20 May 2021

HANDING DOWN, NOT HOLDING BACK

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

On DRAWING the HOSPITALITY of ABRAHAM

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

CROWN THEM with MANY CROWNS: HALOS in the SUMMULA PICTORIA



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. 


* * *


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

SUMMULA PICTORIA #232: MARTYRDOM of THOMAS the APOSTLE





SUMMULA PICTORIA #190: ESPOUSALS of MARY and JOSEPH




An IMAGINARY EGYPT, GREECE, and BABYLON



In most of my religious artwork, and especially in the Summula Pictoria, I depict a common material culture, that of the European Middle Ages. The clothing, architecture, arms and armor, horse tack, tools, scientific and musical instruments resemble those depicted in illuminated manuscripts, panel paintings, and tapestries from the1 4th and 15th centuries. Thisis regardless of whether the events depicted are from the Book of Genesis or the Acts of the Apostles. In an earlier essay (A Defense of Prophets and Apostles in Medieval Clothing), I explained why I choose to do this rather than take an approach that would represent with archaeological accuracy the various material cultures of the ancient world. 

My intention is to draw meaningful connections between chronologically distant events; that is, to do visually what the Church Fathers did in their exegetical writings that associated the happenings of the Gospel with their prefigurements in the Old Testament. This is made much easier by being able to depict important objects - such as swords, crowns, or chalices - identically in drawings of events separated by thousands of years. I choose late medieval material culture because the artwork of this era is my favorite, and the strongest influence upon my own artwork. 

However, this approach presents another problem. Sometimes, the difference between cultures is itself important - between, for example, that of the Hebrews and the Egyptians, or between the Hebrews and the Babylonians. Considering the entire range of events depicted in the Summula Pictoria, the peoples that need to be distinguished include: 

Egyptians
The conquered peoples of Canaan: Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites &c Philistines
The Queen of Sheba and her retinue
Assyrians
Babylonians
Medians (Darius and his court)
Persians
Samaritans
Greeks
Romans
Indians 

Now the obvious choice for a visual artist who wants to distinguish between these peoples is to depict their own particular decorative art and material culture, especially when these are well-known, as they are for ancient Egypt. But since I am eschewing an archaeological approach for the Summula Pictoria, it makes little sense for me to employ it selectively; how jarring it would look to depict Moses and Aaron dressed in medieval garb, standing in a Pharaonic court recreated from ancient artifacts! 

My own choice, while perhaps more difficult, is more consistent with my overall approach to religious art. I am creating a distinct decorative art for each of the cultures depicted in my drawings. But this is based not on modern archaeological knowledge; it is based on the way that these cultures were understood in the European Middle Ages. I am asking myself what an artist of the generation of Martin Schongauer might have thought about ancient Egypt and how he might have imagined it and depicted it. The answer to that question is where I am starting, and what I am elaborating. 

This approach requires me to set aside the more specific knowledge of ancient Egypt available to a scholar living long after the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone and the excavation of Tutankhamen’s tomb. It requires me even to set aside my own memories of admiring ancient Egyptian art in Chicago’s Field Museum and Oriental Institute. By setting aside that, I am able to concern myself more specifically with the significance of ancient Egypt to western Christianity, and to Gothic art. What is its iconic meaning? 

Albrecht Dürer, drawing made to illustrate Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica 

As far as ancient Egypt is concerned, an artist of the 15th century might have known that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphic writing, and believed that these pictures contained hidden meanings. But he probably would have known this through Horapollo’s Hieroglyphica, which was circulating among the intellectuals of the time, rather than direct observation of artifacts. Indeed, the drawings that Albrecht Dürer made to illustrate this text show very clearly how the hieroglyphics were imagined; stylistically, at least, in the same manner as European heraldic art. 

An artist of the 15th century might have known the oracle to Pharaoh Thoulis recorded by John Malalas. He might have had some interest in the Asclepius and the Corpus Hermeticum. Those curious wisdom texts attributed to the ancient Egyptian sage Hermes Trismegistus had been considered by Lactantius and a few of the other Church Fathers to include prophecies of Jesus Christ. By the end of the Middle Ages, alchemy based on the hermetic tradition was widely practiced in Europe. 

While I have little interest in alchemy itself, I appreciate the broad-minded consideration of the ancient wisdom traditions as expressions of longing for the yet-to-be revealed truth, rather than as mere pagan folly. I am looking forward to depicting statues of Thoth and Imhotep - whom the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt associated with Hermes and Asclepius - in the background when drawing Moses and Aaron confronting the Egyptian magicians. The symbolic associations of the various rods and snakes will be very interesting to illustrate! 

Now I am fully aware that most scholars consider the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus to be newer than the New Testament; their author was unlikely to have been, as previously thought, a contemporary of Moses. Likewise, the oracle to Thoulis is commonly considered an invention of the Christian era. And Horapollo’s interpretation of hieroglyphic writing, while still very interesting for what it reveals about Horapollo, is now known to be almost completely incorrect. 

My intention in using this imagery is not to perpetuate falsehood. It is, rather, to present a broader truth that might have been lost in a more literal, archaeological presentation: that the culture of the Egyptians was mysterious and magical, indeed dangerously so, but still of great interest to Christians and, in its own way, prophetic.

I will mention also that there are many fascinating symbols in the traditions of Christian sacred art that are unworthy of literal belief - the legends of the bestiary, for example, that attribute behaviors to lions or pelicans that no zoologist has recently observed. When I present these images in the Summula Pictoria, it is always on damask, or on architectural ornament, or as statuary; that is to say, on things made by people. This is the same way I include legends associated with the Egyptians and other peoples. 

*** 

Ancient Greece and Rome were of course much more familiar to the artists of the European Middle Ages than ancient Egypt; their languages, and much of their literature, philosophy, mathematics, and architecture were still known and studied and admired. Classical ideas such as the seven planets, the four elements and the four humors were granted their place in Christian symbolism. Plato’s Timæus was considered, by the 12th century scholars of Chartes, nearly as authoritative as the Book of Genesis. 

Saturn, from the Ovide Moralisé published by Colard Mansion 

A curious text of the 14th century, the Ovide Moralisé, applied the same exegetical method to the Metamorphoses that the Church Fathers applied to the Old Testament, seeing symbols of Jesus and Mary in the Roman myths. I intend to depict scenes from the Ovide Moralisé in stained glass windows throughout the Summula Pictoria, when the events depicted happen in a building built by Romans. 

*** 

I have somewhat less to work with when considering the pagan nations of Asia that are so prominent in the Old Testament as conquerors and captors of the Hebrews: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and the Persians. There was little direct knowledge of these nations, their art, and their literature in the era of Gothic art. Examples of cuneiform writing, for example, were not know in Europe until the 17th century. 

A fascinating chapter in Emile Mâle’s study Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century explains one way in which ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian traditions found their way into Christian art: through the influence of imported fabrics. During the Sassanid Empire, very ancient literary and artistic traditions were revived, and the Sassanid weavers copied the figures of Gilgamesh and the Lammasu onto their damasks. These same traditions were continued in textile workshops after the Arab conquest, and spread throughout Islamdom. The fabrics were traded to Europe, hung in churches, wrapped about relics, and copied by Christian artists. This explains why Gilgamesh and the Lammasu appear in the capitals of 12th century churches in France; their actual identity was probably unknown to the sculptors, except as a curious decoration seen on damask. 

Some medieval intellectuals knew the name of Zoroaster, but this was the Hellenistic Zoroaster, known not so much as the prophet of the Persian religion but as the inventor of magic and astrology. His inclusion as a statue (alongside Ostanes and Hystaspes) in the Summula Pictoria serves the same purpose as the statue of Hermes Trismegistus, and that of Timæus of Locri; I do not mean to endorse either false history or occult practice, but simply to portray the wisdom traditions of the ancient pagans with some sympathy, as expressions of a noble want ultimately fulfilled in the Adoration of the Magi on Epiphany. 

However, an artist of the European Middle Ages, when asked to imagine the culture of Assyria or Babylon or Persia, would probably think less of these obscure figures than of the culture of the peoples now living in those foreign lands. I believe that his imagination of their architecture and decoration would have been strongly impressed by Islamic art. 

Islamic art was known in medieval Europe, from the memories of crusaders and pilgrims, from the artistic legacy left by the Moorish conquerors of Sicily and Iberia, and from the trade of portable goods such as damask and carpets and metalwork. 

Gentile da Fabriano, detail from Adoration of the Magi 

By the 14th and 15th centuries, it was common for these goods to show up in Christian paintings. In Gentile da Fabriano’s famed Adoration of the Magi, the halo behind the Virgin Mary’s head is modeled on a Mamluk platter, complete with Arabic calligraphy spelling gibberish. 

This sort of imitation reveals the magnanimity of Christian artists in deeming all beautiful forms worthy of being offered to God in sacred art, It was never more appropriate than in a painting where the Kings of the Orient offer their treasures to the Christ Child. I take this as a sufficient precedent for imagining those treasures of the Orient in the guise of Islamic art. And personally, I am an enthusiastic admirer of this art, and eager to make it an influence on my own. I am fascinated by girih tiles, muqarnas, thuluth script, and square kufic. 

Now obviously it would be anachronistic and misleading to introduce the doctrines of Mohammed into illustrations of the Bible, and that is not my intention. I avoid depicting any specifically Islamic imagery or writing. I have designed geometric patterns inspired by girih tiles, but I do not use the same set of five basic shapes that were used to lay out the ornament in medieval mosques. Instead, I designed my own tiles, based on shapes with 3, 4, 6, 8, 12 and 24 sides. 

I decorate buildings with calligraphic ornament, inspired by thuluth script. But the script is not actually Arabic; it is pseudo-Arabic, like the letters on the halo in Gentile da Fabriano’s painting. The only difference is that, rather than being complete gibberish, it is a cryptogram that I use to encode messages in Latin.