St. Michael the Archangel, the first completed drawing of the Summula Pictoria.
13 July 2019
There will always be men and women who want religious art that is beautiful and traditional. However, every artist feels instinctively that there are two more necessary qualities. The art should be interesting, not just the same thing repeated endlessly with no improvement. And it should be real; that human minds and hands be engaged in its making is part of what makes it worthwhile. I fear that in the broader religious and æsthetic conflict between modernism and traditionalism, these qualities will be dismissed as unimportant.
The commentary in the aftermath of the tragic fire at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Paris is telling of this. Certainly I understand the dread that its reconstruction will be entrusted to some architect with no religious sensibility. But the reactionary demand to rebuild Notre Dame exactly as it was before is equally troubling. If the faithful never saw in a church fire the opportunity to build something even better, the Gothic cathedrals would never have existed at all. (There are rumors even that the Archbishop of Reims started the blaze himself in 1210!)
I fear that at some time soon, one of the great artistic or architectural treasures of Christianity will be ruined more completely and irreparably than Notre Dame, and that in response to demands that it be rebuilt exactly as it was before, living artists will dismissed from the task as too untrustworthy. Instead, a computer model will be constructed from the photographic record, and everything will be 3D printed in concrete or faux wood. Once that happens, a precedent is set, and living artists and architects thenceforth will compete, most likely at an economic disadvantage, against computers imitating the old masters.
Many who consider themselves religious and æsthetic traditionalists will celebrate this approach. Even now, I know that the easy availability of printed reproductions of 15th century paintings affects the demand for my own artwork. I don’t oppose such reproductions themselves; I have them on display in my own home. What I oppose is the notion that traditional art can be fostered through attitudes that would have made its existence impossible in the first place.
More tragic than to lose an artistic or architectural treasure is to lose the ability to make another one; more tragic yet is to lose the desire to make another one. To regain that ability requires real living artists; to regain that desire requires real religious faith and hope. There can be no technological substitute for these.
01 May 2019
Today, the first of May, is the anniversary of the dedication of Rupertsberg Convent in 1150. Hildegard of Bingen was the foundress: about this same time, she completed her first book of visionary writings, Scivias. This included an early version of the liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum, which may have been performed as part of the dedication ceremonies at Rupertsberg.
I consider Hildegard one of the greatest aesthetic theorists in the history of the Church, along with her contemporaries Suger of St. Denis and Hugh of St. Victor. Of the three, Hildegard expressed her aesthetic theory in the most personal and mystical manner. In each of them, the great theological ideas of Dionysius and Augustine were brought to harmony and given iconodulic expression.
From this combination of ideas, and about this time, emerged one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Church: the art and architecture called Gothic. The other greatest achievement, polyphonic music, emerged also about this time, and perhaps under the same influences. While Hildegard’s own musical compositions were, as far as we know, all monophonic, the theology of music expressed in her epistle to the prelates of Mainz provides a motivation for polyphonic composition: the desire to make listeners hear as they would hear in a sinless world. As I wrote in my lecture Heavenly Outlook:
In the newly consecrated Gothic cathedrals, singers sang at the same time different notes; then different rhythms, different melodies and different words. Yet the music was not cacophonous, but harmonious and exceeding beautiful. It must resemble what the world sounds like from eternity, what it sounds like in the ears of the unfallen Adam, or of the bodily assumed Virgin Mary.In my own household, I plan to remember this day as a sort of holiday for sacred art and music, along with two others respectively associated with Suger and Hugh:
1 May: Dedication of the Convent at Rupertsberg
11 June: Dedication of the new Basilica of St. Denis
17 June: Translation of the Relics of St. Victor to Paris
02 April 2019
I have been working on two new systems of contiguous ornament. One is based on late medieval millefleur tapestries; it will appear on fabric patterns throughout the drawings of the Summula Pictoria. The other is loosely based on the calligraphic inscriptions in Islamic architecture. The cursive forms do not spell any actual words, except in cipher. This one will appear on the architecture of non-Hebrew ancient Semites and Persians.