07 October 2019

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.




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!