles and giving lectures. I have some supporters who are well-known in Catholic media, and I send them prints on occasion to review, but other than this I do not pay for advertisement. I do not actively seek out commissions or enter into competitions.


This approach never made me too dependent on others, and thus I was able to become a professional gradually. I launched my wesite in 2005 and worked as a religious artist part-time until 2010, when I was finally ready to resign from my last day job. Those years gave me time to build a portfolio and a reputation.

I was able to figure, based on experience, how much money I was earning from artwork relative to the hours spent making it, and to contrast that to how much money I was earning at my day job. I became a full-time artist when the arithmetic suggested that I would make just as much money that way. I probably hesitated for about a year longer than necessary (much of which I wasted trying to find a different day job). I lost money for the first three months, but after that was making more than before.

So yes, it is possible. But I would recommend making the transition to being a professional gradually. Set up a website and a newsletter first, build a portfolio and a list of contacts. When you make and sell art, log the hours, count the money, do the arithmentic. You can devote more time to art as it becomes more relatively profitable. Take comfort in knowing that if you fail (financially, that is), you can just go back to the way things were before until you are ready to try again. I told myself before I made the plunge: if it doesn’t work this time, I can just go get a part-time job to make ends meet. I won’t be able to accept as many commissions, but I can still accept some, maintain the website and sell prints - and really, nobody else even needs to know.

Now all of that was made easier by three things: first, relative to other artists doing similar work, I draw very quickly. Second, the materials and tools for ink drawing are not very expensive. I can buy the best available, yet barely even think about the investment in materials and tools since it is so much less than that needed for oil painting or sculpture. And third, most of my drawings are small. So I was able to build a portfolio of many different works quickly.

At this time, I recommend that you put most of your effort into building a portfolio. Consider making more, smaller paintings (or drawings, if you are interested in that medium) in order to have enough works to build a website around and to give patrons an idea of what sort of art you are able and interested to make. Your existing portfolio is your biggest asset in securing new commissions.

Because fine art isn’t exactly a market. Artists aren’t fungible. I don’t have patrons come to me saying: I need a work of art. Please convince me that you are the artist who can make it for the best value. And if they did, I would decline to work with them; I don’t want any patron who treats me like an antagonist.

The good patrons, the ones that I want, are the ones who come to me saying: I admire your artwork, and have an idea for a drawing. Can you do this and what would it cost? They do not want an artist (generally speaking); they want me, specifically, to make something. They are willing to trust that I will do a good job based on what I have made in the past. They genuinely like what I am doing and want to help me succeed. So your task isn’t really to enter into an existing market and hope that there is space in it for you. Rather, it is to create an entirely new market, for your artwork specifically.

Aside from a portfolio, one of the best things you can have to establish this is an easy, fast, consistent way to calculate prices. I’ve seen artists lose a lot of commissions for taking too long to tell a patron how much he needs to spend. There are a lot of factors that can go into figuring these rates - your overall cost of living, time spent on the making, the materials, a general sense of what people are willing to pay - but they should be simple when presented to a patron. Mine are a function of area, so many dollars per square inch. There are different rates for black and white and color, for paper and calfskin. I revise them often as I figure out better how long things actually take or how much they actually cost, but never with the intention of differential pricing; who the patron is has nothing to do with it.

Another is to keep in regular contact with people who have already bought or commissioned artwork from you. That is the one population that is most likely to buy or commission artwork in the future. I’ve never done a mathematical analysis, but I would bet that most of my business is repeat. Until recently, an e-mail newsletter sufficed for this; not so much for selling new, featured works as for reminding patrons of my existence. Last September, I realized that it was no longer as effective, so I created social media accounts (half-hoping that they would fail so that I could stop using them, but, alas, they did seem to help).



24 January 2018


I ignored the night sky for most of my life. I could make excuses for this - I have terrible night vision due to misshapen corneas, and until recently I lived in Chicago, surrounded by photopollution and buildings obstructing the view - but the real reason is that I simply did not pay attention. When my oldest son began studying astonomy as part of his homeschooling, our entire family began to notice the astronomical phenomena that we could easily see even in the middle of a large city: eclipses, the brightest constellations at different times of the year, the phases of the moon, the locations of Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn.

I discovered above me something dynamic, varied and extremely interesting. Having moved recently to the semirural perimter of the metropolitan area, I am happy to see the stars more easily, although it is still not dark enough to see the Milky Way. Indeed, I can only remember having seen the Milky Way once or twice, ever. It is strange to think of it as something strange and special, since it would have been visible on every clear night to every person with reasonably good eyesight for the entire length of preindustrial human history.

I have been attempting to express in my art a new interest in the night sky. Although I have long used stars as part of my ornament, these have been perfunctory: basically regular five-pointed shapes and little circles, all of similar size and color. This hardly did justice to what almighty God created for signs and for seasons, to shine in the firmament of heaven and to give light upon the earth! I now try to use astronomical forms symbolically; developing the patristic association of the Old Testament with the moon and the New Testament with the sun, I give the patriarchs and prophets lunar haloes. These are crescents, except on those who encountered Jesus Christ (the Sun of Justice) face to face. (For an example, see my drawing of the Tree of Jesse.) I hope eventually to present the planets and stars also as symbols - as St. Zeno of Verona did in his homily that interpreted the zodiac as a baptismal allegory, or as Dante Alighieri did when associating the planets with different degrees of beatitude in his Paradiso - but reconciled to the observational knowledge of the present age.

More immediately, I have been trying to find a more interesting way of drawing stars. Looking first, as I usually do, to Gothic art, I was somewhat disappointed. So often here, the presentation of the night sky is even more perfunctory than mine had been. Consider the fifteenth century St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece painted by Master Francke. This is, undeniably, a great work by a great artist. But the only really interesting thing about the sky here is that it is red rather than blue or black; the stars are identical geometric shapes, evenly spaced on a grid of equilateral triangles.

Panel from the St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece by Master Francke

In defense of Master Franke, I can think of a few reasons why he might have chosen to draw the stars this way. In some artistic media, repetition is necessary. Obvious examples are woven damask and wallpaper. Architectural ornament, due its scale and its being made with bricks, tiles and stenciling, is necessarily repetitive in many applications. Master Francke drew a connection between the Nativity of Jesus Christ and the Martyrdom of St. Thomas by using the same background for both. The latter, of course, happened inside a church, so the background pattern needed to be recognizable as either a night sky or as a diaper pattern painted on a wall.

Panel from the St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece by Master Francke

But more than this, nobody who lived in the fifteenth century (unless, perhaps, he were wearing eyeglasses for the first time) discovered the stars as an adult. There was basically no photopollution, anywhere. I suppose that certain medieval men may have paid little attention to the night sky, as I long did. But few could afford to do this at a time when the stars were the most reliable way to tell direction and time. Clocks and compasses existed by the fifteenth century, but they are hard to see in the dark! The night sky was necessarily familiar to a medieval man.

What almost certainly was unfamiliar (and therefore remarkable and impressive) to him was a perfect geometric pattern. Think about this; flat, completely regular grids rarely occur in nature. Nobody who lived in the fifteenth century would ever have seen one, outside of a beehive, unless an artist took special care to measure and mark and make it. I expect that some of the people who saw Master Francke’s altarpiece for the first time excitedly whispered to each other: Isn’t that amazing? The stars - they are all exactly the same size! And they are all exactly as far apart! How did he do that so flawlessly?

Nowadays, repeating grids and patterns are everyhere around us; they are a mark of industrial mass-production, and therefore of cheapness - not of extraordinary care by an artist, certainly not of preciousness. This demonstrates a thorny problem for the contemporary maker of sacred art. Certain patterns, materials and colors that appear in older sacred art have a symbolic meaning based on Holy Writ, sacred liturgy or patristic exegesis; they are part of a tradition with an objective content that any maker of sacred art is required to uphold. But some were favored simply for being precious or rare, and this is bound to the economy and technology of the time and place in which the art was made. I see no reason for an artist of another time and place to repeat them.

This is not always easy to disentangle. Did medieval artists use purple and blue colors for symbolic reasons based on Divine Revelation, or did they favor them simply for the preciousness of murex dye and ultramarine pigment? Did they carve liturgical objects such as this crosier, or this one, out of rock crystal for symbolic reasons (referring to the Virgin Birth, perhaps, or to moral purity; it is noteworthy that they were carried by abbesses), or simply because perfectly clear objects were rare at the time? That matters to an artist deciding whether to make a similar crosier nowadays, when clear glass is cheap and abundant and unremarkable.

Panel from the St. Thomas of Canterbury altarpiece by Master Francke

I do not know the answers to these questions, but I venture to propose that simple geometric patterns, applied in media where they are not necessary (such as painting), no longer have the same meaning or effect that they had in medieval art. When drawing stars (or mountains or trees or any natural forms) a maker of sacred art would do better to present them as varied and dynamic. I venture also to propose that flat gilding - such as that forming the background in other panels of Master Francke’s altarpiece - is no longer especially impressive in an age when shiny flat surfaces are made through industrial processes such as electroplating. That is not to say that a painter should eschew gold leaf backgrounds - merely that he should consider adding tooling or ornament or color to them, as was done in many of the best works of sacred art in the past.

Moving on in my search for a more interesting way to draw stars - one that is yet agreeable to my basically medieval art - I remembered the Russian art of lacquered papier-mâché miniature boxes. I first learned about this art by accident, at a book fair where I found and purchased both volumes of Russian Lacquer, Legends and Fairy Tales by Lucy Maxym.

Working on a surface of dark lacquer (usually black), the painters of these boxes depict in bright colors and gold leaf scenes from secular Russian folklore, literature and history. Many of these stories I had encountered before in the illustrations of Ivan Bilibin and Gennady Spirin, and in Russian opera. The tiny paintings have an obvious stylistic affinity to the sacred art of the Russian Church, but depict Vasilisa the Brave, Baba Yaga, Ivan the Fool and Koschei the Deathless instead of Jesus and Mary and the saints. Their skyscapes are some of the most interesting that I have ever encountered - vigorously medieval, but not at all repetitive or perfunctory. This is how I wish the night sky had appeared in Gothic art.

Studying this art more closely, I learned the circumstances by which it became established in four Russian villages (Fedoskino, Palekh, Kholui and Mstera) - circumstances that explain both its secular subject matter and its stylistic resemblance to sacred icons. Palekh, Kholui and Mstera were all important centers of icon painting before the Russian Revolution. In its aftermath, the icon painting was suppressed. Eventually, the artists found new work painting these boxes, using methods already established in Fedoskino. So while this art is deliberately secular, it was largely developed by icon painters; in one regard, it is a continuous development of the older sacred art. I would be very interested to see contemporary makers of sacred art claim some of its methods for their own. (The author of the two books mentioned appears to have done this herself.)

The Black Hours in the Morgan Library

After their subject matter and size of these boxes, the most obvious difference between them and sacred icons is their background: black instead of gold. Black is of course traditionally associated with death and sin, so its use as a background in sacred art is questionable - although it has been used to striking effect in some exceptional works, such as a group of Flemish Books of Hours illuminated of the 15th century.

The use of a dark red, green, purple or blue background is better established in sacred art across the centuries. The purple uncials of the sixth century are religious manuscripts written in gold and silver leaf on dyed parchment. In medieval Byzantium, small icons were carved in low relief on tablets and pendants of bloodstone, serpentine and lapis lazuli and given gold leaf details.

In the late medieval occident, colors were associated with specific gemstones and specific planets; this is demonstrated, for example, in blazonry:

Gold/Or = Sun
Silver/Argent = Moon
Red/Gules = Ruby = Saturn
Blue/Azure = Sapphire = Venus
Black/Sable = Diamond = Mars
Green/Vert = Emerald = Mercury
Purple/Purpure = Amethyst = Jupiter

I question the assignment of certain planets in this scheme, but the idea here is, I think, a useful one nonetheless: symbolically, colors (even dark ones) may represent gemstones and celestial bodies. They too (not just gold) may communicate the ideas of preciousness and effulgence in art. Carefully applied, they do not change the traditional perspective of sacred art as a view out of heaven, in which the reflected light of the Sun of Justice illuminates everything. For this light is not one that destroys colors and distinctions, like a floodlight shone directly in the face; it is not blinding, but sight-giving.



06 December 2017


Sacred artists have always drawn Biblical figures wearing contemporary clothing.

This is an art-historical truism that everybody knows and repeats. And it certainly is impossible to deny that, in very many works of art, sacred artists did show the material culture of their own eras and nations. The Last Supper triptych painted by Dieric Bouts presents Jesus Christ and His Apostles dressed as 15th century Flemings. They sit in a room whose architecture, tilework and furniture are characteristic of Bouts’s time and place rather than Christ’s. In the scenes from the Old Testament that flank the central panel, Abraham and Elijah are likewise dressed; the arms, armor and equestrian equipment are definitely late medieval.

But the matter is more complicated than that. Bouts used clothing significantly; I highly doubt that he ever saw someone walk down the street dressed as Melchizedek is dressed in his painting. He probably did see textiles and metalwork imported from the Orient, and imagined garb for the mysterious priest-king based upon these. A few hundred miles south of Bouts, Humanist artists in Italy were presenting their Biblical subjects in the material culture of ancient Greece and Rome. A few hundred years before Bouts, early Gothic sculptors and manuscript illuminators dressed their figures of Jesus Christ, the saints and angels, the prophets and patriarchs in long, simple robes that seem not to belong to any particular time or place.

The use of contemporary clothing in sacred art was not universal, even in the Middle Ages. It was likely the result of an innovation in artistic method that happened during the Middle Ages: the use of live models. Based on depictions and descriptions of artists and their studios, it is apparent to me that at the beginning of the Gothic era (in the middle of the twelfth century), almost nobody painted or drew from live models; by the end of the Gothic era (in the middle of the sixteenth century), almost everybody did.

Were I an academic art historian, I might spend a lifetime researching this development, tracing when and where it happened, and collecting reactions to it from artists, patrons, theologians and commoners. This innovation was undoubtedly tied to other aspects of medieval life and art. Over the Gothic era, sacred art was more and more made by professional laymen, who (unlike monastic artists) could spend time in the company of female models. Portraiture emerged as a newly important genre of art, and its methods undoubtedly had an effect on the religious art made in the same workshops. And the religious theatre - miracle, mystery and morality plays - thrived, providing artists with countless ideas for depicting sacred scenes with familiar actors, costumes and props.

The art historian Emile Mâle wrote extensively on the influence of religious theatre upon religious art. While I think that he overstates it in some ways, his argument is mostly convincing. For example, as he points out in his study Medieval Art in France: the Late Middle Ages, the arrangement of the specific Apostles around the table in Bouts’s painting matches exactly the stage directions in Passion plays of the same era. Most likely, the change in angelic garb that happened in the art of the Middle Ages - from flowing robes to liturgical vestments (albs, dalmatics and copes) was made because actors playing angels in the mystery plays dressed this way. Early medieval artists depicted imaginary clothing because they were depicting what they imagined; late medieval artists depicted recognizable clothing because they were depicting what they saw.


Artists who do not understand the complexity of the matter might be tempted to take one of two approaches to their religious pictures. One is to dismiss the anachronisms of late medieval art as naïve folly, and attempt instead to reconstruct the material culture of the actual time and place from archæological evidence. The other is to accept entirely that sacred artists have always drawn Biblical figures wearing contemporary clothing, and to update that all the way to the twenty-first century, with Jesus Christ in blue jeans, driving moneychangers in business suits from the Temple and turning over tables of cash registers. (I will admit that, in one of my very earliest attempts at religious art, around 2003, I made a drawing like this, which I certainly never intend to show.)

Both of these approaches - the archaeological and the contemporary - make some sense. But they have long struck me as religiously unsatisfying, long before I was really able to explain why. In my own religious drawings - whether of the Old Testament, the New Testament or the lives of the saints - I most often depict the material culture of the Middle Ages. I propose that there are real advantages to this approach also, and that it is not simply an exercise in romanticism.


The strongest argument against an archaeological approach to sacred art is that sacred art is necessarily synoptic. Just as God sees all places and times from the aspect of eternity, so too does traditional sacred art present them in the same aspect. The prefigurement of the New Testament in the Old fascinated the Church Fathers; the same great idea expressed in their exegesis was expressed in art. In the late Middle Ages, it was popularized in books such as the Biblia Pauperum, which juxtaposed scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary with the appropriate prophecies and prefigurements - four prophecies and two prefigurements each. Another, the Speculum Humanæ Salvationis juxtaposed each scene with three prefigurements. In Bouts’s triptych, three of the scenes prefiguring the Last Supper - the sacrifice of Melchizedek, the gathering of manna and the paschal lamb - are the same that appear in its pages, suggesting that the book directly influenced the painter.

The task of the religious artist, like that of the Biblical exegete, is to draw meaningful connections between chronologically and geographically distinct events, to say that they are really part of the same mystery. That idea is less apparent if the events appear to happen in different worlds, where the clothing and architecture and weaponry and serving vessels are all different, as archaeological accuracy would require. A work like Bouts’s triptych would require at least four different settings, for about twenty centuries separate the sacrifice of Melchizedek from the Last Supper - and indeed, about five centuries separate the sacrifice of Melchizedek from the Exodus, and about five more separate the Exodus from the prophecies of Elijah. And while the material culture did not change with such obvious rapidity in the ancient world as it has in modern times, it certainly was not consistent.

A consistent material culture between depicted events supports the idea of a consistent significance. The importance of this became more apparent to me as I started preparatory research for a large cycle of illustrations (which I call the Summula Pictoria), covering a vast span of time: from the fall of Adam and Eve to the martyrdoms of Enoch and Elijah in the reign of the Antichrist. How useful it is, for the purpose of symbolism, to be able to depict an identical chalice in the hands of Melchizedek and of Jesus Christ!

That consistent material culture need not necessarily be that of the Middle Ages, which I favor; it could just as easily be that of ancient Greece or of Ming China. But a medieval setting is very effective. For whatever reason, it has long been fixed in the imagination as the usual setting for things that happened in mystical times long ago, which is probably why most fairy tales and fantasy stories take place in a vaguely medieval world. Neither the events of the Old Testament, the New Testament nor the lives of (most) saints seem disturbingly anachronistic set there.


A religious artist should also consider that his art is meant to communicate without additional commentary. It should move the faithful to devotion easily, not spend their time and effort on figuring out its meaning. For that reason, many of the characters who appear in sacred art have established, readily recognized attributes: King David, for example, is a man in a crown playing a harp.

An artist painting David might give him an archaeological reconstruction of the sort of crown that a Semitic king might have worn in the Iron Age and the sort of stringed instrument that he might have played. I really do not know what these would look like; perhaps they would be easily recognized as a crown and a harp. I suspect that they would not; if my suspicion were correct, the figure would not be easily recognized as David, and the painting would require an explanation. Alternately, an artist might dress his figure of David in a tailored suit (because that is what King Felipe VI wears) and hand him a classical guitar. But this painting too would require an explanation to make the viewer understand that it is supposed to show King David. This is far more confusing than a picture of man dressed in the regalia of a medieval king and holding a medieval harp.

Here, the archaeological approach to sacred art is analogous to a scholarly edition of the Psalter in its original Paleo-Hebrew. The contemporary approach is analogous to a translation of the Psalter into modern Spanish. Neither of these is a bad thing, or a useless thing; indeed, they are good things. So are translations of the Psalter into Ciceronian Latin or Classical Chinese or Bengali or Icelandic or Gugu Thaypan or Quenya.

But none of these is what I want to hear recited or sung during a liturgical celebration according to Latin rite; there, I want to hear the Latin of Jerome and Venantius Fortunatus and Herman the Cripple and Adam of St. Victor. I want to hear it regardless of whether the words are those of Genesis or the Psalms or the Gospels or the Apocalypse. The experience of the twentieth-century liturgical experiments has taught that demands for archaeological accuracy and for bringing things up to date both tend to result in iconoclasm. A fixed, medieval material culture in sacred art instead functions as the visual equivalent of a lingua sacra.



13 November 2017


St. Ambrose of Milan, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

I am an artist whose medium of choice is ink drawing at a small scale; almost all of my work is religious in subject. The artistic tradition to which I try to be faithful is ancient and disciplined, corroborated by the exegesis of the church fathers and by the sacred liturgy.

Despite that, most of my work is not (strictly speaking) liturgical, displayed in churches or used during the celebration of the sacraments or the divine office. My medium of choice is one reason for this. Another is that I do not actively seek commissions that preclude me from making the best work of art that I am able. Unfortunately, many commissions that come from ecclesiastical institutions are of this kind.

I have observed other artists spend a large part of their creative energy fighting for permission to make the best work of art possible. Liturgical designers and architects, who depend almost entirely on institutional patronage, are especially impeded this way. Why? Money is one reason, obviously. But another is the sad fact that in most churches, any strikingly traditional, beautiful or interesting work of liturgical art will provoke a hostile reaction. The patrons are aware of this; a pastor who wants to commission a truly excellent new tabernacle or chalice or chasuble knows that he might be attacked for it from any direction: from his hierarchical superiors, from other priests or from petty, vindictive parishioners.

A few are willing to brave this for the greater glory of God; others have a stronger instinct for self-preservation. What emerges then is a sort of just-traditional-enough and just-beautiful-enough liturgical art. Its shape and materials satisfy the requirements of law and tradition. It is not ugly or weird; rather, it is plain and unremarkable. It avoids provoking a hostile reaction simply by being easy to ignore.

Now I do not pass judgment against patrons of this sort of art; a tabernacle or chalice or chasuble that is just good enough is incomparably better than one that is bad. Under conditions where it is the best thing possible, it deserves to be celebrated. Neither do I pass judgment against the artists, who are doing what they are asked to do. Still, it seems truly regrettable that the best work that so many artists are able to make remains in their imaginations. How much of it will be forgotten altogether before better conditions for patronage arrive? It also seems nearly impossible to build a desire for great liturgical art among the general population of churchgoers if they are never shown anything especially memorable.

Certainly, I do not know how to bring about a world in which liturgical designers are regularly asked and paid to make things like the Basilewsky Situla or the Eltenberg Tabernacle or the Gozbert Censer, or architects are regularly asked and paid to build things like the stave church at Borgund or the Palatine Chapel in Palermo. But I do think that pictorial art - drawing and painting - may have an important role to play in preserving the traditions and furthering the arts of sacred architecture, metalwork and vestment-making in the present day.

St. Hugh of Lincoln, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

A drawing or painting of a priest celebrating Mass is an opportunity for an artist to design a chasuble, a chalice and paten, an altar and a church interior. Saints who were priests, deacons, bishops or abbots are traditionally depicted in liturgical vestments. A commission to draw St. Thomas of Canterbury or St. Benedict is an opportunity for an artist to design a cope, morse, miter, chalice and crosier - and to do better than just-good-enough, or at least to try.

An especially interesting crosier is more readily tolerated in a drawing or a painting than in the hands of a bishop or abbot. If I want to elaborate traditional bestiary symbolism by designing a crosier with an ivory-carved newt for its head, snails for crockets, marble spheres for knops and a narwhal tusk for its terminal shaft, I can do that. I don’t even need to ask permission. And who knows? Perhaps some day my drawing of St. Hugh of Lincoln will inspire an artisan to make an actual crosier like this (presumably substituting carved wood for the ivory parts).

I have, over the past two or three years, come to find a special enjoyment in the design work that is ancillary to pictorial art. I want nothing in my drawings to be perfunctory or unoriginal; I design tile patterns and carpets for floors, tracery and stained-glass windows for walls, damask patterns for curtains and vestments. I design capitals and bases for columns, sanctuary knockers for doors, alphabets for inscriptions. I advise all illustrators and painters of religious art not to neglect this aspect of their pictures. We have, perhaps, fewer constraints on our creativity and traditionalism than artists working in any other medium.

St. Francis of Assisi, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

Not being a liturgical designer or an architect, I am hesitant to advise them on their own business. But I do wonder how many have considered using drawing or painting as a way to present their best ideas. If they have been frustrated again and again by instructions to tone down their designs, or by a lack of funding, or by a lack of interest, why not put those ideas to paper or panel and sell the results as works of art in their own right?

Architectural drawings can be things of great beauty, especially if done with decorative borders and calligraphed descriptions. I would love to see the ecclesiastical equivalent of an Achilles Rizzoli design an entire city full of ideal churches in various styles. I would want to own prints of these. I would love to see an architect follow the work that the young Euguène Viollet-le-Duc did to illustrate Baron Taylor’s Voyages Pittoresques et Romantiques, building decorative borders for the pages of books out of architectural forms.

And there is only a small difference between architectural drawings and art drawings in which buildings are prominent. A trained architect may be the artist best suited to making a cycle of illustrations of Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple. Were he to paint a panel of St. Jerome holding a miniature church, this traditional attribute would undoubtedly be interesting. Other saints might best be depicted by a trained goldsmith, or a maker of vestments; certainly most artists working in these media can draw well, or can learn to draw well.

And if, perhaps, they are inept at pictorial composition or figurative art, they might entrust that part to an illustrator or painter. Conversely, illustrators or painters who have no talent to design fabric or clothing or metalwork or architecture might ask a liturgical designer or architect to do this for them. I wonder if a sort of religious artist collective might be possible, in which artists and artisans in various media regularly contribute to each others’ pictures.

Mass of St. Gregory, ink drawing on calfskin (detail)

Now the point of liturgical art is, obviously, not to look good in pictures, but to be used for the sacred liturgy. But in difficult times, it is better that it survive (and profit its designers) as an adjunct to pictorial art than disappear entirely for want of willing patronage. Drawings and paintings have many more potential buyers than church buildings and liturgical objects, including the entire population of laymen and laywomen. Most of them do not need to worry about the reaction to their commssioning a work of art in the way that a pastor does!



24 July 2017


I have more and more been using the translucent quality of calfskin vellum to artistic advantage. In my recent drawings of the Invention of the Holy Cross and of St. Ambrose with the Emperor Theodosius, I depicted background architecture, damask patterns, wood grain and coral fossils within stone on the reverse side; these show through the surface faintly, and more clearly when the vellum is held up to light. These are the first works in which I have used this method as extensively as I plan to use it in my future drawings for the Summula Pictoria.

Here I am attempting to invent a new artistic medium, which I have named in my mind the translucent icon; My desire to do this was born of a fascination with perspective and lighting in medieval art, which have an altogether different significance than in most postmedieval art.

In the composition of medieval holy pictures, the artists’ intention is to depict earthly events from a heavenly perspective; to depict things as though seen by the eyes of a prelapsarian Adam, or of a saint in glory (at least insofar as the artists are able, being themselves fallen men and women). This is why medieval holy pictures do not include a single vanshing point or light source within them; the infinite and eternal and the source of all light is behind the artist and the viewer.

This compositional intention is the same regardless of the natural light source for the work of art; the same arrangements are present in illuminated manuscirps and panel icons (which are only brilliant if a light source is in front of them to reflect off of the gold leaf) and in stained glass windows (which are only brilliant if a light source is behind them). A beautiful symbolism is suggested by both kinds of art; God’s light is both reflected by His creation and permeates it. But in these media, relection of light and permeation by it are mutually exclusive.

Here I am attempting to create works of art that have something of the nature of illuminated manuscripts and panel icons, and something of the nature of stained glass windows, and that are beautiful no matter which direction they are struck by natural light. Beheld at different places or at different times of day, the drawings can have an unlimited variety of appearance.

I beleive that it is especially important in the present day, when so much artwork (including my own) is commonly seen in the form of digital scans, to assure that original works of religious art are inextricable from reality. As the adage goes, to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail; to a man with a scanner, everything looks like a .jpg. It is tempting, as an artist in the present day, to disregard any artistic method that does not translate to a scanned image (which is absoultely flat, absolutely static, identical in every light, without any objective size). I am rather determined to do the opposite.



23 March 2017


There are a few books that are especially useful to anyone who wishes to understand or to make religious art; living in an time when its meaning has become obscure and its traditions have become neglected, they are essential.

The Bible, obviously, is foremost. After that, the book that I pull from the shelf most often is the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century encyclopedia that collects, organizes and expands the contents of medieval martyrologies. Blessed James of Voragine is the author.

Although usually described as a compilation of saints’ lives, it contains also a wealth of information related to the feasts of the temporal cycle. As I wrote in my essay on Hagiography and the Benefit of Doubt, I consider the contents of the traditional martyrologies worthy of belief.

More commonly, they are treated with sneering condescenion. In the present day, the Golden Legend is often treated as an amusing curiosity, a collection of outlandish stories that cannot be taken seriously. That is partly because of an irrational bias against believing in certain kinds of miracles (as if omnipotence were in some way qualified), and partly because few have read the book in its entirety.

Blessed Jacobus was not irrationally credulous. In the Golden Legend, He readily admits when a story is based on a doubtful source. In several places, he writes that he is recording a story (such as that of the childhood of Pontus Pilate) for the record, but considers it unworthy of belief. In others, he acknowledges contradicting versions of a particular story, and presents both (sometimes passing judgment on which he considers correct, sometimes not). In others, he makes a theological criticism of a particular tradition (for example, in his entry on the Feast of the Circumcision, he argues that all of the divine body of Christ was assumed into Heaven, and that relics of the Christ Child’s foreskin iare therefore false).

The Golden Legend is a a work of erudition and insight, the work of a smart and holy man who yet had a healthy generosity in his consideraion of tradition. It contains none of that eager dismissiveness that is found throughout Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

In the entire Golden Legend, I find fault only in perhaps a dozen sentences. There are some places where married life and the company of women are excessively (I believe) disparaged, which is common enough in medieval and patristic writings for monastic readers; a few infelicitious uses of the term Ethiopian to describe a pitch-black demon; and one occasion (in the legend of St. Margaret of Antioch) where Blessed Jacobus is more skeptical than I think necessary.

The Golden Legend is not altogether comprehensive: for example, many of the Irish saints are not included. Certain saints attained their widespread popularity after the thirteenth century, and are not included - St. Barbara and St. Roch are notably absent.

But the Golden Legend nevertheless summarizes, better than any other single book, the spirit of devotion to saints that spanned all of Christendom for nearly the first three-quarters of history under the New Covenant. The idea expressed therein of what a saint is, and what a saint does, is the only idea that can truly be called traditional, handed down from the time of the Fathers and the time of the Apostles. To adopt another, contradicting idea of what a saint is or what a saint does is to profess faith in a different thing altogether, even if the same word is used to name it, even if many of the old figures are grandfathered into the new definition.

The Golden Legend has not only enormous religious value, but enormous cultural value as well. Better than any other single book, it summarizes one of the major cycles of Western literature. These are the heroes and the stories that, for centuries, everyone knew. The art and thought and history and literature of those centuries are indecipherable without some knowledge of these heroes and stories. That knowledge gives content and context to other products of traditional Christian civilization such as Thomistic thought and Gothic architecture. Without it, they are like empty, nestless shells. I cannot take seriously any list of the great books of the Western world that does not include the Golden Legend near its top.

The Golden Legend was first translated into English in 1483, by William Caxton. Much of this translation can be found online, or reprinted. This is the translation that William Morris published at the Kelmscott Press in 1892. I enjoy reading 15th-century English, and so value this translation highly. It is, is places, more of a paraphrase of Blessed Jacobus than a direct translation, and it includes new material (such as the legend of St. Barbara and a long liturgiological treatise on the Mass).

William Granger Ryan translated the 13th-century text in its entirety into modern English. This is the version I have on my shelf, in two volumes. I have seen a one-volume edition of the same translation for sale. This is an exceptionally useful book, although the footnotes add an element of skepticism to it.



22 March 2017


I have written in defense of the traditional hagiographies of patristic and medieval times, the wonderful accounts of the miracles and martyrdoms of the saints. Most of them, I contend, are worthy of belief, and all of them deserve the benefit of doubt. The first objection that I expect to meet is that some - such as those of St. Martha, St. George, St. Margaret, St. Sylvester and St. Benedict - involve dragons and other creatures generally considered mythological. Surely we know that such things never really existed, and that any stories involving them must be fictitious, right?

At the risk of being mocked, I contend that these legends too ought to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Our knowledge of what animals exist on the earth, and when and where they live or have lived, is not perfect. Just about everyone agrees that enormous reptilian beasts - some agile predators sharp teeth and powerful jaws, some with wings spanning fifty feet - once roamed the land and filled the sea and the sky in great numbers. Conventional wisdom says that these were all extinct long before St. Martha or St. George lived. But really, conventional wisdom said the same thing about the cœlocanth before a fisherman hauled one into his boat. There are many examples of these so-called Lazarus taxa. And really, who knows with total certainty what sort of creatures were lingering in the wilderness in the time of St. Martha or St. George, or swimming in the River Ness in the time of St. Columba of Iona?

Creatures as fabulous as the half-ton, ten-foot tall elephant bird were still running about when the Council of Trent concluded. Creatures as fabulous as the giant squid and the colossal squid are still swimming the ocean depths; based on the contents of sperm whale stomachs, they are not even very rare, yet they evaded the prying eyes of mankind and all its cameras until a few years ago.

The bias against belief in stories of legendary creatures is so strong, that they probably would be dismissed even if evidence of their plausibility were made plain. My older son was for a time deeply interested in the deep ocean. In at least two of his books, I read some commentary that basically said: The giant oarfish may have inspired legends about sea serpents. Now look at a picture of an oarfish:

This creature grows to lengths of at least 36 feet (in the deep ocean, perhaps longer). Its head is covered with red spikes. It takes a practiced sort of scientistic myopia to look at it and say: This may have inspired legends about sea serpents instead of: Hey, look - a sea serpent. I mean, look at it; it’s a sea serpent. I expect that if small mammal resembling a white bearded horse were to prance up to a group of biologists and poke them with the long spiraling horn protruding from its forehead, the biologists would say: This heretofore unknown creature may possibly have inspired legends about unicorns.

Finally, I will note that the legend of St. George, as told in the old hagiographies and liturgical texts, is not the legend told by Edmund Spencer. St. George was never a dragonslayer. Rather, the dragon became tame, and was led into the city like a dog on a leash. The point, and it is an important one, is that a dragon, in the definition of these legends, is not merely a large reptile but specifically a demonically possessed large reptile.

Consider that the Gospels say plainly that demons can possess animals (like pigs). Consider what sort of behaviors have been documented (recently and reliably) in demonically possessed people: preternatural strength, levitation, spewing noxious liquids. Is there any traditional description of a dragon, in any part of the Golden Legend, that could not be satisfied by a demonically possessed crocodile? I know of none.

I will admit, however, that the heraldic type of dragon is more fun to draw.



20 March 2017


Emile Mâle:
It was no new departure when at the end of the thirteenth century Jacobus de Voragine wrote the famous Golden Legend, for in it he simply popularised the lectionary, preserving even its sequence. His compilation is in no sense original. He is content with completing the stories by recourse to the originals, and with adding new legends here and there. The Golden Legend became famous throughout Christendom, because it put into the hands of all men stories which until then had hardly been found outside the liturgical books. The baron in his castle, the merchant in his shop could now enjoy the beautiful tales at will.

The attack made on Jacobus de Voragine by scholars of the seventeenth century misses its mark. The Golden Legend, which they accused of being a legend of lead, was not the work of a man but of the whole of Christendom. The candour and the credulity of the writer belonged to his time. The stories of St. Thomas’s voyage to India or of St. James’s miraculous cloak ... though displeasing to the strict theologians trained in the school of the fathers of the Council of Trent, were universally accepted in the thirteenth century. They were read in public in the churches, and they were illustrated in the windows. To condemn Jacobus de Voragine is to condemn all the ancient lectionaries, and with them the clergy who read them and the faithful who listened.
The detractors of the hagiographical tradition which the Golden Legend summarized are legion - beginning with humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Lorenzo Valla, and including such churchmen as the Counter-Reformatonal iconoclast John Molanus, John of Launoy, Adrien Baillet and others whose skepticism triumphed in the great stripping of the calendars in 1969, on the instructions of Sacrosanctum Consilium to purge the liturgy of anything that smacks of mythology. 

I will always be a defender of the Golden Legend and the traditional hagiographies - and more than a defender of them, a believer in them. That is to say, I believe that they are holy, deserving of preservation, and usually true. To a modern skeptic, this belief seems foolish and romantic; the sort of thing that could only be maintained through deliberate ignorance.

But the Golden Legend does not require a suspension of disbelief, nor a double standard of truth (one for reason, one for faith), nor any particular hermeneutic to believe. All that is required is the benefit of doubt. That is to say, most of the stories recounted by the traditional hagiographies give us no reason, in themselves, to disbelieve them. 

A qualification must be made here. The hagiographies are not inerrant and I certainly make no claim to the contrary. They were compiled by human authors without divine inspiration. Some contain errors. On occasion, there are confused identities, or details disproved by real, ubstantial evidence. On occasion, there are contradictory versions of the same story, as with multiple claimants to the same relic. In such cases, someone must be wrong. When I first read the Golden Legend, I was impressed by the the intellectual seriousness with which its compiler approached his task. Blessed Jacobus readily admitted when a story was based on a doubtful source, or when different versions of it existed. Yet these are the exceptions, not the rule. They are rarities among the hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of hagiographies that have been quashed or edited beyond recognition in the name of historical accuracy.

The traditional accounts of nearly all of these lives of the saints become incredible only when they are read with a prejudice against the miraculous. And most of the proofs offered by scholars debunking the hagiographies and explaining what really happened are as baseless and arbitrary as the stories themselves are accused of being. 

For example, according to the Golden Legend:
Instantly the body of Saint Dionysius stood up, took his head in its arms, and, with an angel and a heavenly light leading the way, marched two miles, drom the place called Montmartre, the hill of martyrs, to the place where, by his own choice and by God’s providence, he rests in peace.
Modern scholars are unanimous in rejecting the story of St. Denis carrying his own head for two leagues. Nowadays, everybody knows this didn’t really happen - what really happened is that two rival churches claimed the honor of being the place of the saint’s martyrdom and death, and the story was invented as a compromise. Or, what really happened is that ignorant medieval peasants misunderstood the artistic convention of depicting a decapitated martyr holding his own head and invented a story to match. 

But there is no evidence whatsoever that the story is not true as recounted above. There is no evidence whatsoever that it was invented to pacify rival holy sites, or to explain the misinterpretations of cathedral statuary. All of this is is pure conjecture. The only reason that a man would accept the new explanations is that he gives the benefit of the doubt to the skeptic over the tradition; that he believes that a saint carrying his head two leagues is something that cannot - therefore did not - happen. 

And the most popular explanation - that of medieval peasants misinterpreting art - betrays a misunderstanding of the way hagiography, iconography and devotion related in the Middle Ages. (As a general rule, any explanation for anything that hinges on the idiocy of medieval people is a product of bigotry and little more.) This explanation assumes that medieval hagiographies were essentially the product of folk religion, generated by the ignorant peasantry and only later accepted by the official Church. This is simply untrue; in the Middle Ages, the theologically learned participated in the cults of devotion, and usually initiated them. The authors of the lives were among the most educated men of the day, popes and bishops and abbots, St. Gregory the Great and St. John of Damascus.

Blessed Jacobus of Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, was not a folklorist wandering the fields and writing down the fantastic bedtime stories of the unlettered. He merely collected, compared and expanded what was already written in the various liturgical martyrologies: what was read at Matins across Christendom. The legend of St. Denis was known and believed and chanted aloud by the very clergy who commissioned the cathedral sculptures. It was known and believed and chanted aloud by St. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians disputing at the University of Paris. They certainly had no reason to doubt it. 

For there is no evidence that St. Denis did not carry his head, or that St. Catherine did not destroy the wheel of her torture through prayer, or that St. Medard was not sheltered from the rain by an eagle, or that St. Cuthbert was not reverenced by otters after a night of penance in the cold sea. There is no evidence that St. Eustace did not witness the apparition of the Crucified Christ between the antlers of a stag, or that St. Hubert did not witness the same, or that the two men are really one (for who says that God cannot work a similar miracle twice?). There is no evidence that a giant of monstrous appearance did not ferry the Christ Child across a river, or that St. Genevieve’s candle was not snuffed by a demon - for giants and demons are real, and still exist today.

And even more importantly - we know that holy scripture, the inerrant Word of God, speaks of rods turning to serpents and rivers turning to blood. The miracles of Elijah are no less fantastic than the miracles of St. Nicholas. Balaam’s ass is no less fantastic than St. Rumwold. Jonah’s whale is no less fantastic than St. Brendan’s. The Old Testament - and the New - are no less fantastic at face than the Golden Legend. They smack no less of mythology to the modern mind. What could be stranger than the Resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Of course, the Resurrection is an article of faith, something that a Christian is simply not permitted to disbelieve, and the words of the Old and New Testaments are inerrant; hagiographies are not (as Blessed Jacobus would be the first to admit). But our attitude toward the legends of the saints reveals and affects our attitude toward God, toward His creation, toward His revelation. The Old and New Testaments are not just books of stories whose veracity we are not permitted to question; they are records of God’s actions among men and as man, a record of events that really occurred - and they speak of marvels. We either live in a world in which these sort of things happen, or we do not.

Works quoted:

Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).

Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, translated by William Granger Ryan, (Princeton University Press, 1993).



16 March 2017




These two drawings, recently completed, depict St. Hugh of Lincoln and St. Adelaide. You may read more about them here and here. In both, I applied ink with sponges and scratched details into the dry ink with a knifepoint; this is how I drew the trees in the backgrounds.

Drawing trees is a problem that I has concerned me for years. Medieval artists, it must be admitted, tended to depict rather pathetic trees. In 13th century manuscripts and windows, these are little more than hieroglyphics; sticks with round bunches of leaves at the top. I certainly do not want to imitate anything so perfunctory in my own artwork.

But neither am I interested in depicting trees in a painterly manner, with the branches and leaves forming a sort of indiscriminate mass as they all cover up and obscure each other. I want, rather, the little details to be clear: branches whose beautiful twisting paths can be seen in their entirety, leaves that have individual character (at least when they appear in the foreground). This, I think, is more true to the way that men perceive trees with their eyes and minds before they have not been conditioned to look at the world like photographers.

How, though, is this possible without reducing a tree to an unstately diagram? There are artists who have succeded at it, whom I am keen to imitate. The Italian painter Benozzo Gozzoli depicted especially impressive trees, as did the great Safavid miniaturist Sultan Muhammad and the picture book illustrator Barbara Cooney (in Chanticleer and the Fox). Another picture book illustrator, Peter Parnall, has a wonderful way of showing the contours of a tree trunk with just a few simple lines.

Detail from the Procession of the Magi, painting by Benozzo Gozzoli

Detail from the Feast of Sada, miniature by Sultan Muhammad

There is, however, one artist whom I consider the absolute master in this regard: the 20th-century American painter and printmaker Eyvind Earle. I do not think that anyone ever drew trees more grandly or more precisely than he did. Stylistically, they are agreeable to medieval art: they look like what trees ought to have looked like in medieval art, what trees would have looked like in medieval art if medieval artists had given more thought to them.

Earle’s artwork remains under copyright, but some fine examples of it can be seen here.