Part 2 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
It annoys me to know that, upon seeing this page, most people would simply say: Oh, how Irish. A few would call it Celtic instead. And while that is not an inaccurate description, it is a meager one. This art is popular in the present day, not as an expression of universal Christianity, but of Irishness or (more commonly) pseudo-Irishness. You often see it on pub signs and knickknacks and other bits of paddywhackery; you rarely see it on sacred artwork. I cannot imagine a new church being decorated in this manner, unless it were for an Irish immigrant parish. Certainly I am grateful to see this art linger at all, but I lament the loss of the idea that it belongs to everyone.
It seems that national identity, rather than religious faith, is the most strongly felt motive nowadays for holding to traditions. The notion is that a style of art or architecture, folk music or dance, ceremonial dress or cookery is important to remember because it is part of what makes a person Irish or Polish or Mexican or Dutch. That is praiseworthy, except when religious faith itself is considered an element of national identity, as though it were the smaller and less important thing.
Early examples of this disordered priority can be found during the Gothic Revival; the architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc did a great service to the universal Church by restoring the reputation of Gothic art and architecture after centuries of calumny and neglect. But he did so because the cathedrals made him proud to be French; he was an anti-clericalist who played down the religious motivation of medieval artists, and even read into their work coded revolutionary messages.
Gothic art and architecture indisputably began in France, but they rapidly spread throughout Catholic Europe. Their principles, derived from the theology of St. Augustine of Hippo and of Dionysius (author of the Celestial Hierarchy), made possible the ordering of the various monastic traditions into a coherent system, the basis for sacred art from England to Spain to Bohemia.
This International Gothic is the basis for almost all of my own artwork. I consider it an important task to demonstrate that Gothic art is not defined by nationhood, nor by a period of history past, but rather by Christian principles that are everywhere and enduringly true.
One of those principles is to offer to God the very best. Artists of the International Gothic deferred to the Church Fathers when composing pictures, but used every artistic form they knew to make them beautiful. The painters of late medieval Italy borrowed from the art of Mamluk Egypt, using Arabic script (spelling gibberish) to decorate the trims of the Virgin Mary’s robes. In the Adoration of the Magi altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano, the haloes of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph are imitations of Islamic gold platters. The painters of late medieval Flanders depicted the Virgin Mary sitting in thrones hung with Oriental damasks, Oriental carpets beneath her feet.
That Oriental carpets would inspire Christian artists as seemingly different as Eadfrith of Lindisfarne and Jan Van Eyck is not happenstance but a sign of shared principles. In my religious drawings, I try to show the affinity of Northumbro-Irish art and International Gothic, combining elements of both.
Works quoted or referenced:
Emile Mâle, The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Dora Nussey, (New York: Icon Editions, 1972).