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 both male and 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 demands for bringing things up to date both tend to result in iconoclasm. A fixed, medieval material culture in sacred art instead functions as the visual equivalent of a lingua sacra.



13 November 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



24 July 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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



23 March 2017


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

The Bible, obviously, is foremost. After that, the book that I pull from the shelf most often is the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century encyclopedia that collects, organizes and expands the contents of medieval martyrologies. Although usually described as a compilation of saints’ lives, it contains also a wealth of information related to the feasts of the temporal cycle. Blessed James of Voragine is the author.

As I wrote in my essay on Hagiography and the Benefit of Doubt, I consider the contents of most traditional martyrologies worthy of belief. Nowadays, they are more commonly treated with sneering condescension. In the present day, the Golden Legend is presented as an amusing curiosity, a collection of outlandish stories that cannot be taken seriously. That is partly because of an irrational bias against believing in certain kinds of miracles (as if omnipotence were in some way qualified), and partly because few have read the book in its entirety.

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

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

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

The Golden Legend is not altogether comprehensive: for example, many of the Irish saints are not included. Certain saints (such as Barbara and Roch) who attained their widespread popularity after the thirteenth century are absent.

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

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

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

William Granger Ryan translated the 13th-century text in its entirety into modern English. This is the version that I have on my shelf, in two volumes. I have also seen a one-volume edition of the same translation for sale. It is an exceptionally useful book for a religious artist. And I cannot help but smile to see that it has an imprimatur!

22 March 2017


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

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

Our knowledge of what animals exist on the earth, and when and where they live or have lived, is not perfect. Just about everyone agrees that enormous reptilian beasts - some agile predators with sharp teeth and powerful jaws, some with wings spanning fifty feet - once roamed the land and filled the sea and the sky in great numbers. Conventional wisdom says that these were all extinct long before St. Martha or St. George lived. But really, conventional wisdom said the same thing about the cœlocanth before a fisherman hauled one into his boat in 1938. There are many examples of these so-called Lazarus taxa. And really, who knows with total certainty what sort of creatures were lingering in the wilderness in the time of St. Martha or St. George, or swimming in the River Ness in the time of St. Columba of Iona?

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

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

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

Finally, I will note that the legend of St. George, as told in the old hagiographies and liturgical texts, is not the legend told by Edmund Spencer. St. George did not slay the dragon in battle. Rather, the dragon became tame, and was led into the city like a dog on a leash. The point, and it is an important one, is that a dragon, in the definition of these legends, is not merely a large reptile but specifically a demonically possessed large reptile.

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

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



20 March 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works quoted:

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

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



16 March 2017




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

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

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

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

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

Detail from the Feast of Sada, miniature by Sultan Muhammad

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

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



14 March 2017


When drawing on very smooth calfskin or goatskin, I am able to use two methods, sponge-stamping and decalcomania, that are more commonly used in painting than in drawing. This is because ink does not quickly saturate the skin and dry, as it would on paper. Rather, it sits on the surface and can be manipulated for a few seconds. Also, it is easy to remove cleanly with a knife, so it does not matter so much that these methods are rather messy.

I got the idea of using a natural sponge as a drawing tool from watching footage of Eyvind Earle painting a tree trunk. The natural patterns in the sponge approximate other natural patterns (such as the outlines of distant foliage or lichens growing on wood) very well.


Decalcomania is a technique that involves spreading wet paint or ink on a surface, then pressing glass or paper or something else flat into it while it is still wet. When the pressure is removed, the paint or ink gathers into fascinating patterns. The painter Oscar Dominguez helped to make this method popular, and no artist used it more extensively than his fellow Surrealist Max Ernst (who was, in my student years, a major influence on me).

These are two oil paintings on canvas that I made when I was nineteen years old. I painted solid areas of light color, and then spread dark, thinned-out oil paint over them. I pressed plastic wrap against them for the decalcomania patterns. After I turned away from Surrealism and to medieval influences, I abandoned this method for years. Only recently have I begun to experiment with it again, as in the sky of my drawing of St. Hugh of Lincoln. No matter how repugnant I now find the ideas animating Surrealist art, I cannot deny that the decalcomania method can create very beautiful images. To refuse to use it in my religious art would be something of a cheat on God.



13 March 2017


Vellum and parchment are animal skins that have been soaked in limewater, scraped clean of flesh and fat, depilated, stretched, and polished or sanded smooth. Their method of preparation was invented during the reign of Eumenes II of Pergamon, in the second century before Christ. Within a few centuries, it had largely replaced papyrus in bookmaking, being more suitable for the newly-invented, and characteristically Christian, form of the book, the rectangular codex. Although paper was introduced into Europe by the 11th century, the vast majority of European books predating the advent of printing were written on vellum or parchment, including almost all of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts.

The terms vellum and parchment are sometimes used interchangeably, but I tend to use the former word to refer to calfskin and the latter to refer to goatskin or sheepskin. I have drawn many works on calfkin, and a few on goatskin. I have never tried sheepskin; I read somewhere that sheepskin is oilier and that therefore it is more difficult to make corrections on it (which is why it was preferred for legal documents rather than artistic manuscripts). In medieval times, the thinnest sheets of calfskin were reserved for the best books (slunk or uterine vellum, made from the skins of miscarried calves, was especially prized). Personally, I prefer to work on thicker sheets of calfskin; these lay flatter and are easier to handle; since I am not binding the sheets into codices, their flexibility is not especially important. Goatskin is much thicker and more opaque than calfskin.

Medieval scribes and illuminators worked on both sides of a sheet of vellum or parchment. The flesh side of the sheet is somewhat whiter, and the hair side somewhat yellower; the difference is more pronounced in goatskin. Tanners sometimes create a fuzzy nap surface on a sheet, which is preferred by calligraphers. I prefer as smooth a surface as possible, and will draw on whichever side of the sheet is smoother.

I would rather draw on vellum or parchment than on any kind of paper. This is less because of its historic connections to medieval art than because it is a far superior surface for drawing. It is possible to draw a finer line on vellum and parchment than on paper. Any kind of paper is made of pulverized vegetable fibers; when a vegetable fiber touches liquid ink, it pulls the ink further along its length, like a capillary. Skin cells do not do this, so a line drawn in ink over them has less bleed. Because skin cells are naturally arranged in layers, it is possible to scrape them away very cleanly. Entire sheets of vellum and parchment were sometimes scraped clean and reused; these are called palimpsests and are especially interesting to historians becuase the erased text and images can be recovered with special photography. An artist drawing on vellum or parchment can make easy corrections with a knife, or scratch details into inked areas, with a precision that is simply impossible when drawing on paper.

The only real disadvantages to vellum and parchment are that they are more expensive than paper, and that large sheets of them are seldom perfectly flat or homogenous. Only a few of my drawings are so large that this problem compels me to use paper instead.

The first two photographs here show drawings in progress on calfskin; the third shows drawings in progress on goatskin.



11 March 2017


I use Winsor & Newton calligraphers’ ink for most purposes. This ink is pigment-based, and more lightfast than dye-based ink. I also have some black Japanese sumi ink that I use occasionally.

Years ago, I would mix colors from different bottled inks in spoons for each drawing, using Pasteur pipettes to move drops of particluar colors into the mix. This was a terribly inefficient way to work; I needed to finish applying a particular color to the drawing before the ink dried, or store it somehow. If I ran out, I would need to remember how I mixed it the first time.

Later I realized that I tend to favor the same colors in all my drawings, so I switched to mixing a set of standard colors, and keeping on hand a bottle of each. This takes much less time. I also like having a signature palette to my work. I like my usual red to be a bit darker than what comes new in the bottle; I like my usual blue to be a bit closer to green than to purple. I have a fondness for a light cool green, the color of oxidized copper.

If I need something else, I usually mix a small amount of it and store it in a contact lens case. Occasionally I promote one of these to a standard color if I find myself using it often, or retire a standard color if it goes unused for a long time.

When I draw with a dip pen, the ink is much more thickly applied than when I draw with a paintbrush. The colors are therefore darker. I used to mix special dark colors (sanguine, indigo, sepia), but now consider these unnecessary; regular red, blue and brown applied with a dip pen have the same effect.

These are my twenty current standard ink colors. I will write more about the reasons I selected these particular ones, and about the symbolism of color - in liturgical, heraldic, optical and gemmological tradition - in later essays.

0. Ivory

1. Black (Sable)
2. Green (Vert)
3. Blue (Azure)
4. Purple (Purpure)
5. Red (Gules)
6. Brown
7. Yellow / Orpiment

1a. Warm Gray
1b. Gray
1c. Cool Gray

2a. Light Warm Green
2c. Light Cool Green / Verdigris

3b. Sky Blue

4b. Light Purple / Lavender

5a. Warm Pink / Carnation
5c. Cool Pink / Rose

6b. Light Brown

7a. Yellowy Brown
7c. Yellowy Green

Generally, I try to keep in mind the so-called Rule of Tincture in my own artwork: metal should not be put on metal, nor color on color. In heraldic tradition, the metals are Or (which is either Gold or Yellow) and Argent (which is either Silver of White); the usual colors are Sable, Vert, Gules, Azure and Purpure. In my own artwork, I consider ink colors 0, 7 (for Gold), 1c (for Silver) and 2c to be metals, and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 to be colors.



10 March 2017


I bought a supply of papyrus about a year ago, mostly because my children were interested in Ancient Egypt. I’ve done a few small experiments on it, and found it a surprisingly good surface for drawing. Black ink sits well upon it and can be removed with gentle knife scraping; pencil marks lift off cleanly with a kneaded rubber eraser. The striations in the papyrus leaves cannot be hidden, but for some works this is not a problem, and can even be used to good artistic effect.

Papyrus was used for writing papal bulls as late as the eleventh century, and thus was circulated in medieval Europe.

Washi is paper made in the Japanese manner, from kozo, mitsumata or gampi fivers. It is very thin and translucent (like tissue paper), but because the long plant fibers are left mostly intact during the papermaking process, rather than pulverized, it is surprisingly sturdy and difficult to tear. It is really beautiful stuff.

It is, however, the most difficult and frustrating surface on which I have ever drawn; knives, metal-tipped pens and erasers are difficult to use on it, as they raise up hairy fibers from the surface that are nearly impossible to flatten. The only way that I have found to draw effectively on it is to prepare a separate drawing (usually on Bristol board) using my usual pencils, pens, knives and erasers; then lay the washi over it; and trace the image in ink using a tiny paintbrush.




09 March 2017


Bristol board is my usual choice for drawing on paper; there is nothing really special about it, but it works well. I usually buy Strathmore brand, with the so-called vellum surface. Which is really nothing like an actual calfskin vellum surface.

I use handmade cotton paper for many printing projects, and occasionally draw on it also. I buy mine from Twinrocker Handmade Papers in Brookston, IN, one of the last paper mills making real laid paper. Laid paper has a slight ribbed texture because of the way the wires are arranged in the papermaking mould; there are many thin wires running in one direction, and more widely spaced wires perpendicular to these. You can see the evidence of these when you hold the paper up to a light. (This piece also has the Twinrocker watermark.) Laid paper was the only kind of paper available in Europe before wove paper was invented in the 18th century. I rather like the way it feels and prefer it for my own medieval-styled artwork.

Certain other paper mills sell fake laid paper that has the texture impressed into it by a mechanical roll at a late stage of the manufacturing process. This rather offends me.

As a drawing surface, handmade paper is not a precise as Bristol board, calfskin or goatskin, but it has an appeal of its own.


Graph paper is useful on occasion. Drafting vellum is a translucent plasticky film that I use for tracing and transferring images. I don’t like that this, too, is labeled vellum, because to me vellum means calfskin, not Bristol board and certainly not plastic film.

Draftng vellum is nearly impossible to tear by hand, and this is the other reason I keep it nearby - whole sheets of this are great to give to babies who like to play with paper!



08 March 2017


I have read several diferent illustrators remark that the question they are most often asked is what pen they use - implicitly complaining that people think the creation of good art is mostly a matter of choosing the right pen.

I myself am most often asked whether I use a magnifying glass when I draw. (I do not.) But I suspect that someone or other wants to know what pen (and what other tools) I use. So here begins a short series of posts on my preferred tools and materials.

First, I confess that I don’t find my tools and materials especially interesting. Some artists really love theirs; some even consider the give-and-take between an artist, his materials and his tools to be the very essence of the creative process. Personally, I just want them to be obedient; I have an image in mind and I want to use whatever will put it down most precisely.

My basic method is to draw outlines in pencil, draw over the pencil outlines in black ink with pens, erase the pencil marks, add dark colors in ink with pens, add medium and light colors in ink with paintbrushes. I use a knife to make corrections and to etch details into inked areas.

PENS: Usually, I draw with metal-tipped pens that I dip into pigment-based calligraphers’ inks. When I first decided to make these sort of pens my primary drawing tool, I didn’t know which holders or nibs I would like best, so I bought a variety. That inital purchase has lasted until the present, and every one I have tried has worked pretty well. On my desk now I have a Nikko G nib in a black plastic holder, a Hunt 22 nib in a double-ended wooden holder, and a Hunt Crowquill nib in a smaller plastic holder. The last is the one I like best, and when it comes time to replenish my tools, I will probably just buy these.

I used to draw almost everything using technical pens, the thinnest available (usually labeled size 005 or XS). I’ve tried various brands, and have no real complaints about any of them. Faber Castell is what I use now. I have a stash of technical pens in various colors, but only use the black ones with any frequency.

I prefer dip pens to technical pens for several reasons. First, technical pens are made for drawing on paper, not calfskin or goatskin. If used for drawing on skin that has a nap (fuzzy) surface, the felt tips dry out and the pens are ruined very quickly. When I was using technical pens more often, I would sometimes go through a dozen before finishing a single drawing. This gets expensive. Although I did find that when technical pens start to dry out, they can produce an even finer line, so I would keep a few half-ruined ones on hand for detail work.

When drawing on smooth calfskin or goatskin, there is a different problem. The ink from technical pens does not adhhere to the skin as securely as bottled calligrapher’s ink. When I would use an eraser to remove pencil likes, it would take away ink with it.

Compared to pigmented bottled ink, the black ink from a technical pen looks dark gray; when I would use both in combination (technical pens for outlines and bottled ink to fill in the colors), the colors would sometimes look darker than the black outlines - an undesired effect, of course.

I continue to use technical pens for making black and white drawings on paper; for making small corrections or additions to letterpress prints; and for fixing the edges around gold and palladium leaf. On occasion, when drawing on calfskin, I need to draw on a troublesome spot where the surface is unusually rough or thin. In this place, the wet ink off of a dip pen is unpredictable, and I switch to the slow-flowing technical pen.

KNIVES: In medieval illustrations, monastic scribes are often depicted holding pens in their right hands and knives in their left. While I hold both my pen and my knife in my right hand, I do use one about as much as the other. The knife is for erasing mistakes in ink and cleaning up edges - but it is also a useful drawing tool for etching fine lines into ink. When drawing on smooth calfskin or goatskin, it is very easy to remove ink cleanly with a knife, because skin cells naturally lie in thin layers.

My usual knife is a Xacto with a #10 blade, which is shaped like a small scalpel. I use the curved blade to scrape and the point to etch. (An iron etching stylus might be an even better tool for this, but I do not own one.)

PENCILS: Ordinary #2 pencils are my usual tool for preliminary drawing.

ERASERS: I prefer kneaded rubber, which picks up pencil marks cleanly off of calfskin, but is gentle enough not to remove much ink. I have also some hard white erasers for use on paper.

PAINTBRUSHES: I have a variety, but the ones that I use most often are 20/0 Princeton Monogram. This is about as precise a paintbrush a is available; it can produce as thin a line as a pen. I even use this to draw entire pictures on Japanese washi paper (where metal-tipped pens don’t work).

BURNISHER: This tool’s main purpose is to burnish gold leaf. I have found it a useful tool also for drawing, even when I am not using gold leaf. It has a smooth agate tip shaped like a dog’s tooth that is used to apply pressure; this can flatten surfaces of paper that has been scraped with a knife, and even manipulate ink that has soaked into paper.

MOBILE ART KIT: During times when I am especially busy, I make it a habit to carry a project with me. Aside from the burnisher, my basic supplies fit neatly into an eyeglasses case. With contact lens cases to hold different colors of ink, a cloth diaper to wipe ink off of the pens, and a thin, hardcover book to carry the drawing and scratch paper, I can set up a drawing desk almost anywhere.



06 March 2017



There is some measure of irony in any historical revival or traditionalist endeavor; it requires doing something self-consciously that was not done self-consciously in the past. But I certainly would rather do something good with a measure of irony than do nothing good at all!

Traditional artists might be placed into categories by how they handle this problem of self-consciousness, and by how strictly they imitate the art of the past. At one extreme are forgers: those who actually purport to make the art of the past. The so-called Spanish Forger is a well-known recent example of a skillful but deceptive artist working in a medieval tradition.

Some distance from them stands the reenactors, who admit the originality of thier work, but otherwise follow old practices as exactly as possible. This describes many of the artists and craftspeople participating in groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism (whose work I truly respect and admire).

Next are artists who are analogous to writers of historical fiction in archaic language; they create art that plausibly might have been created in the past, but differs from anything that actually was. After them are artists comparable to writers of alternate history, who construct language to match; I am reminded here of William Morris, whose English is not exactly an imitation of Caxtonian English. Rather, it is an imitation of what Caxtonian English would be like if the Norman Invasion had never happened, an English with its French vocabulary removed. An artist of this kind creates art that might have been created in the past had the past gone differently.

I once thought of myself as the last sort of artist. The basic concept of my artwork was that it was what a Catholic artist of the twenty-first century would have made had the Middle Ages never ceased. It pretended no ignorance of those real facts of which medieval artists were ignorant (the existence, for example, of microorganisms, Japanese culture, kangaroos or the rings of Saturn), but it ignored all of the drastic changes in religion and philosophy that occurred as the medieval world gave way to the modern. It was an art reflecting an instinctive belief in the prefigurement of the Gospel in history, the vision of God in nature, the sacred significance of words and numbers, the reality of miracles and the truth of Divine Revelation.

What I have come to realize is that this art need not be a work of fiction at all. For the more I learn of the medieval worldview, the more I believe it to be correct. No suspension of disbelief or willful ignorance is needed to believe that every animal, vegetable and mineral in God’s creation; every length, height and depth; every thought, word and act of the past, present and future is charged with a mystic significance. I intend my art to demonstrate that these things can (still and always) be seen from a medieval perspective, which is to say, a Christian and sacramental perspective. The world that we see once the scales of modern misconception fall from our eyes is reality itself; the very world that God made, and in which the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.


These different approaches to traditional art require artists to make different decisions about their materials and processes. I am often asked whether I use historically accurate materials and tools to make my drawings. For the most part, I do not. My standard for choosing materials and tools is to use whatever can realize the pictures that I have in mind in the most precise, beautiful and permanent way. This, I believe, is in the true spirit of medieval art. Sometimes, this means using an old process; calfskin vellum is, I believe, the very finest material for drawing, and had real advantages over any modern material which might be substituted for it. But I would not make a drawing in oak gall ink (one of the most common medieval inks) because it is now known to be acidic; rather, I would choose an archival ink that looks similar. Likewise, I would not use silver leaf for illuminated details, as many medieval artists did; silver tarnishes to an ugly black after exposure to air. Medieval artists did not know that platinum-group metals, which do not tarnish at all, existed. Now, palladium leaf is readily available (and not especially expensive), so I use that instead.



01 March 2017


I have heard many times the claim that the Catholic Church should have great success in her New Evangelization, because Catholicism is a visual religion and contemporary society is also visual. But to call Catholicism a visual religion is a meager assertion; it is no more visual than any of a thousand kinds of paganism. It would be more accurate simply to say that human beings are visual animals. The visuality of Catholicism is only remarkable because the religion’s most obvious alternatives are rather inhuman. 

And contemporary society, judging by (for example) its reductive architecture, is not very visual at all. Its interest in visual things is almost entirely concentrated on television and computer screens; it is not any pictures, but specifically motion pictures, that interest contemporary man. Even the static pictures now ubiquitous (advertisements, posters, billboards) are meant to be seen while walking or driving or rapidly flipping pages in a magazine; they may not move, but their frame of reference does, which gives the same subjective result. In contrast, a study taken in 1980 indicated that most visitors look at a painting hanging in an art museum for about ten seconds. The same study, taken in 1997, lowered the time to three seconds. Contemporary man does not love pictures; he loves motion. 

Live-action motion pictures create the most convincing false reality yet devised by technology. The intensity of the imagery, the sophistication of the editing and the ever-more impressive special effects fill the modern mind with an inventory of powerful, nearly unforgettable images. Regardless of his life experience, every man now knows what a cavalry charge looks like. He knows what a dinosaur in the flesh looks like. He knows what an exploding planet looks like, even though no man has ever seen a planet explode. These images become the references for his visual imagination; when he pictures death, judgment, heaven or hell, he pictures something resembling a cinematic special effect he has seen. 

Traditional sacred art and traditional sacred liturgy are symbolic; to appreciate them, a man must recognize that his senses are unworthy of the greatest realities, and that hieratic and canonized types, arrangements and gestures are needed to suggest them. It is a logic entirely contrary to that of live-action motion pictures, which attempt to show anything and everything as it really (supposedly) looks. 


I believe that the influence of live-action motion pictures has contributed enormously to the iconoclasm of recent decades. I also believe that any lasting restoration of traditional sacred art and traditional sacred liturgy will only be possible if Catholics seriously consider and seriously restrict their use of the media of mass entertainment. This would entail removing televisions from our homes; and seldom (if ever) patronizing the cinema, thus reclaiming our imaginations from Hollywood. But it also would entail resisting the intrusion of this technology into new places, most importantly our places of worship.

This, of course, is an unpopular idea; the prevailing strategy of evangelization, even among traditional Catholics, demands that every important or impressive liturgical celebration be photographed, recorded, and displayed to as many as possible. And challenges to this strategy, like most discussions about technology, are quickly derailed by faulty analogies.

Whenever one man raises an objection to the application of a specific technology in a specific context, another inevitably will try to justify it by bringing up a beneficial application of a different technology in a different context. He will point out that there was opposition to this other, positive development; the first objection is thereby lumped together with every foolish dismissal in history.

But one situation does not always justify another. Introducing a television camera into the sanctuary is not the same as introducing a stained glass window or a pipe organ. These have their own properties and their own justifications. Using a television camera to broadcast a Mass is not the same as using it to monitor hallways for security.


Technologies are not moral or immoral per se, but neither are they without built-in biases and culturally bound assumptions; they are invented and developed by men according to their own ideas about the world. As Neil Postman, An articulate technological critic, wrote:
Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. These ideas are often hidden from our view because they are of a somewhat abstract nature. But this should not be taken to mean that they do not have practical consequences.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism... To a man with a television camera, everything looks like an image. To a man with a computer, everything looks like data. I do not think we need to take these aphorisms literally. But what they call to our attention is that every technology has a prejudice. Like language itself, it predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments... The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom. Indeed, in the computer age, the concept of wisdom may vanish altogether.

Every technology has a philosophy, which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence: The medium is the message.
What, then, are the ideas that a television camera and the live-action motion pictures that it produces suggest?


One is that every man is entitled to a privileged view of events. The technology’s purpose is to make things visible and audible to a man who otherwise would not be able to see or hear them, to bring him to the action via the camera and the microphone, which stand in place for him and act as his eyes and ears.

Watching motion pictures creates a sense of entitlement in the spectator. He feels cheated if obstacles remain to his seeing or hearing what is happening - trees blocking the camera’s field of vision, for example. He expects the directors and editors and cameramen to avoid or remove these sorts of things, to give him unobstructed views, zoomed-in shots of important actions and clearly enunciated speech.

The more he watches motion pictures, the more accustomed he is to these production values; when this same man attends Mass, the expectation to observe and understand everything very often comes with him. When it does, the silent Canon, untranslated Latin, ceremonial veiling, a priest with his back to the people, the idea that there are important things he is not supposed to see or hear, all become offensive. Motion picture technology creates a cult of accessibility, and this even more than ideology has caused liturgical tradition to be despised.

Marshall McLuhan perspicaciously blamed the loss of Latin liturgical language on the introduction of the microphone into the sanctuary. After resisting for five centuries the Reformational idea that Mass was something to be heard, Catholics at last embraced the all-hearing principle as a result of expectations changed by technology. A century earlier, in his Treatise on Chancel Screens and Rood Lofts, AWN Pugin predicted the eventual end of traditional church architecture due to the rise of an all-seeing principle:
If religious ceremonies are to be regarded as spectacles they should be celebrated in regular theatres, which have been expressly intended for the purpose of accommodating great assemblages of persons to hear and see well. It has been most justly said, that there is no legitimate halting-place between Catholic doctrine and positive infidelity, and I am quite certain that there is none between a church built on Christian tradition and symbolism and Covent Garden Theatre with its pit, boxes and gallery.
Nothing has done more to entrench the all-hearing, all seeing, all-understanding principle in the modern mind that the media of mass entertainment. Watching live-action motion pictures also trains men to observe phenomena in a specific way; the important things to notice are those that move, and move within a defined, rectangular area; anything else is ignored. Minds so formed, when taken to Mass, do not see statues or icons as things themselves revelatory, but regard them like potted plants to the side of the television set. They are apart from the action, so they are unimportant. If they are noticed at all, they are distractions that ought to be removed.

I remember once watching a Mass, celebrated ad orientem on an elaborate Baroque altar, on television. I noticed that the consecration was filmed from the very front of a loft in the church’s south transept; it was obvious that efforts were made to find an angle from which the cameraman could get an unobstructed, zoomed-in shot of the host on the high altar. To show the consecration from a privileged angle negates the entire purpose of ad orientem celebration. Without touching a thing, the television camera turned around the altar and pushed aside the priest, making visible everything that tradition saw fit to hide. The dissonance was jarring.


Psychologically, men relate to live-action motion pictures differently than to other media; the combination of sound, image and movement so effectively engages our two most powerful senses that we attribute a greater sort of reality to it. This is revealed in the way we talk about television. A man will say that he saw the World Series, or the Vice Presidential Debate, when he actually just saw a television broadcast of it. He would not speak this way had he seen a drawing or a painting or a theatrical reenactment of the World Series, or the Vice Presidential Debate.

Even the rhetoric surrounding the televising of the Mass is revealing. How wonderful, someone says, that people who live in remote areas, who are sick or homebound, now have access to the Mass! But no, no they do not. There is no legitimate halting-place between attending Mass and not attending Mass. Watching television is not attending Mass. At best, it is an aid to devotion, something like reading a hand missal at home; at worst it is mistaken for the real thing.

Live-action motion pictures suggest the idea of a virtual reality: that experience, understanding and communion can be achieved by means of a technological approximation. It suggests that to see a thing is merely to receive through the eyes a certain arrangement of light waves, and that to hear a thing is merely to receive through the ears a certain arrangement of sound waves; and that these can be provided by a machine as well as by the thing itself.

I can think of few ideas more damaging to the important distinctions between substance and form that underlie traditional Catholic philosophy and theology, and few ideas that do more to inculcate the error of Descartes, by which the physicists’ model of the universe (an abstraction of hurrying quantities and extensions) is mistaken for primary reality itself.


The costs of introducing a new technology are not easy to predict or measure, and they may be irreversible by the time they are noticed. They may even go unnoticed, and for that reason, go untallied against the benefits. But they have the potential to alter the way we think, to redefine the very meaning of the words we use to express our most important beliefs.

By saying this, I am not arguing against all innovation; I readily acknowledge that television cameras and live-action motion pictures have fruitful applications that give real benefits. But sanctuaries must be allowed to remain, places and times where the innovation is not welcome, so that the wisdom and worldview reflected in the displaced ways, and the skills and habits fostered by them, are not forgotten. We may not realize just how important these are until they are forever lost. As we allow the technologies of mass entertainment to intrude into more and more aspects of our lives, we cease to remember what it was like to inhabit a world without them, and our bonds with that world, the world of our spiritual forefathers the saints and apostles, are weakened.

When St. John wrote the beginning of his Gospel, he had an idea of what a word was. It was something spoken, or something written, or something thought. Now, centuries later, our basic idea of a word is just as likely to be something on a computer screen that can be clicked on and dragged about a document, or erased with a keystroke. How can we understand what St. John meant when he said that in the beginning was the Word, when our idea of a word is something that St. John never knew? If motion pictures create in us different habits of seeing, and different definitions of seeing, how can we understand what he meant when he said that we saw His glory? We live in a semantic anarchy where words have ceased to have commonly agreed upon meanings. In such a world, an ordered and traditional context is needed for assertions of belief to have any meaning at all.

Because of this, there is no more important place and time of sanctuary than the literal sanctuaries of our churches, for it is here that the stakes are highest. Here, if nowhere else, we must reject those things that estrange us from the experience we share with the saints, in our common rituals of worship. If we introduce something that they would have found incomprehensible, we may soon find that the estrangement is mutual, that we no longer understand them either.