11 January 2024


(For those who don’t intend to read all of this, it is never to give up your intellectual property rights.)

In the past week, a few people have written to let me know about a new international art competition, run by the Fabric of St. Peter’s Basilica. The challenge is to create a new set of Stations of the Cross, and the prize is €120,000.

That sounded intriguing enough for me to investigate. (Although I imagine that those who know me well would chuckle at the thought of my artwork being displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica. If you want to know some of the reasons, you can read this.

I am sorry to say that after reading the rules carefully, I not only decided against participating; I felt compelled to caution other artists against doing so. I find it annoying that so many (most, in my experience) art competitions are actually bad for artists. Especially since the reasons can be hard to see at first.

I will start by saying that this new competition from St. Peter’s does a couple of things well. It does not charge an entry fee. Usually, this is the first thing that makes me decline to participate. I dislike seeing organizations that claim to support the arts taking money from artists. I dislike seeing prize money rewarded that is collected from entry fees; that amounts to taking artists’ money and redistributing it amongst us. It doesn’t actually support the arts any more than a football pool would.

Thankfully, this new competition did the right thing; it secured funding from another source. The second thing I like is that it asks, as a first step, for artists to submit a portfolio and a CV.  Those whose work is in line with what the judges want are then invited to submit a sketch. I actually like this a lot; it assures that artists who have no realistic chance of winning don’t waste their time preparing entries. 

Some of you may remember a competition about six years ago, to design vestments for the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. I wrote a complaint about this also, here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/complaint-about-96263138. The most offensive thing about the WMOF competition was that the judges decided not to award the prize to ANY of the entrants, and instead to hire a liturgical arts company to design them.

This is what the results were: 

No, I do not like them either, but that is not the point. The point is that this is what the WMOF wanted all along, and instead of just going to the company with their instructions in the first place, they dangled prize money in front of artists all over the world, hoping that one of them would guess correctly what they already had in mind. What a complete waste of their valuable time that turned out to be. 

So at this point, the contest sponsored by St. Peter’s Basilica looked promising. Sure, I thought to myself, it would be something of a departure; I specialize in small ink drawings, and the winner is required to produce fourteen panels, each four feet square, in just over 14 months. So that would require new materials, a new workspace, and a different stylistic approach — there is no way that I would be able to draw at the level of detail that I usually do and produce a picture that large per month. But €120,000 is much more than I normally make over 14 months… If I work on this project and only this project, postpone all other commissions and speculative work until 2026, rearrange the basement into a painting studio, I could probably figure something out. At the end of it, I would have a set of major works that I could try to sell elsewhere, and which might generate a lot of print sales also. And I know, from experience, that working for big ecclesiastical institutions does get attention. When I was hired by the Vatican to illustrate an edition of the Roman Pontifical in 2011, it did a lot to establish my professional reputation.

Then I kept reading, and realized: Oh wait, they intend to keep the paintings, don’t they? 

At this point I sighed and realized that the artists who enter are not competing for a prize. They are competing for a commission. This money isn’t being given out as a bonus; it’s being given out as payment for the artwork. 

Now believe me, I have no problem with receiving commissions. But they aren’t prizes, not any more that any other exchange of goods or services for money is a prize. Now I started doing a different set of calculations: €120,000 means approximately $9,405 for each 4’ × 4’ painting. That is… not necessarily a lot. 

Look, I know that there are all sorts of different factors that determine the pricing of artwork. My own rates are calculated per-square-inch. Considered by area, they are higher than many other artists’ because my work is minutely detailed. But I try to price my work as low as possible, because I don’t want to be beholden to a few wealthy patrons. I like that most of my patronage comes from people of ordinary means. My ink drawings aren’t cheap, but they cost about the same as tattoos of comparable size and intricacy. And people of ordinary means can afford tattoos - just look around.

If I were asked what sort of picture I could make, at my usual level of detail, for a fair cost of $9,405, I might answer: a drawing in black ink measuring a little less than 15" × 15", centered on a larger piece of paper. (Maybe that seems expensive, but it’s about what an artist with 20 years of experience and a good reputation would charge for a full back tattoo on a very large man.)

I know that there are plenty of artists who work in looser, more abstract styles who can fill a 4’ × 4’ canvas much faster than I can fill a piece of paper. Some people like that kind of art. But most of the painters whom I admire would, I think, be selling themselves short to accept a commission like this one. 

And then, I read that the winner of this competition will only receive €20,000 in advance. How exactly is he supposed to pay his rent and feed his family during the time it takes to make fourteen big paintings? Who could afford to win this, except someone who is independently wealthy, or who paints so quickly that he can finish them all in a few months?

Then, I read that the Fabric of St. Peter’s Basilica requires, from the winner, “A formal deed of unconditional assignment of the Via Crucis, including the relative rights of use and exploitation of the work, without any constraint whatsoever”. After this, I was no longer just annoyed; I was angry.

Sometimes young or aspiring artists come to me for advice. There is one thing that I tell all of them. Please pay attention to this: If you an independent artist, making original, non-derivative work, never give up your intellectual property rights. 

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up your intellectual property rights. 


To anyone. Not to a patron, not to a publisher, not to a pope. 

If anyone asks you to sell, transfer, or relinquish the copyright to your artwork, say politely that you never do this, but that you are willing to negotiate a license for the purposes he requires. Most patrons and publishers will accept this and work out the license with you. Avoid doing business with anyone who pushes back and insists on getting the copyright from you. 

The intellectual property rights to a work of art are more valuable, in the long run, than the work itself. They may be the most valuable things, in monetary terms, that you will ever own. They are what allow you to protect the integrity of your artistic vision. They are what allow you to generate passive income from your existing work, in the form of derivative works, prints, merchandise, or licenses for reproduction. And they can continue to do this for you for the rest of your life, and for your heirs long after your death (for seventy years, if you are an American).  For an independent artist, the rights to your intellectual property are one of the only legal or economic advantages in your line of work. They function like your investment portfolio, your retirement fund, your legacy, your life insurance. 

That anyone running a contest would ask an artist to give this away offends me. Presenting it as a condition of a prize (something that the artist should be honored to receive) strikes me as absurd. If a commission were offered to me, personally, with the same terms as this supposed prize, I would decline it immediately. 

Finally, I will repeat a little of what I wrote after the WMOF competition. Art competitions don’t have to be like this. They can be fair and beneficial to everyone involved. Here are the things that I would like anyone who intends to hold one to keep in mind:

1. A competition does not inspire creativity; it merely diverts it. I imagine that some organizers of competitions, when looking at the submitted entries, think to themselves: “How wonderful that we were able to help bring all this new artwork into being!” Sorry, but no. Artists, generally, have more ideas than they have time to realize. They do not sit around idle, making nothing, until a competition is announced. The time and effort put into a competition entry is time and effort that is not put into another project. That other project may very well be more artistically excellent, more personally fulfilling, or more lucrative.

2. Paying someone fairly for his work is an obligation, not a prize. That is to say, if the prize to the competition amounts to no more than the cost of buying the winning work, it is not so much a competition as a job application process. Which is fine, but please be forthright and present it as such. 

3. It is wrong to ask job applicants to complete a task for which they will be hired (or a large part of it) before they know if they will be paid. If you want to know whether job applicants are well-suited to the task, you should determine that using the same means that any honest employer uses. You can ask for portfolios; you can ask for résumés; you can ask for interviews. Do not ask for free work.

4. If you are giving an actual prize (which is to say that the winner gets the money AND keeps his art to sell) then you are justified in asking artists to submit something brand new to the competition. But the artists should have the possibility of profiting from their work even if they lose. If the artwork that you ask them to submit is so specific to your own purpose, organization, or event that it has no chance of being sold on speculation, then you really should not hold a competition. Instead, you should find an artist whose modus operandi includes making drafts and revisions, and hire him for the job.

5. The artists should get some creative fulfillment from their work even if they lose. If you have such a specific idea in mind for the winner that you need to include a lot of detailed instructions about how the entrants should approach the project, then you really should not hold a competition. Instead, you should find an artist who is willing to collaborate with you to realize a project over which you exercise artistic control. The entrants should not be asked to forgo both artistic control and the certainty of payment.

6. The artists should get some publicity for their effort even if they lose. Display the entries, or a least the finalists, after deciding upon a winner. This will also hold you accountable for making a good decision.

7. Promise to give out the prize. If you are concerned that there will not be enough entrants, then do more to attract them to the competition. That no artist will give you exactly what you want is the risk that you assume when you hold a competition. The entrants should not be required to assume that risk instead.

8. Do not charge an entry fee. If the artists are providing the work, then the money should flow to them, not the other way. If you are using the entry fees to subsidize the prize, then you are just making the money flow about the pool of entrants, not into it. If you have no money to give away — don’t hold a competition until you have raised some. That is what organizations that support the arts are supposed to do: raise funds to give to artists, or to spend on things that actually benefit them. If you only have a little money, know that offering a little prize is better than taking money from artists in order to offer a big one. 

9. But first, cover the expenses associated with entering and winning the competition, such as postage, return postage, and framing. Make it reasonably easy, convenient, and costless for artists to participate. 

10. Do not make any claim on the intellectual property of the submitted artwork, whether it wins the prize or not. If you want a license to use the artwork for specific purposes, negotiate that separately.

07 October 2023


I am reorganizing my business in the hope of making it more efficient, thus giving myself more time for creating original artwork. I have decided to move this web log over to my Patreon page. The sort of content that I have posted here will be made available to the public for free, and I am about to start re-posting the archives of this web log there. Please update your bookmarks to:


Thank you,

Daniel Mitsui

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.

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.
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.

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


The Hospitality of Abraham is the 85th drawing in the Summula Pictoria. This essay explains my entire process for composing and making this work. Click on the image below to read the .pdf.

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.  

Allegory of Prudence, Giotto di Bondone 

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. 

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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.

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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.