19 April 2017

SYMBOLISM of the NATURAL WORLD

This is an excerpt from my Lecture Heavenly Outlook.



Not only sacred history and secular history, but even natural history is allegorical. To quote Emile Mâle again:
As the idea of his work is in the mind of the artist, so the universe was in the thought of God from the beginning. God created, but he created through His Word, that is, through His Son. The thought of the Father was realized in the Son through whom it passed from potentiality to act.... The world therefore may be defined as a thought of God realized through his Word. If this be so then in each being is hidden a divine thought; the world is a book written by the hand of God in which every creature is a word charged with meaning.... True knowledge, then, consists not in the study of things in themselves (the outward forms) but in penetrating to the inner meaning intended by God for our instruction, for in the words of Honorius of Autun, every creature is a shadow of truth and life. All being holds in its depths the reflection of the sacrifice of Christ, the image of the Church and of the virtues and vices.
Medieval authors produced books called bestiaries, herbals and lapidaries, in which the symbolism of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms are explained. It is from the bestiary that I know to surround a scene of the Resurrection with a whale, a phoenix, a pelican and a lion. According to one bestiary:
If the pelican has brought offspring into the world, when these grow up they strike their parents in the face. The parents strike back and kill them. After three days, their mother opens her own breast and side, and lies on her young, pouring all her blood over the dead bodies, and thus her love brings them back to life. So Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the author and originator of all creatures, begot us, and, when we did not exist, He made us. But we struck Him in the face; as Isaiah said: I have begotten sons and raised them up, but they have despised me. Christ ascended the Cross and was struck in the side; blood and water came forth for our salvation, to give us eternal life.
Of the lion, it says:
When the lioness brings forth her cubs, they come into the world dead. She watches over them for three days, until on the third day the father comes, blows in their faces, and awakens them to life. In the same way the Almighty Father awoke Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day, as Jacob says: He couched as a lion; who shall rouse him up?
The temptation, for a modern man, is simply to snicker at the zoological naïvety of these words; admittedly, no one has observed these behaviors in pelicans or lions in a very long time. But the authors of the bestiaries were working with the best knowledge they had, and their being mistaken in the details does not prove that their method of interpretation was fallacious. If we no longer find symbols of Christ in the behavior of pelicans and lions, is it because they are not there, or is it because we have ceased to look for them? Were we to embrace again a theophanic worldview, might not our current knowledge yield even more profound symbols?

At least one sacred artist of the twentieth century thought so. In 1911, the Spanish priest Felix Granda wrote:
Through the microscope we can see the infinitely varied microörganisms; more powerful images have never come to the imagination of the artist. Should we not take advantage of this immense arsenal of scientific data that they provide to us, to make richer and more varied our decorations, and to teach the truth contained in the verse of the Kingly Prophet: O Lord, Thy thoughts are exceeding deep!?
When I first read these words, they were especially resonant because I had already begun to incorporate microbiological forms in my ornament, and to consider their symbolic possibilities.



Works quoted:

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

Bestiary, translated by Richard Barber, (London: The Folio Society, 1992).

Felix Granda, Mi Propósito, (Madrid: Talleres de Arte, 1911).

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www.danielmitsui.com

18 April 2017

COLORING SHEETS: RESURRECTION

These are detail images from my drawing and letterpress print of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Click on the thumbnail images to download the files; these are formatted as 300dpi bitmap images on 8 1/2" × 11" pages that can be printed and photocopied.

 

More coloring sheets are available here.
I hold the copyright to these images, and I permit them to be downloaded, printed and copied only for use as coloring sheets. Printed copies must be distributed for free. If you want to use them in any other way, you must first receive my permission. Posting the images to a web log or sharing them on a social medium is encouraged so long as it links back to my web page.

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www.danielmitsui.com

17 April 2017

RESURRECTION



This broadside of the Resurrection measures 7" × 10". It is based on one of my ink drawings on paper. A scan of my drawing, slightly enlarged and modified, was used to create the plate for letterpress printing.

Christ steps from the open tomb with His right foot and raises His right hand in blessing; the right hand of Christ, in medieval art, represents divine mercy. As in most medieval depictions of the Resurrection, two chronologically distinct events (Christ’s rising from the tomb and the stone’s removal) are shown together; this was done to emphasize the stone’s signification of the Old Testament. Two angels assist in removing the stone, and another swings a thurible. Two soldiers sleep in the foreground.

I formatted the picture like a recto book leaf. The words RESURRECTIO DOMINI and ALLELUIA appear in the border, as do several ornamental plants and four animals that are traditional symbols of the Resurrection. According to the medieval bestiaries, the phoenix rises from its own ashes, the pelican revives its dead chicks by feeding them blood from a self-inflicted wound and the lion revives its dead cubs with its breath. The whale is from the story of Jonah, which was named as a prefigurement of the Resurrection by Christ Himself: For as Jonah was in the whale’s belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.

In the bas-de-page I drew an emblem of the Harrowing of Hell. Christ descends to the Limbo of the Pariarchs bearing His triumphal banner; He subdues Satan and assists Adam and Eve out of the Hellmouth.

Read more here.

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www.danielmitsui.com

08 April 2017

MASS MEDIA and SACRED WORSHIP

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.

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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.

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www.danielmitsui.com

07 April 2017

UPCOMING EVENTS: APRIL 20 & MAY 7

At 7:00 in the evening of 20 April 2017, I shall deliver a lecture at Hope College in Holland, MI, as a guest of the St. Benedict Institute. More details can be read here.

The official description of the lecture:
Gold out of Egypt: Christian Art and International Influences

The Apostles of Jesus were instructed to go teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. In every nation, Christianity has encountered a different culture, and worked to establish its own belief with it. Catholic artist Daniel Mitsui will discuss the ways in which the conflicts and concords between religions, cultures and nations are expressed in Christian religious art.

Mitsui also will examine the ways, historically, in which Christian artists have claimed elements of Classical and Islamic art as their own; will argue the necessity of their continuing to seek inspiration from foreign art; and will discuss the dangers of treating the art of a single nation or culture as the basis of Christian æsthetic identity.
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At 2:00 in the afternoon of 7 May 2017, I shall speak at the Komechak Art Gallery of Benedictine University in Lisle, IL, to open an exhibit of my work that will run from 8 May to 29 July 2017. More details can be read here.

06 April 2017

PILGRIMAGE and PRINTING

Part 10 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.



Page from a 42-Line Bible printed by Johann Gutenberg, illustrated by hand

In the fourth century, St. Paulinus of Nola recorded that the portion of the True Cross kept in Jerusalem had a miraculous property; no matter how many pieces were broken from it, its size did not diminish. St. Cyril of Jerusalem compared it to the loaves and fishes that fed multitudes and left over basketfuls. John Calvin famously scoffed that if all the pieces of wood venerated as fragments of the True Cross were collected together, they would make a big shipload. There are studies refuting this claim, but if the old Catholic tradition is to be believed, it might be correct! I doubt that the explanation would satisfy Calvin, a man determined to see fraud; but even he must admit on Biblical evidence that we live in a world in which these sort of things happen.

In another way, relics are inexhaustible even when the Law of Conservation is not miraculously suspended. Catholic tradition maintains that their virtue can imparted through contact. Things that touch the relics of Our Lord’s Passion or the mortal remains of the saints become relics themselves, although of a lower class. When I speak of the virtue of a relic, I do not mean a magical property that works independently of the will of God (for the working of miracles is proper to God alone), but rather the quality that sets it apart from an ordinary piece of wood or bone or cloth. That distinction is real enough to terrify demons.

In the Middle Ages, the faithful believed that this virtue could also be transferred optically; where the relics were inaccessible to touch, pilgrims held up mirrors to reflect them. The mirrors were then carried homeward, and treated as relics of a lower class.

***


The Cathedral of Aachen is home to four relics of particular distinction: the dress worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary on the night of the Nativity, the Holy Infant’s swaddling cloths, the fabric used to wrap the head of St. John the Baptist and the loincloth worn by Jesus Christ on the cross. Since the fourteenth century, these have been displayed at septennial jubilees, unfurled from the gallery connecting the cathedral’s belfry to its octagonal dome.

In anticipation of the jubilee of 1439, a clever silversmith began to manufacture quantities of pilgrim mirrors, convex ones that could reflect a panorama. He had partners in this enterprise; all were disappointed when the jubilee was postponed due to plague. At a loss for money, the silversmith offered to share with two of his partners another idea, one that he had been developing in secret. They listened, doubled their investments, and set to work on the confidential endeavor. That endeavor involved the making of tiny metal letters that could be arranged into text; a viscous oil-based ink; and a press like that used by vintners and bookbinders, but adapted to the purpose of printing on paper, an art that previously had been done through manual pressure. The silversmith’s name was Johann Gutenberg.

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

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

In fact, many printed sheets of the fifteenth century were distributed as pilgrim souvenirs; they served the same purpose that pilgrim mirrors did. They served the same purpose served earlier by holy oil flasks and stamps for eulogia bread dough - stamps that were themselves, in fact, tiny manual printing presses. Later scholars gave to the printed books of the fifteenth century the name incunabula; how fitting this is! Incunabula is the Latin word for swaddling cloths, and the Holy Infant’s swaddling cloths were among the relics exhibited at the Aachen jubilee.

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www.danielmitsui.com

05 April 2017

FOREIGN INFLUENCE

Part 9 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.



Detail from the Adoration of the Magi, painting by Gentile da Fabriano

I consider myself a revivalist, but I do not think of Gothic as a mere historical style; that would make it a very boring thing. A farsighted and generous consideration of beautiful forms is in the true spirit of this art. Its artists may have deferred to the fathers in the arrangement and disposition of the pictures, but in the art that belonged to them, in the exaltation of subject, they withheld not their treasures but offered whatever was most excellent.

The Flemish painters hung Oriental damasks behind their Virgins, and laid Oriental carpets beneath their feet. The Italians copied ornament from art that arrived by trade from Mamluk Egypt. Their saints wear garments bordered with Kufic letters (spelling gibberish) and radiate haloes that resemble platters made by Egyptian goldsmiths.

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

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I imagine this myself; literally, I make images of it, both by importing foreign art into the traditional compositions and by exporting the traditional compositions into foreign art. The style of Japanese woodblock prints has proven especially popular among my patrons, but my interest is not confined to it; Chinese painting, Indian and Persian manuscript illumination also have my curiosity. The affinity between Gothic art and the art of these other cultures was noted by the scholar Martin Lings:
The reason why medieval art can bear comparison with Oriental art as no other Western art can is undoubtedly because the medieval outlook, like that of the Oriental civilizations, was intellectual. It considered this world above all as the shadow or symbol of the next, man as the shadow or symbol of God.... A medieval portrait is above all a portrait of the Spirit shining from behind a human veil. In other words, it is as a window opening from the earthly on to the heavenly, and while being enshrined in its own age and civilization as eminently typical of a particular period and place, it has the same time, in virtue of this opening, something that is neither of the East nor of the West, nor of any one age more than another.
I do not consider my artwork an exercise in reënactment. When I draw, I pretend no ignorance of those real facts unknown to artists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: the existence of Japan, for example, or of microörganisms, or of platypodes. I accept the principles of medieval art not because they are medieval, but because they are true - true in any time, any place, any culture.

SECOND DREAM of ST. JOSEPH

I believe that the art called Gothic answers the challenges of invention and exaltation like no other. I draw my own art from it, and find it an inexhaustible source, like the life-giving cross.

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Works quoted:

Martin Lings, The Sacred Art of Shakespeare, (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1998).

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www.danielmitsui.com

04 April 2017

BEGINNING of GOTHIC ART

Part 8 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.







Stained Glass Windows from the Abbey Church of St. Denis

St. Vincent’s metaphor of the body makes true progress a matter of integrity, rather than of slowness. During the greatest eras of Christian art, tradition grew and developed with astonishing rapidity. The thriving that followed the Invention of the Holy Cross might be considered the toddlerhood of Christian art; the era of the early Gothic might be considered its adolescence.

Here again, relics of Our Lord’s Passion were the catalyst. Annual fairs held in honor of relics housed at the Abbey of St. Denis, near Paris, were so popular by 1137 that Suger, the abbot, noted:
The crowded multitude offered so much resistance to those who strove to flock in to worship and kiss the holy relics, the Nail and Crown of the Lord, that no one among the countless thousands of people because of their very density could move a foot; that no one, because of their very congestion, could do anything but stand like a marble statue, stay benumbed or, as a last resort, scream.... Moreover the brethren who were showing the tokens of the Passion of Our Lord to the visitors had to yield to their anger and rioting and many a time, having no place to turn, escaped with the relics through the windows.
Abbot Suger resolved to enlarge and to rebuild substantially the abbey church; his artistic and architectural project proved epochal. Here, cross-ribbed vaults, pointed arches and flying buttresses were first combined in a new kind of architecture, the framework upon which the arts of monumental sculpture and stained glass climbed and flourished. In the windows of the abbey church, the theology of light expounded by the author of The Celestial Hierarchy, called Dionysius, was given sensible form.

The great crucifix of St. Denis stood more than thirty feet tall in the new abbey church; its pedestal was adorned with figures of the four Evangelists, its pillar with enamel panels illustrating events in the life of Jesus Christ and their prefigurements in the Old Testament, its cross with gemstone cabochons, large pearls and a corpus worked in gold.

The art here begun inspired the great cathedrals of Sens, Chartres, Laon, Paris, Bourges, Rheims and Amiens. It spread beyond France, throughout Catholic Europe. This art is as exact and encyclopedic as medieval theology. A Gothic cathedral is a Summa Iconographica, a codification and perfection of ancient tradition.

In the thirteenth century appeared its finest specimens of architecture, sculpture and stained glass. Because I specialize in small, two-dimensional works of art, I more often look to the following two centuries, in which the arts of manuscript illumination, panel painting, tapestry and printmaking culminated. It is in these later expressions of Gothic that I most often seek inspiration.

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Works quoted:

Suger of St. Denis, On the Abbey Church of St. Denis and its Art Treasures, translated by Erwin Panofsky, (Princeton University Press, 1979).

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www.danielmitsui.com

03 April 2017

PERMANENT CONTENT

Part 7 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.



A similar lesson is taught in this image of the Resurrection. Before the thirteenth century, the Resurrection rarely appeared in sacred art. The older practice was to depict the holy women visiting the tomb, for this is the story of the Gospel in the Mass of Easter Sunday. This composition might be denounced as a novelty did it not illustrate an ancient exegetical tradition. A curious detail reveals its allegory. Emile Mâle explains:
In contrast to the Gospel narrative which tells how, after the Resurrection, the stone was rolled away by an angel on the morning after the sabbath, Christ is almost invariably shown rising from a tomb from which the stone has already been removed. The old masters, ordinarily so scrupulous and so faithful to the letter, had a reason for thus uniting two distinct events. There is not the least doubt that they wished to recall the deep significance which was attached by the fathers to the removal of the stone. The stone before the tomb was in fact a symbol. It is, says the Glossa Ordinaria, the table of stone on which was written the Ancient Law - it is the Ancient Law itself. As in the Old Testament the spirit was hidden beneath the letter, so Christ was hidden beneath the stone.
***


When sacred art is considered symbolically, in light of the church fathers, in light of the law of worship, its permanent content appears. At least through the Middle Ages, religious artists followed the true and legitimate rule of progress articulated by St. Vincent: mature age ever develops in the man those parts and forms which the wisdom of the Creator had already framed beforehand in the infant. Its changes were changes of clothing, not changes of anatomy.

Those who indeed set out to alter the anatomy, to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, to forbid all of a sudden and to consider harmful what earlier generations held as sacred, were proud enough to leave a written record of their intentions. That is convenient for me, because I thus know exactly whose influence to stanch and reverse.

I allude here to the more extreme humanists, whose determination to recreate the culture of Classical antiquity led them to despise and replace the greatest art of the Middle Ages; also to the censors of the late sixteenth century who took the brief and unspecific words of the Council of Trent regarding art as instructions to subject the whole tradition to their critical judgment. The most influential of these, Jean Molanus, was blind to the symbolic order in medieval art; he condemned and forbade every traditional composition that he did not understand, which amounts to nearly all of them. In modern times, many artists have made violence to tradition the very premise of their art.

My task, as a religious artist working in the present day, is to heal those injuries done, to restore the impaired and enfeebled body to strength. It is a difficult and seemingly impossible task, but I know that the touch of God, the touch of His cross, the touch even of the hem of His garment, can make a body whole in an instant.

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Works quoted:

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

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www.danielmitsui.com

01 April 2017

SYMBOLIC LANGUAGE

Part 6 of 10 of the Lecture Invention and Exaltation, which I first delivered on 14 September 2015, to open an exhibit of my artwork at Franciscan University of Steubenville.



The arrangement and disposition of sacred art belong to the fathers because they say the same things as the fathers, in the same manner. Patristic language, whether written or painted, bears more meaning in its symbolic senses than in its literal sense.

The four winged creatures that surround Jesus Christ in so many holy images are those that appeared to the prophet Ezekiel and later to St. John. They are symbols of the four Evangelists. The man represents St. Matthew, whose book begins with a genealogy, a record of men. The ox is a sacrificial animal, and the Gospel of St. Luke opens with St. Zachary offering sacrifice at the Temple. The lion represents St. Mark, whose book begins with a voice crying, or roaring like a lion, in the wilderness. The eagle was believed to gaze directly into the sun, and the Gospel of St. John opens with insight into impossibly dazzling truths. In art, the man and the eagle are often given higher position, for the Evangelists they represent received their knowledge from direct witness rather than hearsay.

The apocalyptic beasts are polysemic; they represent also the life of Jesus Christ, respectively His Incarnation, His sacrificial death, His Resurrection (He couched as a lion; who shall rouse him up?) and His Ascension. Furthermore, they are symbols of Christian virtues: rationality, self-sacrifice, courage and contemplation.

The church fathers saw everywhere in the Old Testament prefigurements of the New. I included the Sacrifice of Isaac as a marginal picture to this Crucifixion; the association of the two sacrifices is made again and again in liturgical texts and theological writings. The death of Eleazar Maccabee beneath a war elephant I drew also; as far as I can tell, this prefigurement was first noted in the Speculum Humanæ Salvationis, an book of typologies from the early fourteenth century. But the Speculum’s author did not alter the ancient tradition; rather, he progressed it according to the established and most beautiful order of growth. The symbol was latent in the event from its occurrence; the manner of thought that reveals it was taught by Jesus Christ Himself: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

The Crucifixion scene, as traditionally arranged, is itself full of symbolic meaning. Jesus Christ is the new Adam, whose death on the cross redeems the original sin. Just as Eve, the bride of the first Adam, came forth from his side while he slept, so the Church, the bride of Christ, came forth from his side while he slept in death on the cross; I here paraphrase St. Augustine. The blood and water that pour from the opening in the new Adam’s side represent the two most important sacraments: Eucharist and Baptism. The wound is almost invariably depicted on Christ’s right side, for it was from the right side that Adam’s rib was taken. To the right side of the cross (from Christ’s perspective) appear the symbols of the new covenant: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Good Thief and the sun. The moon, whose indirect light represents the old covenant, is to the left. This is a theological lesson, not a record of the day’s astronomy.

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www.danielmitsui.com