This is a recent drawing of mine. Its central image depicts a miraculous vision of Christ surrounded by the instruments of His Passion that St. Gregory the Great saw while celebrating Mass. More broadly, the drawing is about Christian knowledge: how and whence it is received.
St. Gregory was the Bishop of Rome, and thus the inheritor of the authority of Saints Peter and Paul (whom I drew in the bottom corners). He is one of the four great Latin church fathers. He was the codifier of the Roman Mass and its music (which is why I wrote the words Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus in the bas-de-page, together with the chant neumes from the Missa Kyrie Fons Bonitatis). Shown here, St. Gregory is the recipient of a mystical vision, one of those divine reminders of a holy truth: in this event, the selfsameness of the Man of Sorrows and the Sacrament of the Altar.
But this drawing is not meant to suggest that Christian knowledge is altogether dependent on persons so great as St. Gregory; so great a pastor, theologian, liturgist and visionary may never again walk the earth until the resurrection of the flesh. Nor is to meant to suggest that Christian knowledge is dependent on a privileged communication between Christ and His vicar on earth; events such as the Miraculous Mass of St. Gregory are worthy of artistic treatment precisely because they are extraordinary.
Fundamentally, the reason we know anything about Jesus Christ - that He was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, descended into hell, rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven - is because these things actually happened, and someone saw or heard them happen. Before they were written as scriptures, before they were declared as doctrines, they were kept as memories.
If the Blessed Virgin Mary had told nobody what the Archangel Gabriel had said to her at the Annunciation, we would not know it. If Jesus Christ had told nobody that His sweat became as blood while He prayed in Gethsemane, we would not know it. Even St. Luke, writing with divine inspiration, knew about these events according as they have delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word. Our tradition identifies witnesses even of the Descent into Hell: those saints that had slept, who rose from their tombs after the Resurrection of Christ, came into the holy city and appeared to many.
In the upper corners of the St. Gregory picture, I drew two theologians of the fifth century, St. Prosper of Aquitaine and St. Vincent of Lerins. During their earthly lives, these men were theological opponents, more so even that Saints Peter and Paul. I consider it a mark of providence that from their disputations, two beautifully complementary ideas emerged.
St. Prosper articulated the well-known maxim: The law of worship establishes the law of belief. Worship was the first way by which the memories of those who saw, heard and touched Jesus Christ were carried forward. Because the law of worship predates such things as the settlement of the canon of scripture and the definitions of the ecumenical councils, it is the first criterion of orthodoxy. Thus it is the first criterion of sacred art as well. Sacred liturgy and sacred art must be concordant, for they are records of the same memories.
St. Vincent wrote in his Commonitoria: We hold to what has been believed always, everywhere and by all. Universality, antiquity and consensus are the marks by which a true tradition can be told from a false. Now St. Vincent makes clear that this principle is not to be taken so literally that a single counterexample would suffice for disproof; all, or at least almost all, he wrote. Elsewhere in the same book, he described the true development of tradition, which he compared to the growth of a body:
Men when full grown have the same number of joints that they had when children; and if there be any to which maturer age has given birth these were already present in embryo, so that nothing new is produced in them when old which was not already latent in them when children. This, then, is undoubtedly the true and legitimate rule of progress, this the established and most beautiful order of growth, that mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Whereas, if the human form were changed into some shape belonging to another kind, or at any rate, if the number of its limbs were increased or diminished, the result would be that the whole body would become either a wreck or a monster, or at the least would be impaired and enfeebled.Catholic tradition is based on real memories of real events. Something either is part of that tradition or it is not, just as something either is part of a body or is not. If it is part of that tradition, this is evident in the law of worship and the agreement of the church fathers; these are the epistemic bridges between the age of the eyewitnesses and our own.
As Catholics we have the benefit of the Magisterium exercised by the successors of the Apostles, our bishops. They have been given the authority to judge disputes over tradition and to bind the faithful to assent. But they do not create tradition themselves. They receive their knowledge from existing sources, and these are sources that anyone can seek and find.
By looking to liturgical and patristic sources, a religious artist can draw a more complete picture, he can dig deeper, than by looking to magisterial documents only. He may unearth something wonderful. Discovering a tradition that has been lost is thrilling; it is like knocking the dirt from a buried piece of lumber and finding that it can yet raise the dead.
St. Vincent of Lerins, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume XI, translated by C. A. Heurtley, (New York: Cosimo, 2007).