30 August 2017


Part 8 of 9 of the Lecture Heavenly Outlook, which I recently delivered to the Catholic Art Guild on 12 August 2017.

God exists; He is omnibenevolent, and He is the Creator of all things visible and invisible. Because of these truths, all things, by the simple fact of existing, are in some way good, in some way (however small) like God. Only nothingness (which, by definition, is no thing at all) is altogether unlike God.

God is simple, absolutely so, but He is not simple like nothingness is simple, or like a mathematical formula plotted on a Cartesian grid is simple. His simplicity, like His eternity and His infinity, is not homogenous. It is not empty but perfectly full. An art that adopts a heavenly outlook, from which all of creation reflects the beauty of the Creator, cannot be an art full of nothingness.

Traditional Christian art is notable for its lack of blank space. Its makers filled whatever space was not occupied by the principal figures with gold leaf, knotwork, geometric patterns or stylized vines. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, they also used landscapes for this purpose. I like to fill blank space with tiny plants and animals, in the manner of Flemish millefleur tapestries. There is no intentional vacancy in Gothic art, nor in mine. The art historical term for this is horror vacui - fear of the empty.


It may be apparent by now that I do not aspire to create art that is praised for its noble simplicity. That phrase is oft discussed within the Catholic Church; there is heated disagreement over what it truly is supposed to mean. I do not have an answer to that question; all I know is that, in its practical application to art, it usually amounts to a synonym for being boring. My conscience will not allow me to make boring art for God, at least not purposely.

I do not draw to please those who hold their bodily senses in distrust; who worship God with closed eyes and stopped ears; who, insofar as they like sacred art or sacred music at all, like it for being easy to ignore so that they may better think pious thoughts to themselves. I do not think that prayerful means easy to ignore, and I do not think that worship means think pious thoughts to yourself.

I acknowledge that a minority of Christians from the beginning has advocated for very simple art and music and has considered anything more a distraction from prayer. Its most illustrious representative is Bernard of Clairvaux, who famously condemned the decorative carving in Cluniac churches, and whose influence ended a flourishing tradition of Cistercian manuscript illumination. Bernard was a great saint, but he seems to have been oblivious to many forms of beauty. His friend and biographer, William of St. Thierry, wrote:
He hardly used his bodily senses. He lived a whole year in the novices’ cell and yet did not know that it had a vaulted ceiling. He passed very often in and out of the monastery church, which had three windows in the apse, yet he thought there was only one.... He had largely lost even the ability to distinguish different tastes. If, for example, oil was mistakenly put before him and he drank it, he was not aware of it until he wondered why his lips felt oily. Raw blood was served to him by mistake, and he is known to have used it day after day in place of butter.
William takes this as evidence of holiness; I cannot read this account without seeing evidence of some perceptual impairment with a natural cause. Undeniably, a man who cannot taste the difference between raw blood and butter can be a great saint. But I would not want him to teach me how to cook.

Nor do I want a man altogether insensitive to visual beauty to establish the principles of sacred art. I rather defer to his esteemed contemporaries and friends, some of whom I have mentioned already: Hugh of St. Victor, Suger of St. Denis, Honor of Autun and Hildegard of Bingen.


Works quoted or referenced:

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