02 July 2020




In most of my religious artwork, and especially in the Summula Pictoria, I depict a common material culture, that of the European Middle Ages. The clothing, architecture, arms and armor, horse tack, tools, scientific and musical instruments resemble those depicted in illuminated manuscripts, panel paintings, and tapestries from the1 4th and 15th centuries. Thisis regardless of whether the events depicted are from the Book of Genesis or the Acts of the Apostles. In an earlier essay (A Defense of Prophets and Apostles in Medieval Clothing), I explained why I choose to do this rather than take an approach that would represent with archaeological accuracy the various material cultures of the ancient world. 

My intention is to draw meaningful connections between chronologically distant events; that is, to do visually what the Church Fathers did in their exegetical writings that associated the happenings of the Gospel with their prefigurements in the Old Testament. This is made much easier by being able to depict important objects - such as swords, crowns, or chalices - identically in drawings of events separated by thousands of years. I choose late medieval material culture because the artwork of this era is my favorite, and the strongest influence upon my own artwork. 

However, this approach presents another problem. Sometimes, the difference between cultures is itself important - between, for example, that of the Hebrews and the Egyptians, or between the Hebrews and the Babylonians. Considering the entire range of events depicted in the Summula Pictoria, the peoples that need to be distinguished include: 

The conquered peoples of Canaan: Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites &c Philistines
The Queen of Sheba and her retinue
Medians (Darius and his court)

Now the obvious choice for a visual artist who wants to distinguish between these peoples is to depict their own particular decorative art and material culture, especially when these are well-known, as they are for ancient Egypt. But since I am eschewing an archaeological approach for the Summula Pictoria, it makes little sense for me to employ it selectively; how jarring it would look to depict Moses and Aaron dressed in medieval garb, standing in a Pharaonic court recreated from ancient artifacts! 

My own choice, while perhaps more difficult, is more consistent with my overall approach to religious art. I am creating a distinct decorative art for each of the cultures depicted in my drawings. But this is based not on modern archaeological knowledge; it is based on the way that these cultures were understood in the European Middle Ages. I am asking myself what an artist of the generation of Martin Schongauer might have thought about ancient Egypt and how he might have imagined it and depicted it. The answer to that question is where I am starting, and what I am elaborating. 

This approach requires me to set aside the more specific knowledge of ancient Egypt available to a scholar living long after the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone and the excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb. It requires me even to set aside my own memories of admiring ancient Egyptian art in Chicago’s Field Museum and Oriental Institute. By setting aside that, I am able to concern myself more specifically with the significance of ancient Egypt to western Christianity, and to Gothic art. What is its iconic meaning? 

Albrecht Dürer, drawing made to illustrate Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica 

As far as ancient Egypt is concerned, an artist of the 15th century might have known that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphic writing, and believed that these pictures contained hidden meanings. But he probably would have known this through Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, which was circulating among the intellectuals of the time, rather than direct observation of artifacts. Indeed, the drawings that Albrecht Dürer made to illustrate this text show very clearly how the hieroglyphics were imagined; stylistically, at least, in the same manner as European heraldic art. 

An artist of the 15th century might have known the oracle to Pharaoh Thoulis recorded by John Malalas. He might have had some interest in the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum. Those curious wisdom texts attributed to the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus had been considered by Lactantius and a few of the other Church Fathers to include prophecies of Jesus Christ. By the end of the Middle Ages, alchemy based on the hermetic tradition was widely practiced in Europe. 

While I have little interest in alchemy itself, I appreciate the broad-minded consideration of the ancient wisdom traditions as expressions of longing for the yet-to-be revealed truth, rather than as mere pagan folly. I am looking forward to depicting statues of Thoth and Imhotep - whom the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt associated with Hermes and Asclepius - in the background when drawing Moses and Aaron confronting the Egyptian magicians. The symbolic associations of the various rods and snakes will be very interesting to illustrate! 

Now I am fully aware that most scholars consider the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus to be newer than the New Testament; their author was unlikely to have been, as previously thought, a contemporary of Moses. Likewise, the oracle to Thoulis is commonly considered an invention of the Christian era. And Horapollo’s interpretation of hieroglyphic writing, while still very interesting for what it reveals about Horapollo, is now known to be almost completely incorrect. 

My intention in using this imagery is not to perpetuate falsehood. It is, rather, to present a broader truth that might have been lost in a more literal, archaeological presentation: that the culture of the Egyptians was mysterious and magical, indeed dangerously so, but still of great interest to Christians and, in its own way, prophetic.

I will mention also that there are many fascinating symbols in the traditions of Christian sacred art that are unworthy of literal belief - the legends of the bestiary, for example, that attribute behaviors to lions or pelicans that no zoologist has recently observed. When I present these images in the Summula Pictoria, it is always on damask, or on architectural ornament, or as statuary; that is to say, on things made by people. This is the same way I include legends associated with the Egyptians and other peoples. 


Ancient Greece and Rome were of course much more familiar to the artists of the European Middle Ages than ancient Egypt; their languages, and much of their literature, philosophy, mathematics, and architecture were still known and studied and admired. Classical ideas such as the seven planets, the four elements and the four humors were granted their place in Christian symbolism. Plato’s Timæus was considered, by the 12th century scholars of Chartes, nearly as authoritative as the Book of Genesis. 

Saturn, from the Ovide Moralisé published by Colard Mansion 

A curious text of the 14th century, the Ovide Moralisé, applied the same exegetical method to the Metamorphoses that the Church Fathers applied to the Old Testament, seeing symbols of Jesus and Mary in the Roman myths. I intend to depict scenes from the Ovide Moralisé in stained glass windows throughout the Summula Pictoria, when the events depicted happen in a building built by Romans. 


I have somewhat less to work with when considering the pagan nations of Asia that are so prominent in the Old Testament as conquerors and captors of the Hebrews: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and the Persians. There was little direct knowledge of these nations, their art, and their literature in the era of Gothic art. Examples of cuneiform writing, for example, were not know in Europe until the 17th century. 

A fascinating chapter in Emile Mâle’s study Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century explains one way in which ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian traditions found their way into Christian art: through the influence of imported fabrics. During the Sassanid Empire, very ancient literary and artistic traditions were revived, and the Sassanid weavers copied the figures of Gilgamesh and the Lammasu onto their damasks. These same traditions were continued in textile workshops after the Arab conquest, and spread throughout Islamdom. The fabrics were traded to Europe, hung in churches, wrapped about relics, and copied by Christian artists. This explains why Gilgamesh and the Lammasu appear in the capitals of 12th century churches in France; their actual identity was probably unknown to the sculptors, except as a curious decoration seen on damask. 

Some medieval intellectuals knew the name of Zoroaster, but this was the Hellenistic Zoroaster, known not so much as the prophet of the Persian religion but as the inventor of magic and astrology. His inclusion as a statue (alongside Ostanes and Hystaspes) in the Summula Pictoria serves the same purpose as the statue of Hermes Trismegistus, and that of Timæus of Locri; I do not mean to endorse either false history or occult practice, but simply to portray the wisdom traditions of the ancient pagans with some sympathy, as expressions of a noble want ultimately fulfilled in the Adoration of the Magi on Epiphany. 

However, an artist of the European Middle Ages, when asked to imagine the culture of Assyria or Babylon or Persia, would probably think less of these obscure figures than of the culture of the peoples now living in those foreign lands. I believe that his imagination of their architecture and decoration would have been strongly impressed by Islamic art. 

Islamic art was known in medieval Europe, from the memories of crusaders and pilgrims, from the artistic legacy left by the Moorish conquerors of Sicily and Iberia, and from the trade of portable goods such as damask and carpets and metalwork. 

Gentile da Fabriano, detail from Adoration of the Magi 

By the 14th and 15th centuries, it was common for these goods to show up in Christian paintings. In Gentile da Fabriano’s famed Adoration of the Magi, the halo behind the Virgin Mary’s head is modeled on a Mamluk platter, complete with Arabic calligraphy spelling gibberish. 

This sort of imitation reveals the magnanimity of Christian artists in deeming all beautiful forms worthy of being offered to God in sacred art, It was never more appropriate than in a painting where the Kings of the Orient offer their treasures to the Christ Child. I take this as a sufficient precedent for imagining those treasures of the Orient in the guise of Islamic art. And personally, I am an enthusiastic admirer of this art, and eager to make it an influence on my own. I am fascinated by girih tiles, muqarnas, thuluth script, and square kufic. 

Now obviously it would be anachronistic and misleading to introduce the doctrines of Mohammed into illustrations of the Bible, and that is not my intention. I avoid depicting any specifically Islamic imagery or writing. I have designed geometric patterns inspired by girih tiles, but I do not use the same set of five basic shapes that were used to lay out the ornament in medieval mosques. Instead, I designed my own tiles, based on shapes with 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 24 sides. 

I decorate buildings with calligraphic ornament, inspired by thuluth script. But the script is not actually Arabic; it is pseudo-Arabic, like the letters on the halo in Gentile da Fabriano’s painting. The only difference is that, rather than being complete gibberish, it is a cryptogram that I use to encode messages in Latin. 

10 March 2020


It is important to me that everything depicted in the Summula Pictoria be designed by my own hand. This includes architecture. I have no training in this field, and the sort of architecture that I want to draw - a hybrid of Gothic, Russian, and Persian - does not really exist anywhere in the world, at least as far as I know.

For complicated architectural features, I have found it much easier to create small models for guides than to invent buildings entirely on paper.

09 March 2020


I drew two different versions of this, slightly different. In the first, I depicted the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as apricots; in the second, I decided to use figs, as these seemed more symbolically resonant. The biggest change is in the ground cover plants; in the first drawing, my idea was to depict poisonous or noxious plants, in order to say that these would have, in the antelapsarian garden, been perfectly pleasant and harmless. Thus Adam and Eve are walking barefoot among poison ivy, stinging nettle, tread-softly, and hemlock. Thinking that this might be too subtle, in the second version, I drew obviously benevolent plants, including rose of sharon and lily of the valley, a reference to the Song of Songs.

13 July 2019


There will always be men and women who want religious art that is beautiful and traditional. However, every artist feels instinctively that there are two more necessary qualities. The art should be interesting, not just the same thing repeated endlessly with no improvement. And it should be real; that human minds and hands be engaged in its making is part of what makes it worthwhile. I fear that in the broader religious and æsthetic conflict between modernism and traditionalism, these qualities will be dismissed as unimportant.

The commentary in the aftermath of the tragic fire at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris is telling of this. Certainly I understand the dread that its reconstruction will be entrusted to some architect with no religious sensibility. But the reactionary demand to rebuild Notre Dame exactly as it was before is equally troubling. If the faithful never saw in a church fire the opportunity to build something even better, the Gothic cathedrals would never have existed at all. (There are rumors even that the Archbishop of Reims started the blaze himself in 1210!)

I fear that at some time soon, one of the great artistic or architectural treasures of Christianity will be ruined more completely and irreparably than Notre Dame, and that in response to demands that it be rebuilt exactly as it was before, living artists will dismissed from the task as too untrustworthy. Instead, a computer model will be constructed from the photographic record, and everything will be 3D printed in concrete or faux wood. Once that happens, a precedent is set, and living artists and architects thenceforth will compete, most likely at an economic disadvantage, against computers imitating the old masters.

Many who consider themselves religious and æsthetic traditionalists will celebrate this approach. Even now, I know that the easy availability of printed reproductions of 15th century paintings affects the demand for my own artwork. I don’t oppose such reproductions themselves; I have them on display in my own home. What I oppose is the notion that traditional art can be fostered through attitudes that would have made its existence impossible in the first place.

More tragic than to lose an artistic or architectural treasure is to lose the ability to make another one; more tragic yet is to lose the desire to make another one. To regain that ability requires real living artists; to regain that desire requires real religious faith and hope. There can be no technological substitute for these.

01 May 2019


Today, the first of May, is the anniversary of the dedication of Rupertsberg Convent in 1150. Hildegard of Bingen was the foundress: about this same time, she completed her first book of visionary writings, Scivias. This included an early version of the liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum, which may have been performed as part of the dedication ceremonies at Rupertsberg.

I consider Hildegard one of the greatest aesthetic theorists in the history of the Church, along with her contemporaries Suger of St. Denis and Hugh of St. Victor. Of the three, Hildegard expressed her aesthetic theory in the most personal and mystical manner. In each of them, the great theological ideas of Dionysius and Augustine were brought to harmony and given iconodulic expression.

From this combination of ideas, and about this time, emerged one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Church: the art and architecture called Gothic. The other greatest achievement, polyphonic music, emerged also about this time, and perhaps under the same influences. While Hildegard’s own musical compositions were, as far as we know, all monophonic, the theology of music expressed in her epistle to the prelates of Mainz provides a motivation for polyphonic composition: the desire to make listeners hear as they would hear in a sinless world. As I wrote in my lecture Heavenly Outlook:
In the newly consecrated Gothic cathedrals, singers sang at the same time different notes; then different rhythms, different melodies and different words. Yet the music was not cacophonous, but harmonious and exceeding beautiful. It must resemble what the world sounds like from eternity, what it sounds like in the ears of the unfallen Adam, or of the bodily assumed Virgin Mary.
In my own household, I plan to remember this day as a sort of holiday for sacred art and music, along with two others respectively associated with Suger and Hugh:

1 May: Dedication of the Convent at Rupertsberg
11 June: Dedication of the new Basilica of St. Denis
17 June: Translation of the Relics of St. Victor to Paris

02 April 2019


I have been working on two new systems of contiguous ornament. One is based on late medieval millefleur tapestries; it will appear on fabric patterns throughout the drawings of the Summula Pictoria. The other is loosely based on the calligraphic inscriptions in Islamic architecture. The cursive forms do not spell any actual words, except in cipher. This one will appear on the architecture of non-Hebrew ancient Semites and Persians.

08 March 2019


These are inspired by the Girih tiles that have been used in Islamic art since the Middle Ages, but based on a different geometry. I designed these for the floors of interior scenes of the Summula Pictoria.

24 November 2018


I want all of the pictures in the Summula Pictoria to have a consistent visual language, a signature iconography that very precisely shows their theological meaning. This requires a lot of research and consideration at the start of the project. Over the past two months, I have been working on three problems.

The first is the manner in which I will depict different cultures. I intentionally set most of my religious drawings, whether of the Old Testament or the New, in the material culture of the late Middle Ages, rather than in an archaeological reconstruction or a contemporary setting. (I have explained the reasons here.) However, Biblical scenes sometimes require making distinctions between Hebrews, Canaanites, Egyptians, Sabeans, Syrians, Babylonians, Persians, Indians, Greeks and Romans.

My plan is to take the same medievalist approach to all of these, distinguishing them by their architecture and clothing and weaponry, but without making any direct reference to their actual ancient artifacts.

The second task has been planning the patterns that will appear on clothing and wall hangings in the Summula Pictoria. I certainly have no plans to draw perfunctory floral designs here; there will be a parallel narrative of symbols running through the entire series of drawings, on damask.

The third task has been figuring out how to depict aspects of sacred anthropology. I want specific devices to indicate whether I am drawing a body united to a spirit, a dead body or a disembodied spirit; whether a living body is lapsarian or glorified; whether a dead body is corrupt or incorrupt. I want the haloes to differ for saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New Testament.

In most of the pictures that I plan to draw, this is fairly straightforward. But consideration of the difficult cases has occupied my mind a lot recently. Were Dathan and Abiram still alive in their bodies when Jesus Christ descended to the dead? Were Samson and Solomon among the elect? At the Transfiguration, was Moses in the body or out of it? Researching questions like these has led me to some really surprising and rewarding conclusions.

My desks are littered with many pages of handwritten notes, like these:

I will write more about these matters soon.

23 November 2018


In 2017, I announced the Summula Pictoria, a project that I expect to be my magnum opus, and to which I will devote a large part of the next 13 years: more than 200 ink drawings on calfskin, covering major events in the Old and New Testaments, from the Creation to the deaths of the Apostles. I am ready to start drawing the first of the pictures before the end of this year, far ahead of schedule.

I have spent a lot of the past year on preliminary design work that will allow me to keep the style of the drawings consistent over 13 years. This includes letterforms for inscriptions and banderoles; damask patterns for clothing and wall hangings; tile arrangements, tracery and key patterns for floors and walls and moldings. I will use these in ways that symbolize the sacred events or establish their setting. All of this is tedious and time-consuming, and produces little that is immediately salable, but I consider it very important and am glad to have so much of it finished.

I will begin writing about this design work in greater detail soon.

The first pictures on the schedule are the Scouring of the Temple, the Repentance of Nineveh, Nathan’s Parable, the Hospitality of Abraham, Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, the Martyrdom of Thomas the Apostle, the Crossing of the Red Sea and St. Michael the Archangel. The full list of pictures included in the scope of the Summula Pictoria can be read here; I still need patrons for most of these.

14 September 2018


Exactly three years ago, I delivered a lecture, Invention and Exaltation at Franciscan University of Steubenville, in which I discussed the tasks of the religious artist in light of the two feasts of the Holy Cross, and the cult of relics in general. A revised version of the text is on my personal website here.

Some excerpts:
I often quote the fathers of the Second Council of Nicea, which was convoked in the year 787 to end the first iconoclast crisis. They said: The tradition does not belong to the painter; the art alone is his. True arrangement and disposition belong to the holy fathers. I consider the arrangement and disposition that belong to the fathers to be something like a relic, and the art that belongs to the painter to be something like the making of a reliquary. Artistry without tradition is like an empty reliquary; beautiful perhaps, but unworthy of veneration. Tradition without artistry is like a relic kept in a cardboard box; worthy of veneration, but deserving of better treatment.


Few ever have understood the power of touching God so well as that woman afflicted for twelve years by an issue of blood, who but touched the hem of His garment and was made whole. This woman, traditionally called St. Veronica, is an important figure in the history of sacred art. Early ecclesiastical historians attest that she erected a statue in her home city of Paneas commemorating the miraculous cure.


Christian tradition is based on real memories of real events. Something either is part of that tradition or it is not, just as something either is part of a body or is not. If it is part of that tradition, this is evident in the law of worship and the agreement of the church fathers; these are the epistemic bridges between the age of the eyewitnesses and our own.

By looking to liturgical and patristic sources, a religious artist can draw a more complete picture, he can dig deeper, than by looking to magisterial documents only. He may unearth something wonderful. Discovering a tradition that has been lost is thrilling; it is like knocking the dirt from a buried piece of lumber and finding that it can yet raise the dead.


I consider it a sad mischance that the spirit of Gothic art was expelled from Christian Europe just as the Age of Exploration began. A few treasures of the Aztecs crossed the Atlantic Ocean in time to be admired by Albrecht Dürer, an artist who stood astride the end of the Middle Ages. Most of the treasures arrived too late. Medieval artists never saw the art of the Safavids or of the Khmers. Just imagine what they would have done, had they seen it!


In the fourth century, St. Paulinus of Nola recorded that the portion of the True Cross kept in Jerusalem had a miraculous property; no matter how many pieces were broken from it, its size did not diminish. St. Cyril of Jerusalem compared it to the loaves and fishes that fed multitudes and left over basketfuls. John Calvin famously scoffed that if all the pieces of wood venerated as fragments of the True Cross were collected together, they would make a big shipload. There are studies refuting this claim, but if the old tradition is to be believed, it might be correct!


Indirectly, the cult of relics gave JohannGutenberg his funding. I think that it gave him also the idea for the printing press itself. Consider the mechanism of a printing press: a matrix - which might be a wooden block with a holy picture carved in its surface, or a Biblical text set in forty-two lines of metal type - is inked, and touched to a different object, a piece of paper. Through touch, the matrix makes the paper into something like itself. The process can be repeated with practically no exhaustion of the matrix. Every printer knows that typeset text must run backwards; when printed, images are reversed, just like things reflected in a mirror.

Gutenberg believed that relics can impart their virtue through contact and reflection. In the years when he conceived his printing press, this was at the forefront of his mind, as was the problem of sharing this virtue among great multitudes; we know this as a fact of history. What Gutenberg invented was a technological metaphor for pilgrimage.

21 August 2018


image source

A little less than a year ago, an Irish priest kindly sent me a message to let me know about a liturgical design competition. This was for the vestments to be worn at the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Dublin. The announcement of the competition is still online, here. It begins by saying:
How would you like to have one of your designs featuring at the heart of an event with an international audience of tens of millions? Would you like to see one of your creations being worn by the Pope? This opportunity is open to you as the World Meeting of Families 2018, being hosted in Dublin, Ireland, seeks a unique and inspirational design for the vestments to be used during the week of celebrations taking place from 21st to the 26th of August 2018.

The seminal 20th Century artist Henri Matisse famously designed chasubles for the Chapelle du Roasire in Vence, France, copies of which are now exhibited in the Vatican and in MOMA in New York. Elizabeth and Lilly Yeats, sisters of the poet William Butler Yeats and members of the Dun Emer Guild, crafted vestments used in the Eucharistic Congress held in Ireland in 1932. Their cloth-of-gold creation with intricate Celtic embroidery influenced by Elizabeth’s time in the circle of William Morris are still in use in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in Dublin today. Here’s an opportunity for you to follow in their footsteps.
The prize was 1000 Euros. After reading through the complete rules, three things came to my mind.

First, I was grateful to have the vestments made by the Yeats sisters brought to my attention; I had not known about any sacred artwork made by the Dun Emer Guild, and I am determined to research it.

Second, I understood why the priest thought me a good artist to undertake the project. I have some experience designing vestments. Although I have not done much of it as a freelance artist, I take very seriously the task of depicting vestments in my drawings. (I wrote about this here.)

I also have a strong interest in early medieval Northumbro-Irish ornament, and in the traditions of Celtic Christianity in general. The Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells are among my favorite works of art, and I have drawn dozens of pictures that imitate their style. I am dismayed by the appropriation of this sacred art by practitioners of neo-paganism and New Age spirituality, but even more dismayed by the haste with which many of the faithful misjudge it due to these appropriations. I recently made a coloring and puzzle book, Christian Labyrinths, with the intention of defending Celtic art as an expression of orthodox Christianity.

The pages in that book I composed from modular units of ornament, all scanned from my ink drawings. I have a big collection of knot, braid, spiral and key patterns that I can use to make Northumbro-Irish designs for textiles relatively quickly. Because I am unusually well-prepared for this kind of project, it only took me about 45 minutes, the day before yesterday, to mock up this cope.

This is sort of thing that I would have submitted to the WMOF competition, had I decided to enter it. But the third thing that came to my mind after reading its rules was that I definitely would not enter it. It seemed so likely to work out poorly for the artists who chose to participate. I considered writing about this back when it was announced. Having seen its results, I regret not having done so.


In a form letter sent to those artists who did submit proposals, the organizers of the WMOF competition stated:
We were delighted with the number of submissions and the range of designs received. On this occasion, however, the Liturgy Committee for World Meeting of Families 2018 has decided not to select a winner from the received submissions.
Instead, according to their press release,
The vestments were produced by Haftina, a family business based in Poland, which specializes in liturgical vestments, chalice gowns, altar tablecloths and canopies. The vestment designs were created by Haftina in collaboration with the WMOF2018 Liturgical Committee.
These vestments are the ones in the picture at the start of this article. In the few days since these were revealed to the public, they have been disparaged quite a lot, mostly for their pastel hues and the triskelion emblem. It is not my intention here to offer criticism of them as art; I will even say for the record that I do not think that there is anything inherently wrong with either these particular colors or that particular symbol.

My complaint is rather on behalf of the artists who entered the competition, who put serious effort into preparing their proposals, making artwork that nobody else is likely to buy. None of these artists received so much as a cent in return.

Since the Liturgy Committee, by their own account, rejected a delightful number and range of submitted designs (which I am very curious to see), and instead gave their own instructions directly to the manufacturer, it is reasonable to assume that the resulting vestments represent exactly what they wanted all along.

If this is indeed the case, the Liturgy Committee could have gone to the staff artists at Haftina with specific instructions and payment at the start. There would have been no reason to dangle 1000 Euros before the artists of the world, challenge them to submit something unique and inspirational, or encourage them with lofty words about following in the footsteps of famous artists and having their work seen by an international audience of tens of millions. And there would have been no reason to disappoint them all, effectively putting the money back in a pocket and telling them never to mind.

Now I am not accusing the Liturgy Committee of the WMOF of any crime or fraud or sin that cries out to heaven, since they did say right there in the rules that they reserved the right not to reward the prize. And to their credit, they did not charge an entry fee. But still, what a waste of artists’ valuable time and hard work this competition turned out to be.


Design competitions do not need to be like this. They can be run in ways that benefit everyone. I do not think that their organizers act out of malice, but I do think that many of them have never really thought about the matter from the perspective of an artist.

Setting aside now the WMOF vestment competition and speaking generally, I advise anyone who holds a design competition to remember several things. Bear in mind that I am speaking about design competitions that require entrants to make new artwork according to instructions, not competitions that allow them to submit artwork that they have already made. Please remember, whoever you are:
1. Your design competition does not inspire creativity; it merely diverts it. I imagine that the organizers of many competitions, when looking at the submitted entries, think to themselves: How wonderful that we were able to help bring all this new artwork into being! Wrong. Artists, generally, have more ideas than they have time to realize. We do not sit around idle, making nothing, until some competition is announced. The time and effort put into making artwork for a competition is time and effort that is not being put into another project. That other project may very well be more artistically excellent, more personally fulfilling or more lucrative.

2. Paying someone fairly for his work is an obligation, not a prize. That is to say, if the prize to the competition amounts to no more than the cost of a commission, it is not so much a competition as a job application process. And it is absurd to ask job applicants to complete the task for which they will be hired (or a large part of it) before they know if they will be paid! If you want to know whether job applicants are well-suited to the task, you should determine that by using the same means that every other employer uses. You can ask for portfolios; you can ask for résumés; you can ask for interviews. Do not ask for free work.

3. Promise to give out the prize. If you are concerned that there will not be enough entrants, then you should do more to attract artists to the competition. That no artist will give you exactly what you want is the risk that you assume when you hold a competition. The entrants should not be required to assume that risk instead.

4. Do not charge an entry fee. Do not even consider it. If the artists are doing the work and you are benefitting from it, then the money should flow from you to them, not the other way. If you are using the entry fees to subsidize the prize, then you are just making the money flow about the pool of entrants, not into it. If artists want to wager their money against each other’s, we don’t need to enter design competitions; we can just get together and play poker instead.

5. Do not make any claims on the intellectual property of the submitted artwork, whether it wins the prize or not. If you want to purchase a copyright or an exclusive license, you should negotiate that separately.

6. The artists should have the possibility of profiting from their work even if they lose. If the artwork that you ask them to submit is so specific to your own purpose, organization or event that it has no chance of being sold on speculation, then you really should not hold a competition. Instead, you should find an artist whose modus operandi includes making drafts and revisions, and hire him for the job.

7. The artists should get some creative fulfillment from their work even if they lose. If you have such a specific idea in mind for the winner that you need to include a lot of detailed instructions about how the entrants should approach the project, then you really should not hold a competition. Instead, you should find an artist who is willing to collaborate with you to realize a project over which you exercise artistic control. The entrants should not be asked to forgo both artistic control and the certainty of payment.

8. The artists should get some publicity for their effort even if they lose. Display the entries, all of them, after deciding upon a winner. This will also hold you accountable for making a good decision.

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.