25 May Nothingness Doesn’t Reflect God
An Interview with Chicago Artist Daniel Mitsui
REGINA writer Meghan Cesar interviews Daniel Mitsui, a Chicago-based Catholic artist, who supports his growing family creating Gothic religious artwork. Mitsui uses medieval materials to make timeless illustrations rich in symbolism, color, and Biblical truths. He believes it was the beauty and rich teachings in Gothic art that helped to convert him to the Faith and which can now help to convert our modern world.
REGINA: Your art is Catholic, but you were not raised Catholic.
Daniel: I seized upon the idea of being an artist as a profession as a teenager, and in college it become clear it was how I wanted to make a living. I wasn’t focused on religious artwork then; I wasn’t raised in an observant Catholic household, although my mother was nominally Catholic. I was not baptized as an infant, and had little religious formation. Religious art became my own interest as I had a medieval aesthetic even as a child with medieval style in books or films. But in college, I was trying to do more modern things.
I didn’t get my idea of what it meant to be Catholic from my family, rather, it was from but reading parts of the Bible on my own, learning Catholic Church history in school, and especially the religious artwork that I enjoyed. It wasn’t until I was 22 that I completed my sacraments and thought I should go back to my first love, specifically medieval art, most of which is of course religious.
REGINA: Why does the medieval appeal to you?
Daniel: Medieval books are the single biggest influence on my aesthetic, particularly illuminated manuscripts. The style, and the approach that I have is similar is similar to that of a medieval scribe or illuminator. My work is done on a small scale, mostly with ink and vellum (calfskin).
REGINA: And this is ‘Gothic’, correct?
Daniel: Gothic is the term art historians use for a kind of medieval art that started in the middle of the 12th century. It was influenced by the Church Fathers, in its principles of composition and its use of symbolism to express theological truths. But Gothic art represents a great advance beyond earlier sacred art, in its beauty, its order, its complexity and refinement. Abbot Suger of St. Denis was the catalyst for the beginning of Gothic art.
Gothic art started in France and flourished in the giant cathedrals’ architecture and glass and statuary. Because I make small-scale drawings, I study also later works of Gothic art from the 14th and 15th centuries – the masterpieces in two-dimensional media, such as the illuminated manuscripts of Pucelle, the panel paintings of Van Eyck, millefleur tapestries and early printmaking. By that time, Gothic art had become an international style throughout Latin Christendom; it was embraced by the faithful in England, Spain, northern Italy, Bohemia. By that time, it had even begun to incorporate artistic forms from foreign lands; late Gothic painters used Islamic gold platters as models for haloes, and depicted oriental carpets beneath heavenly thrones.
REGINA: You are a great aficionado of Lindisfarne.
Daniel: When I was 14 years old, I first encountered reproductions of pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels. This is a manuscript made in a Northumbrian monastery around the year 700. It is a toweringly great work of art, and had an enormous impact on me.
The Lindisfarne Gospels of course predates the era of Gothic art; most observers would call its style Celtic. But I think that is demonstrates the same sort of catholicity and magnanimity as the International Gothic; on its pages are Celtic patterns, capital letters resembling Germanic runes, script derived from Coptic and Greek handwriting, portraits of the Evangelists similar to Roman mosaics.
REGINA: Tell us about the typology in Gothic art.
Daniel: In Gothic art, visual forms reflect invisible truths. God is like a light that illuminates the world; everything created reflects it, and teaches us something of God.
Typology connects the events of the Old Testament to events in the life of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. The Old Testament is like a shadow of the New. To use an example taught by Christ Himself, the serpent raised by Moses in the wilderness that healed the snakebitten Israelites from their wounds is a type of Christ lifted up on the Cross to heal us from sin. The Church Fathers applied this method to every word of holy writ, and the artists followed their teaching.
REGINA: And the natural symbolism?
Daniel: This symbolic vision was directed also to the natural world. Beasts, birds, plants, stones, celestial bodies all have allegorical meanings. I maintain this tradition, and expand it – for example, by applying it to American or Australian animals. Because the sun represents the full revelation of God in the New Testament, I draw saints with gold haloes. Because the moon represents the Old Testament, I draw prophets and patriarchs with silver haloes.
REGINA: What is ‘sacred mathematics’?
Daniel: The Church Fathers interpreted all of the numbers that appear in the sacred scriptures symbolically, for it was God who ordered all things in number and measure and weight. Three represents divinity, for God exists in three Persons. Four represents mankind and the created world; the time and space inhabited by mankind have four basic divisions, the seasons of the year and the cardinal directions that correspond to the rivers flowing out of Paradise. The interaction of Heaven and Earth, of God and Man, is represented by twelve and seven, the product and sum of three and four. This is why twelve and seven appear again and again in holy writ.
REGINA: You say you’re a revivalist, not a re-enactor depicting previous art.
Daniel: I don’t think of Gothic as a historic style that requires me to pretend that I am making art living in 12th Century. I think of it as an especially excellent kind of Christian art that upholds principles that are always and everywhere true, even now. If we read the Old Testament, we can still see prefigurements and illustrate them. If we look at the natural world we can still symbols in plants and animals. I do not feel obligated to use symbols that are based on faulty knowledge of the natural world – for example, a pelican reviving its dead chicks with its blood – but I do feel obligated to seek the symbol with the knowledge that I have. I have used lyrebirds and chameleons as symbols of universality, for the former seems to contain within itself all sounds, and the latter all colors.
I also do not feel obligated to pretend an ignorance of cultures or peoples unknown to medieval artists. I accept the influence of Japanese art, for example. That is in the true spirit of Gothic art; to admire beauty in all of its forms, and to find a way to offer it back to God.
“Jesus Christ instructed his Apostles: Teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. This Great Commission can be illustrated by figuratively baptizing the art of all nations. Doing this requires Christian artists to let go of historic and current enmities. Yes, for centuries Moors and Turks waged wars of conquest against Christendom. Japanese Buddhists long persecuted the Church with horrific brutality. The Romans fed the saints to lions; the culture preserved by Cassiodorus was the culture of Diocletian. Christian artists should not ignore any of that.
But they nonetheless should see truth, beauty and goodness in the cultural treasury of all nations, and fashion sacred art from it to honor Jesus Christ. This is the visual expression both of Christianity’s universal prerogative and its peculiar commandment: Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.” (from Daniel’s lecture “Gold out of Egypt”).
REGINA: You love beautiful elaborate Churches and contend that modernism has simplified many churches to the point of stark bareness.
Daniel: In a very literate society, it is easy to think of the definition of prayer as thinking pious thoughts to yourself. Anyone who thinks that is going to consider especially beautiful artwork or music as a distraction, and to consider artwork or music ‘prayerful’ or ‘reverent’ when it really is just easy to ignore.
The theology of beauty that was articulated by Hugh of St. Victor and Suger of St. Denis encourages a very different way of considering prayer. The ability to delight in beauty is a vestige of the prelapsarian state. When the senses are delighted, the mind is lifted in an anagogical manner to a more spiritual realm.
Also, sacred art and music is our offering to God. Its subjective effect on people is not really the first concern. God deserves the best from us. All the parts of a church, even seemingly insignificant things like floor tiles or brick bonds or drain spouts or door hinges, can be beautiful and symbolic and interesting. Maybe if they are ugly or perfunctory or meaningless, many people will not notice. But it makes a very shabby gift to God, who will notice!
REGINA: There’s always been a push for doing new, innovative work, but you are stepping back in time.
Daniel: A big problem is contemporary sacred art is the idea that the artistic tradition does not have enduring principles. The usual narrative is that there has been a succession of styles, all equally valid and answering to their own times. The usual argument is only over whether Modernism ought to be included in the list or not, not whether the whole idea is wrong!
There are of course admirable qualities in many different artistic styles and eras, but that does not mean that they all are equally correct about everything. Good intentions on the part of the artist are not enough. Certainly that is what the Second Council of Nicea taught. The principles that endure were handed down from the Church Fathers, but they do not really belong to the past. They are not so much back in time as above time.
REGINA: Some art historians say that Gothic art displays ‘horror vacui’, or a ‘fear of emptiness’.
Daniel: Nothingness doesn’t reflect God. God is the Creator of all things visible and invisible, so anything that has existence at least has that similarity to God. Only nothingness, which is by definition not a thing at all, is altogether unlike God.
The modern mind has a bad habit of imagining things that are transcendent, invisible, or unknowable as empty or homogenous. But God is not empty; He is rather too full for our comprehension. An art that reflects God should overflow; it should have too much rather than too little. I would rather make a work of art that runs the risk of being called tasteless than one that runs the risk of being called boring.
“You delight in music because you are nostalgic for Paradise; you delight in beautiful pictures for the same reason. If sung words, melodies and musical instruments are means of elevating the mind toward blessedness, so too are works of visual art.” (Heavenly Outlook lecture).
REGINA: Nowadays it seems that parishes and dioceses don’t encourage beautiful art or churches.
Daniel: There is not a lot of patronage at the institutional level in the Catholic Church. Part of the problem is obvious; many of the people in positions of control in parishes and dioceses are basically iconoclasts — they hate traditional sacred art and want it gone. The other part is that even when there is a priest or a bishop or someone else who wants to create put something beautiful in a church, he is concerned about provoking a hostile reaction from the opposing faction. When a committee makes the decisions, what emerges is often a sort of just-traditional-enough art. It fills the most minimal requirements of continuity, but is too dull and unremarkable to make the iconoclasts complain very loudly. And the poor artist or architect or composer spends most of his creative energy just fighting for permission to make the best art possible. That is maddening; patrons are supposed to demand that artists do better, not worse!
REGINA: You’ve begun a long term project from Easter 2017-2031 called the Summula Pictoria which will be 235 images depicting the great events of the Old and New Testaments.
Daniel: Yes, I plan to draw an iconographic summary of the Old and New Testaments, illustrating those events that are most prominent in sacred liturgy and patristic exegesis.
These events are the very raw stuff of Christian belief and Christian art; no other subjects offer an artist such inexhaustible wealth of beauty and symbolism. Were I never to draw them, I would feel my artistic career incomplete. I hope to undertake this task in the spirit of a medieval encyclopedist, who gathers as much traditional wisdom as he can find and faithfully puts it into order. I want every detail of these pictures, whether great or small, to be thoroughly considered and significant. Collectively, these will form a coherent work; every person, place and thing that appears from picture to picture will be recognizable. Their common style and perspective will reflect a proper theology of time and space, light and darkness, sacred numbers and directions.
I’ve had to learn the intellectual understanding of sacred art on my own, mostly from books. It's a little frustrating there isn’t a trustworthy and comprehensive guide for this. I am trying to make one myself, in the hope of helping aspiring artists.
REGINA: You make a living to support your growing family of six. That sounds quite difficult?
Daniel: For more than seven years I’ve made a living from my art. I am very fortunate to have been able to do this. There is a lot of risk and uncertainty, and it certainly gets frightening from time to time when the queue of commissions is short or the print sales decline. But I am happy, and I get to spend a lot more time at home in the company of my family than most professionals. I hope that my children will be useful as apprentices when they are a little older.
It is a real poverty that so many people spend the majority of their waking hours at jobs where they find no intellectual or creative fulfillment. And that affects how they live the rest of their lives, because it forms a habit. People who spend their days staring at computers are, I think, much more likely to spend their nights staring at computers. People who spend their days thinking about beautiful things and making beautiful things are more likely to do creative and interesting things in their spare time.
REGINA: Gothic art faded away in the Renaissance, but briefly reappeared in the 19th Century. What happened?
Daniel: Gothic art lasted until the mid-16th Century. It was ended partly by a destructive campaign of censorship conducted by some small-minded bishops in the decades following the Council of Trent, and partly by Humanism. The Humanists considered medieval culture to be barbaric; they invented the slanderous name Gothic to associate medieval art with those who ruined Classical Rome. Gothic art really has nothing to do with the Gothic people or the Gothic language.
Humanism attributed to the individual a limitless autonomy, dignity, and capacity for improvement. Whereas medieval Christianity stressed dependence on divine grace for eternal salvation, Humanism advocated the making of a grand new order upon earth in which mankind might reach its fullest potential. This was to be done by studying and imitating the ancient Greeks and Romans. To the Humanists, Classical antiquity was the standard against which to weigh and find wanting the culture of medieval Christendom. In grammar, handwriting, architecture, painting and sculpture, they replaced medieval traditions with reconstructions based on ancient models.
Humanist art excludes any stylistic evidence that the medieval centuries ever happened. There is no place within it for the Lindisfarne Gospels, or for Chartres Cathedral.
REGINA: It seems as if Renaissance-era Humanists had similar goals to their modern counterparts: banish God in favor of promoting the greatness of human achievement.
Daniel: The original Humanists were not atheists, and they certainly continued to make professions of faith and works of religious art. But they were never totally able to shed an implicit belief in the inferiority or insufficiency of Christianity.
They were fascinated by the esoteric. They not only saw in Greek and Roman remnants the plans for building a better world; they even aspired to recover the lost language of Eden through the study of hieroglyphics, Hermetic doctrines, and Cabbala. They really seemed to believe that the confusion at Babel could be undone by scholarship and archaeology, rather than by the miracle at Pentecost!
I don’t favor the art of Classical Greece or Rome, but I certainly do not think that it should be excluded as an influence on Christian art, but other cultures have great things to contribute as well.
REGINA: You have said we’re living in a time of iconoclastic crisis that is an attack our religious heritage.
Daniel: Iconoclasm is a heresy that involves the destruction of sacred images; it happens when the authority of religious tradition is discounted. Certainly plenty of altogether secular people are willing to preserve works of religious art or historic churches for the sake of cultural heritage, or nationalism. It is the anti-traditionalists within the Church who are actually destroying things!
REGINA: It is the grim truth.
Daniel: The faithful who are desperate or scandalized by this ought to bear in mind the experience of the eighth and ninth centuries. Almost all of the sacred art within the Byzantine Empire was destroyed. It took a long time for the crisis to end, and even after an ecumenical council, it began again. The heresy started and ended repeatedly for reasons entirely uncontrollable by the faithful; basically, one emperor decided one way, and a successor decided the other. But the faithful did not altogether forget the suppressed traditions; had they, we would have no memory of them today, none of the necessary knowledge to continue or revive them. We today, in a new iconoclastic crisis, must not despair, must not apostatize, must not acquiesce.
“[From the] Second Council of Nicea, which was convoked in the year 787 to end the first iconoclast crisis. They said: The tradition does not belong to the painter; the art alone is his. True arrangement and disposition belong to the holy fathers. I consider the arrangement and disposition that belong to the fathers to be something like a relic, and the art that belongs to the painter to be something like the making of a reliquary. Artistry without tradition is like an empty reliquary; beautiful perhaps, but unworthy of veneration. Tradition without artistry is like a relic kept in a cardboard box; worthy of veneration, but deserving of better treatment.
I believe that the traditions of sacred art deserve exaltation for the very same reason the relics of Our Lord’s Passion deserve it – because they touched God.” (Invention and Exaltation lecture).
Daniel Mitsui’s artwork can be viewed and purchased at: www.danielmitsui.com