The Hospitality of Abraham is the 85th drawing in the Summula Pictoria. This essay explains my entire process for composing and making this work. Click on the image below to read the .pdf.
01 February 2021
08 September 2020
The halo may be the most readily recognized symbol in Christian art, and it is seemingly the simplest: a golden circle about the head, indicating sanctity. Yet this symbol has many variations over the centuries of Christian art. Some are stylistic, and I will say little about those except to note that I abhor the practice of depicting a halo in perspective, as a hovering ellipse. No one who has read my opinions on perspective in sacred art would be surprised by this. But some variations on the halo are significant, indeed ingenious. When drawing the Summula Pictoria, I intend to draw upon many of these significant variations, using them consistently in order to communicate much more than simple sanctity.
Not all halos are circular. Hexagonal (or less commonly octagonal and square) halos adorn the heads of allegorical figures representing the Virtues in many paintings of the late Middle Ages, such as the frescos that Giotto painted on the ceiling of the basilica at Assisi. I rarely draw purely allegorical figures in my religious art, and do not plan to do so in the Summula Pictoria except as background statuary; were I to draw them, I would use hexagonal halos. Several late medieval Italian paintings from the worksop of Bernardo Daddi give a hexagonal halo to St. Longinus; I have no idea why.
Mosaic of Pope John VII
Square halos appear in early mosaics, indicating sanctity on persons still living when the work of art was made. Usually this is a churchman, or whatever king or queen or emperor funded the building of the church that the mosaic adorns. In traditional Christian number symbolism, four represents the natural world and humanity, just as three represents the spiritual world and divinity. Their sum seven and product twelve represent the interaction of nature and spirit, and of man and God. The four sides of the square correspond to the natural quaternities: directions, seasons, elements, bodily humors.
Despite the fact that the square halo represents a lower order of holiness than the circular halo, it nonetheless bothers me. To place any artistic indication of holiness on a living man or woman, who has yet to be judged by God, seems presumptuous and sycophantic. Worldly honor may be due to a person for a great act of charity, such as funding the building a church. But the word of God is clear: Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Given how many persons presumed to be living saints proved, upon evidence revealed later, to be scoundrels, I would be happy to see this artistic practice abandoned altogether - or very nearly so.
I say very nearly so because I can think of two (and only two) persons on whom it would be appropriate. Two persons are alive today whom we may believe with confidence, based on the sacred scriptures and traditions, will be counted among the elect after their natural deaths: I speak here of the patriarch Enoch and the prophet Elijah. The former was taken by God, and the latter ascended to Heaven in the fiery chariot. Tradition identifies these two men with the witnesses in the 11th chapter of the Revelation to St. John, who will return from Heaven to prophesy in the reign of the Antichrist, suffer martyrdom, then rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven after three days. Thus, in the Summula Pictoria, I will depict Enoch and Elijah with square halos - and nobody else.
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A curious sort of halo is characteristic of late medieval Spanish painting. It is a cusped octagon, seen for example adorning the head of St. Joseph in the Adoration of the Magi panel by Blasco de Grañén. In other panel paintings of this time, it appears on the heads of Ss. Joachim and Anna; of Simeon; of Abraham and Moses.
Adoration of the Magi, Blasco de Grañén
As fas as I can tell, this sort of halo was used only for saints of the Old Testament; that is to say, for holy persons who died before the Resurrection, whose souls descended to the Limbo of the Patriarchs and were present when Jesus Christ broke the doors of Hell and released its captives.
To the medieval mind, the distinction between saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New was important. In the occidental medieval Church, the former were rarely commemorated liturgically; this explains the absence, so to contemporary Roman Catholics, of specific devotion to St. Joseph before the late fifteenth century. According to the Golden Legend, a medieval encyclopedia of hagiographies,
It is worthy of note that the Eastern Church celebrates the feasts of saints of both the Old and New Testaments. The Western Church, on the other hand, does not celebrate feasts of saints of the Old Testament, on the ground that they descended into Hell - exceptions being made for the Holy Innocents, in each of whom Christ was put to death, and for the [seven] Maccabees.... The number seven is the number of universality. In these seven saints are represented all the Old Testament fathers who deserve to be celebrated.
I do not know why the octagonal halo for saints of the Old Testament was invented in 15th century Spain. I suspect it may be because many of the faithful at that time and place were converts from Judaism; these included Juan de Levi, the painter who trained Blasco de Grañén, and Esperandeu de Santa Fe, one of his major patrons. They perhaps gave more thought and care to the special manner in which persons such as Abraham were saved.
* * *
I do not plan to use the octagonal halo in the Summula Pictoria, but I do plan to use a distinctive halo for saints of the Old Testament. Here, I draw upon patristic writings in which the New Testament is associated with the clear light of the Sun. St. Ambrose calls Jesus Christ the Sun of Justice. To the saints of the New Testament, I give golden (solar) halos, each with an inner circle and an outer ring, with dark blue between them.
The Old Testament is associated with the uncertain and reflected light of the Moon. To the saints of the Old Testament, I gave silver (lunar) haloes; for these, crescents replace the outer ring, except on those who encountered the Sun of Justice face to face. Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Zachary and Elizabeth have fully circular outer rings on their halos. So do Adam and Eve before the Fall, and Moses who was present at the Transfiguration.
As I explained in my lecture Heavenly Outlook, the traditional perspective of Christian art is that of looking out of Heaven to things happening on the Earth; thus light sources and vanishing points are behind the viewer rather than within the picture. For this reason, I now draw the crescent moon halos on the patriarchs and prophets to the left - not to indicate a waning crescent, but to indicate a waxing crescent seen from the other side. As a waxing crescent, it indicates that the patriarchs and prophets are getting closer and closer to the revelation of the New Testament.
That one side of the Moon that is perpetually hidden from the Earth is an apt symbol for God’s relationship with the Gentiles during the Old Testament; His light shone on them as well, but nothing of it was specifically revealed to us on the Earth. For that reason, in those instances when a pagan, such as Nebuchadnezzar or the Tiburtine Sibyl, has a prophetic role in the Summula Pictoria, I draw the halo with a crescent moon facing the opposite way.
The assigning of halos to the saints of the Old Testament presumes some confidence that they are eternally saved; in most cases, the sacred scriptures and the liturgical and iconographic and patristic traditions support this confidence. In the cases of Samson and Solomon, the matter is not so simple; both men committed serious evils during their lives, and there is no biblical record of their repentance. In the 14th century, St. Mechtilde received a revelation that God had forgiven Samson and Solomon - and Origen as well - but chose to hide that forgiveness from men, lest others presume on their strength, wisdom, or learning to save them. Following that, I choose to give lunar halos to Samson and Solomon, but without the outer ring or crescent; in its place is the dark blue of the night sky, like a new moon that cannot be seen.
* * *
I have not yet mentioned the undoubtedly greatest saint of the Old Testament, John the Baptist, who of course is liturgically celebrated, and crowned with a halo in traditional Christian art, despite having descended to the Limbo of the Patriarchs.
St. John has a special place between the two Testaments; although he died before the Resurrection, he was cleansed from sinfulness at the time that he leaped in his mother’s womb. And in descending to the dead, he acted as a prophet and forerunner of the coming Savior, just as he did among the living.
The Virgin Mary also has a special place between the two Testaments; for this reason, she and John have their own special halos in the Summula Pictoria. Mary’s has a golden outer circle and a silver inner circle, with the light blue sky of day between them. John’s has a silver outer circle and a golden inner circle, with the dark sky of night between them.
* * *
The so-called cruciform halo is perhaps the most commonly used and best known variant of the halo, used to indicate a Divine Person - the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost. It is a golden circle with a cross (often red) inscribed within it.
It was pointed out by some art historian - I forget which - that the notion that this halo is indeed cruciform is not altogether clear. On the person of Jesus Christ, the bottom part of the cross is obscured by His neck and body, and may perhaps not be there at all. Is the halo intended to indicate a cross, and thus refer to the Sacrifice on Calvary, or is intended to indicate the Holy Trinity, with three branches, not four?
I rather prefer the second interpretation, as it seems to make more sense when the Divine Person depicted is the Father or the Holy Ghost, neither of whom died on Calvary. In the Summula Pictoria, I draw the Father in the symbolic form of a hand, and the Holy Ghost in the symbolic form of a dove. In either, I draw three branches rather than four in the halo, not necessarily at right angles.
Mosaic of Jesus Christ at Ravenna. Made during the Arian rule of Theodoric the Ostrogoth. The cruciform halo was added later, when the church passed into orthodox hands.
* * *
For angels, and for anyone who is divinely inspired - such as the Apostles at Pentecost, or the Evangelists writing their Gospels - I draw the outer ring blazing, with tongues of flame reaching upward. This kind of halo is common in Persian miniature painting. For the opposite - demonically possessed persons, such as Judas in his act of betrayal - the halo is black, the outer ring smoking rather than blazing. The black halo for Judas is not uncommon in Christian art - Fra Angelico uses it, for example, in his painting of the Sermon on the Mount. I am reserving it only for those events in which the sacred scriptures clearly indicate a demonic presence.
Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico
To indicate a person who is glorified, such as Jesus Christ at His Transfiguration, or after His Resurrection, I draw the halo radiant, with beams of light projecting from its outer ring.
02 July 2020
The conquered peoples of Canaan: Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites &c Philistines
The Queen of Sheba and her retinue
Medians (Darius and his court)
Albrecht Dürer, drawing made to illustrate Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica
Saturn, from the Ovide Moralisé published by Colard Mansion
Gentile da Fabriano, detail from Adoration of the Magi
16 May 2020
10 March 2020
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
23 January 2020
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
08 March 2019
24 November 2018
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.