15 May 2017

INTELLECTUAL and TRANSCENDENT

Part 7 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

About seven years ago, one of my patrons asked me to draw St. Michael the Archangel in the style of a Japanese woodblock print. At the time, I had little knowledge of Oriental art, despite having some Japanese ancestors. I nonetheless undertook the challenge. The drawing became one of my most popular; similar commissions followed, in which I transposed traditional Christian iconography into this style.



Creating such works gave me a great appreciation for Japanese art, but I became uncomfortably aware that I was treating it as a context, and therefore as a larger thing than traditional Christian iconography. I have no desire to imitate the Humanists who gave the same treatment to Greek and Roman art, or the contemporary Christian artists who unquestioningly accept the conventions of electronic mass media.

Now, I rather identify those aspects of Japanese art that are agreeably Christian, and to include them in my drawings that are basically Gothic. An example is that in Japanese woodblock prints, as in Byzantine icons, almost no cast shadows are depicted. In Byzantine icons, this is deliberate; their perspective is heavenly, from a place where God illuminates everything. That was not the intention of the Japanese printmakers, but their treatment of light can be used to express the same religious idea in a work of graphic art.



The scholar Martin Lings had a similar observation to mine, on the affinity of Oriental and Gothic art. He wrote:
Having come to know some of the best examples of Hindu, Chinese and Japanese art and then as it were returning to their own civilization, many people find that their outlook has irrevocably changed. After looking at a great Chinese landscape, for example, where this world appears like a veil of illusion beyond which, almost visibly, lies the Infinite and Eternal Reality ... they find it difficult to take seriously a painting such as Raphael’s famous Madonna, or Michelangelo’s fresco of the Creation, not to speak of his sculpture, and Leonardo also fails to satisfy them. But they find that they can take very seriously, more seriously than before, some of the early Sienese paintings such as Simone Martini’s Annunciation, for example, or the statuary and stained glass of Chartres Cathedral....

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.

If Renaissance art lacks an opening onto the transcendent and is altogether imprisoned in its own epoch, this is because its outlook is humanistic; and humanism ... considers man and other earthly objects entirely for their own sakes as if nothing lay behind them. In painting the Creation, for example, Michelangelo treats Adam not as a symbol but as an independent reality; and since he does not paint man in the image of God, the inevitable result is that he paints God in the image of man.
The outlook of Gothic art, being intellectual and transcendent, is farsighted enough to include the whole of Christendom, and to see beyond it to all nations. It can be the basis for an urgently needed revival of artistic and cultural Christendom, and for its missionary effort.

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Works quoted or referenced:

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

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