19 May 2022
14 February 2022
17 August 2021
04 August 2021
20 May 2021
This is an excerpt from a lecture I gave earlier this year, via Zoom, to The Society for the Renewal of the Catholic Mind.
I am a traditionally-minded Catholic, and I keep the company of other traditionally-minded Catholics. I have observed that many traditionally-minded Catholics agree more over what religious art they dislike and oppose than of what they like and support.What do they dislike? That is obvious: art influenced by 20th century modernism. They dislike abstract or semi-abstract painting, sculpture, and graphic art; they dislike churches with low ceilings, round layout, and minimal decoration. They dislike liturgical music patterned on folk-pop.
Well, I do too. Certainly I dislike all of that. However, I have seen that fixating on this dislike does little to contribute to a revival of anything good. Grievance is uninspiring. Certainly, it has proven to be an extraordinarily powerful force in all kinds of politics. But art does not measure its success in political currency, and does not thrive when treated as a political tool. Religious art is one of those rare things that has the ability to fascinate, to inspire, to encourage, to convince all sorts of people, even the faithless. That ability is lost when it is presented as belonging only to a particular sort of right-believing, right-behaving person. It ought to welcome everyone.
Aside from a shared dislike of Modernism, traditionally-minded Catholics agree on very little where religious art is concerned. They agree vaguely about the importance of beauty and the necessity of tradition, but without defining either term meaningfully. The history of religious art is wide, varied, complicated, and contentious. What kind of art, really, are we trying to make or revive, and why? I believe that discussion can be had with both candor and respect.
I cannot define beauty as a theologian or a philosopher, because I am neither. I am an artist, and an artist concerns himself less with rules in the abstract than with the question of what works and what does not.
I also want to be very clear that I make no claim whatsoever to speak for the entire Catholic tradition. I have come to realize that the theology of beauty that I embrace is specific; it is indebted to Dionysius, the author of The Celestial Hierarchy and The Divine Names, and to the exegetical works of Augustine and other church fathers. These Dionysian and Augustinian influences were brought together in the 12th century, by Hugh of St. Victor, Suger of St. Denis, Hildegard of Bingen, and some others.
This theology of beauty is not the only one proposed in the history of Catholic religious art; there are celebrated thinkers and canonized saints who disagree with it. In its time, it was resisted by Bernard of Clairvaux. It is far, far apart from the mind of someone like Pius X. I nonetheless am convinced that Hugh and Suger and Hildegard were right, because their understanding of religious art and music led to so extraordinary a flourishing of both. All Gothic art and architecture, and most of western art music, follow in some way from their insight.
Hildegard perhaps said it best in her epistle to the prelates of Mainz:
Adam lost that angelic voice which he had in Paradise, for he fell asleep to that knowledge which he possessed before his sin, just as a person on waking up only dimly remembers what he had seen in his dreams.... God, however, restores the souls of the elect to that pristine blessedness by infusing them with the light of truth so that they might, by means of His interior illumination, regain some of that knowledge which Adam had before he was punished for his sin.Hildegard speaks here of music, but the lesson here can be applied, I think, to all forms of art. The recognition of beauty is, essentially, a nostalgia for Eden, a vague memory of blessedness that was not entirely destroyed in the fall. Beautiful music and art are means to elevate the heart and mind toward that blessedness; in this way, beauty is like virtue.
And so the holy prophets, inspired by the Spirit which they had received, were called for this purpose: not only to compose psalms and canticles (by which the hearts of listeners would be inflamed) but also to construct various kinds of musical instruments to enhance these songs of praise with melodic strains. Thereby, both through the form and quality of the instruments, as well as through the meaning of the words that accompany them, those who hear might be taught about inward things, since they have been admonished and aroused by outward things. In such a way, these holy prophets get beyond the music of this exile and recall to mind that divine melody of praise which Adam, in company with the angels, enjoyed in God before his fall.
What follows from this is that religious art can never be considered a completed task. It has no center, no pinnacle, no ideal within the fallen world. Its ideal is something so beautiful that the weakness of mortal man would be unable to endure it; this is how Hildegard described Adam’s original voice.
I rankle when, for example, I hear Orthodox Christians echo the Russian synod of 1551 to assert that Andrey Rublev’s icons are the perfect standard of sacred painting. I rankle when I read Pius X’s motu proprio from 1903, which declared that Gregorian Chant is and has always been the supreme model for sacred music.
Now both the Russian bishops in the 16th century, and the pope at the start of the 20th, were concerned with what they saw as an abundance of new, bad religious art. They wanted to get rid of the new, bad art - so they found an example of old, good art free from the same corrupting influences, and instructed everyone to imitate that instead. It’s understandable, tempting today - when facing the aesthetic banality of contemporary Catholicism - to want someone to command: just do things the way they were done, back there, back then.
But this approach diminishes immeasurably the meaning and purpose of sacred art. The heart and mind cannot be elevated back to the blessedness of Eden if they must stop at some point in history and go no further. The icons of Andrey Rublev, and the monophonic chants of medieval monks, fall far from their holy task; their makers were, always, trying to make them into things better than what they were already. Gregorian chant might better be defined, not as the everlasting supreme model for sacred music, but as unrealized polyphony; polyphony as the unrealized form of something better yet to come.
Not being a musician or musicologist, I do not wish to dwell too long on Pius X’s motu proprio. I bring it up only because Tra le Sollecitudini , despite its instructions long having been superseded by other documents, and its assertions largely having been discredited by better scholarship, is quoted all the time. So many traditionally-minded Catholics hold it up as an example of what religious authorities ought to do, as far as sacred art is concerned; they wish that a comparable document existed treating the subject of visual art and architecture.
I thank God that it does not. The forceful wielding of power by bishops has rarely been good for religious art; the last time it was applied to painting and sculpture on a wide scale, Gothic art was ruined for centuries. I speak here of the campaign of art reform undertaken by the Flemish bishop Jean Molanus in the late 16th century. In a highly influential book, an instruction manual of sorts for diocesan art censors, he subjected the whole tradition of religious art up to his time to scrutiny, condemning anything that he found obscure or misleading. The art historian Emile Mâle elaborates:
Symbolism, the very soul of 13th century art, that beautiful idea that rhythm, number, and hierarchy are the fundamental laws of the universe - all the world of ideas in which the old theologians and artists had dwelled was closed to Molanus. The little he says about hierarchy indicates that the spirit of the works of the past was completely foreign to him. He though it of no importance whether St. Paul was placed before St. Peter, whether the Virgin was shown at the left or the right side of Christ, or whether one order of saints was placed before another in heaven. As for symbolism itself, he scarcely deigns to allude to it.... To read Molanus is to sense that the old symbols were withering and dying. There is not one line in all his book that has to do with the famous concordance between the Old and New Testaments.That these traditions endured for so long, and that they were able to be revived later, is largely in spite of, rather than because of, interference from bishops.
Religious art ought be be traditional; but what does that entail? Among Catholics, the word traditional has acquired a misleading connotation in recent years. Usually it is applied to those who attend the old Latin Mass. And I am indeed one of them, and have been for a long time.
However, I have come to recognize that the people who gravitate to traditional liturgy do so for all sorts of different reasons, many of which are not really about tradition per se. Some of them come for the sake of paranoia; they are afraid of evil forces that have corrupted everything else. Some come for the sake of propriety; they are attached to a certain kind of bygone manners, dress, family discipline, and pious expression. Many come for the sake of politics; they see traditional liturgy as the place where the right wing worships.
Now I do not think that there is anything especially wrong with the fact that traditional liturgy attracts such people; very paranoid people, very proper people, and very right-wing people need to go to church like everyone else, and traditional liturgy ought to welcome everyone.
The problem is that many of the people who call themselves traditional Catholics will confuse tradition itself with their own motivations for seeking it out. And many of them get insecure, competitive, or judgmental about who is really traditional, or who is more traditional than whom. When really, they are asking who is more paranoid, or more proper, or more politically extreme.
What this means is that traditional Catholic art has to be considered a different thing from art that traditional Catholics like.
The very proper people just want art and music that feels familiar and churchy, and that excludes so much of the best of it, and almost anything newly created. The political people see religious art as an expression of loyalty, judged usually on superficial characteristics like the choice of materials or musical instruments. Felt is left-wing; lace is right-wing, or something like that. The merits of the art, the imagination and craftsmanship and erudition and effort that went into its making, barely matter. To the extremely paranoid, any art that is unfamiliar or difficult to understand is suspected of being occult.
In my understanding, tradition is not a matter of politics or manners or sides; it is a matter of epistemology. It concerns the question: aside from what is obvious in the Sacred Scriptures, how does a Catholic know what he knows? You might answer: from the Magisterium, or cite some official document. But this doesn’t answer the question, really. The Magisterium is composed of bishops. Bishops write the documents. How do the bishops know what they know?
I think there are basically three ways to answer that. One is: from ecclesiastical tradition. There are liturgical and exegetical practices, beliefs and behaviors that endure among the faithful over time and in many places; these tell the bishops what they need to know to make their judgments and to write their documents. This is an important point - because the ecclesiastical traditions need to be there before the documents are signed, they matter most when they are yet unofficial.
The second way to answer the question is: the bishops know what they know by testing the limits of their own infallibility. If the right authority signs the right sort of document, it must be correct because God did not prevent him from doing so. The third way is to say that the Spirit is always leading them, and not to be bothered much if they say or do something that has never been said or done before. I consider myself a traditionalist because I think the first answer is the right and normal way of things. What does that mean where art is concerned?
Well, it means that learning how to make traditional art is more than a matter of reading the official documents. There are very few related to this subject, and as I said, I am glad of that. The artist’s best guide is ecclesiastical tradition itself; the sacred liturgy, the writings of the church fathers, the art of the past. Traditional art corroborates these.
So how does an artist who wants to make religious art, who wants to make it both beautiful and traditional, to glorify God and edify men through it, answer the challenge of doing that in a changing world?
He should choose his influences - both visual and intellectual - out of love. He should love them for what they are, rather than for what they are not.
No matter how devoted he is to a certain kind of art or school of thought, he should remember that it is incomplete and imperfect. He can and should try to make it better. This is an altogether traditional thing to do.
He should be open to whatever medium, whatever materials, whatever methods work best to express his artistry. A willingness to be bold, technically, is another altogether traditional thing to do.
He should not consider religious art to be a political tool, or encourage its use as such.
He should look to every kind of art - whether it comes from within the Church or without it - asking the questions: what works? and what can this teach me to make my art better? God is the author of all beauty; as Augustine says, the mines of his providence are everywhere scattered abroad.
He should ask the same question even of art that he considers generally bad: What works? What can this teach me? The answer may be: very little. But if it is anything at all, he should accept the lesson.
He should not expect official church documents to provide him all of his answers. The tradition upon which any document depends already exists and provides answers abundantly; anyone who is willing to do some research can learn from it.
That is my advice, to myself and to anyone who makes or wants to make religious art. To anyone who wants to appreciate or understand or patronize it, I encourage him to seek out the work of contemporary artists who do this. Thank you.
15 April 2021
01 February 2021
08 September 2020
The halo may be the most readily recognized symbol in Christian art, and it is seemingly the simplest: a golden circle about the head, indicating sanctity. Yet this symbol has many variations over the centuries of Christian art. Some are stylistic, and I will say little about those except to note that I abhor the practice of depicting a halo in perspective, as a hovering ellipse. No one who has read my opinions on perspective in sacred art would be surprised by this. But some variations on the halo are significant, indeed ingenious. When drawing the Summula Pictoria, I intend to draw upon many of these significant variations, using them consistently in order to communicate much more than simple sanctity.
Not all halos are circular. Hexagonal (or less commonly octagonal and square) halos adorn the heads of allegorical figures representing the Virtues in many paintings of the late Middle Ages, such as the frescos that Giotto painted on the ceiling of the basilica at Assisi. I rarely draw purely allegorical figures in my religious art, and do not plan to do so in the Summula Pictoria except as background statuary; were I to draw them, I would use hexagonal halos. Several late medieval Italian paintings from the worksop of Bernardo Daddi give a hexagonal halo to St. Longinus; I have no idea why.
Mosaic of Pope John VII
Square halos appear in early mosaics, indicating sanctity on persons still living when the work of art was made. Usually this is a churchman, or whatever king or queen or emperor funded the building of the church that the mosaic adorns. In traditional Christian number symbolism, four represents the natural world and humanity, just as three represents the spiritual world and divinity. Their sum seven and product twelve represent the interaction of nature and spirit, and of man and God. The four sides of the square correspond to the natural quaternities: directions, seasons, elements, bodily humors.
Despite the fact that the square halo represents a lower order of holiness than the circular halo, it nonetheless bothers me. To place any artistic indication of holiness on a living man or woman, who has yet to be judged by God, seems presumptuous and sycophantic. Worldly honor may be due to a person for a great act of charity, such as funding the building a church. But the word of God is clear: Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Given how many persons presumed to be living saints proved, upon evidence revealed later, to be scoundrels, I would be happy to see this artistic practice abandoned altogether - or very nearly so.
I say very nearly so because I can think of two (and only two) persons on whom it would be appropriate. Two persons are alive today whom we may believe with confidence, based on the sacred scriptures and traditions, will be counted among the elect after their natural deaths: I speak here of the patriarch Enoch and the prophet Elijah. The former was taken by God, and the latter ascended to Heaven in the fiery chariot. Tradition identifies these two men with the witnesses in the 11th chapter of the Revelation to St. John, who will return from Heaven to prophesy in the reign of the Antichrist, suffer martyrdom, then rise from the dead and ascend into Heaven after three days. Thus, in the Summula Pictoria, I will depict Enoch and Elijah with square halos - and nobody else.
* * *
A curious sort of halo is characteristic of late medieval Spanish painting. It is a cusped octagon, seen for example adorning the head of St. Joseph in the Adoration of the Magi panel by Blasco de Grañén. In other panel paintings of this time, it appears on the heads of Ss. Joachim and Anna; of Simeon; of Abraham and Moses.
Adoration of the Magi, Blasco de Grañén
As fas as I can tell, this sort of halo was used only for saints of the Old Testament; that is to say, for holy persons who died before the Resurrection, whose souls descended to the Limbo of the Patriarchs and were present when Jesus Christ broke the doors of Hell and released its captives.
To the medieval mind, the distinction between saints of the Old Testament and saints of the New was important. In the occidental medieval Church, the former were rarely commemorated liturgically; this explains the absence, so to contemporary Roman Catholics, of specific devotion to St. Joseph before the late fifteenth century. According to the Golden Legend, a medieval encyclopedia of hagiographies,
It is worthy of note that the Eastern Church celebrates the feasts of saints of both the Old and New Testaments. The Western Church, on the other hand, does not celebrate feasts of saints of the Old Testament, on the ground that they descended into Hell - exceptions being made for the Holy Innocents, in each of whom Christ was put to death, and for the [seven] Maccabees.... The number seven is the number of universality. In these seven saints are represented all the Old Testament fathers who deserve to be celebrated.
I do not know why the octagonal halo for saints of the Old Testament was invented in 15th century Spain. I suspect it may be because many of the faithful at that time and place were converts from Judaism; these included Juan de Levi, the painter who trained Blasco de Grañén, and Esperandeu de Santa Fe, one of his major patrons. They perhaps gave more thought and care to the special manner in which persons such as Abraham were saved.
* * *
I do not plan to use the octagonal halo in the Summula Pictoria, but I do plan to use a distinctive halo for saints of the Old Testament. Here, I draw upon patristic writings in which the New Testament is associated with the clear light of the Sun. St. Ambrose calls Jesus Christ the Sun of Justice. To the saints of the New Testament, I give golden (solar) halos, each with an inner circle and an outer ring, with dark blue between them.
The Old Testament is associated with the uncertain and reflected light of the Moon. To the saints of the Old Testament, I gave silver (lunar) haloes; for these, crescents replace the outer ring, except on those who encountered the Sun of Justice face to face. Joseph, Simeon and Anna, Zachary and Elizabeth have fully circular outer rings on their halos. So do Adam and Eve before the Fall, and Moses who was present at the Transfiguration.
As I explained in my lecture Heavenly Outlook, the traditional perspective of Christian art is that of looking out of Heaven to things happening on the Earth; thus light sources and vanishing points are behind the viewer rather than within the picture. For this reason, I now draw the crescent moon halos on the patriarchs and prophets to the left - not to indicate a waning crescent, but to indicate a waxing crescent seen from the other side. As a waxing crescent, it indicates that the patriarchs and prophets are getting closer and closer to the revelation of the New Testament.
That one side of the Moon that is perpetually hidden from the Earth is an apt symbol for God’s relationship with the Gentiles during the Old Testament; His light shone on them as well, but nothing of it was specifically revealed to us on the Earth. For that reason, in those instances when a pagan, such as Nebuchadnezzar or the Tiburtine Sibyl, has a prophetic role in the Summula Pictoria, I draw the halo with a crescent moon facing the opposite way.
The assigning of halos to the saints of the Old Testament presumes some confidence that they are eternally saved; in most cases, the sacred scriptures and the liturgical and iconographic and patristic traditions support this confidence. In the cases of Samson and Solomon, the matter is not so simple; both men committed serious evils during their lives, and there is no biblical record of their repentance. In the 14th century, St. Mechtilde received a revelation that God had forgiven Samson and Solomon - and Origen as well - but chose to hide that forgiveness from men, lest others presume on their strength, wisdom, or learning to save them. Following that, I choose to give lunar halos to Samson and Solomon, but without the outer ring or crescent; in its place is the dark blue of the night sky, like a new moon that cannot be seen.
* * *
I have not yet mentioned the undoubtedly greatest saint of the Old Testament, John the Baptist, who of course is liturgically celebrated, and crowned with a halo in traditional Christian art, despite having descended to the Limbo of the Patriarchs.
St. John has a special place between the two Testaments; although he died before the Resurrection, he was cleansed from sinfulness at the time that he leaped in his mother’s womb. And in descending to the dead, he acted as a prophet and forerunner of the coming Savior, just as he did among the living.
The Virgin Mary also has a special place between the two Testaments; for this reason, she and John have their own special halos in the Summula Pictoria. Mary’s has a golden outer circle and a silver inner circle, with the light blue sky of day between them. John’s has a silver outer circle and a golden inner circle, with the dark sky of night between them.
* * *
The so-called cruciform halo is perhaps the most commonly used and best known variant of the halo, used to indicate a Divine Person - the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost. It is a golden circle with a cross (often red) inscribed within it.
It was pointed out by some art historian - I forget which - that the notion that this halo is indeed cruciform is not altogether clear. On the person of Jesus Christ, the bottom part of the cross is obscured by His neck and body, and may perhaps not be there at all. Is the halo intended to indicate a cross, and thus refer to the Sacrifice on Calvary, or is intended to indicate the Holy Trinity, with three branches, not four?
I rather prefer the second interpretation, as it seems to make more sense when the Divine Person depicted is the Father or the Holy Ghost, neither of whom died on Calvary. In the Summula Pictoria, I draw the Father in the symbolic form of a hand, and the Holy Ghost in the symbolic form of a dove. In either, I draw three branches rather than four in the halo, not necessarily at right angles.
Mosaic of Jesus Christ at Ravenna. Made during the Arian rule of Theodoric the Ostrogoth. The cruciform halo was added later, when the church passed into orthodox hands.
* * *
For angels, and for anyone who is divinely inspired - such as the Apostles at Pentecost, or the Evangelists writing their Gospels - I draw the outer ring blazing, with tongues of flame reaching upward. This kind of halo is common in Persian miniature painting. For the opposite - demonically possessed persons, such as Judas in his act of betrayal - the halo is black, the outer ring smoking rather than blazing. The black halo for Judas is not uncommon in Christian art - Fra Angelico uses it, for example, in his painting of the Sermon on the Mount. I am reserving it only for those events in which the sacred scriptures clearly indicate a demonic presence.
Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico
To indicate a person who is glorified, such as Jesus Christ at His Transfiguration, or after His Resurrection, I draw the halo radiant, with beams of light projecting from its outer ring.
02 July 2020
The conquered peoples of Canaan: Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites &c Philistines
The Queen of Sheba and her retinue
Medians (Darius and his court)
Albrecht Dürer, drawing made to illustrate Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica
Saturn, from the Ovide Moralisé published by Colard Mansion
Gentile da Fabriano, detail from Adoration of the Magi