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Everybody! Everybody! Part Three: Daniel Mitsui has a web log

Mitsui’s St. Michael and His Angels, which hangs above my desk.

Look, I know that I’ve been signing the death chant for this blog since the day I joined it, and by extension — sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly — that of blogging in general. But that’s wrong of course. What has died is blogging as a thing — that which seemingly everybody does and/or discusses. But just as some people still repair antique clocks, some people still blog. (That piece on Rod Dreher I mentioned yesterday noted that his blog at The American Conservative gets something like a million views a month, and he earns it.) Because a blog is a tool that still has use, especially in the hands of someone with something to say.

All this is prologue to my announcement of the happy fact that neo-Gothic artist Daniel Mitsui has returned to blogging. (I don’t know how he’d feel about the designation, but it seems to me that he possesses a Gothic sensibility and aesthetic that has been shaped/filtered/shaded/what have you by the intervening centuries, certainly by the great tradition of newspaper comics. So.) Mitsui, whose work hangs in five rooms of my home, possesses a clarity and integrity of thought and writing that the old word-pusher in me finds deeply enviable and thoroughly enjoyable. Here is a fine artist who knows his business and knows how to discuss it with the layman.

Why has he returned to the wonderful world of web logs? Because he is undertaking a magnum opus, and he wants to bring the viewer along for the ride. (He also wants, crucially, to obtain the viewer’s – or should I say the patron’s – support).

Over fourteen years, from Easter 2017 to Easter 2031, 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.

The things that I plan to depict 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.

I am calling this project my Summula Pictoria: a Little Summary of the Old and New Testaments. It will be realized as 235 drawings. 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.

The drawings certainly will be influenced by artwork of the past; I defer always to the Fathers in matters of arrangement and disposition. Yet I intend to copy no other work of art directly. Everything in them, whether figures, fabric patterns, architectural ornaments or background landscapes, I shall design myself.

I shall draw the Summula Pictoria using metal-tipped dip pens and paintbrushes, with pigment-based inks, on calfskin vellum. The pictures will be in full color. I shall use the calfskin’s translucency for artistic effect, drawing extensively on both its front and its back to create each picture.

It’s worth noting that the blog side of the project is more than opening a window on the workshop. It’s preparing the matter to receive the form, as he notes:

Visual expressions of theology and symbolism, no matter how profound or beautiful, are ineffective if nobody understands them. The meaning of religious art has become obscure; medieval works that once catechized the unlettered now require written commentary to interpret. Its very strangeness to the modern mind has become part of its appeal, which is not right at all. Christian art is meant to be for everyone.

I intend to use the Summula Pictoria as a tool for instruction. As I research, compose and draw these pictures, I shall make a record of the creative process: sharing notes and summaries of iconographic sources, displaying drawings in progress, providing models to copy. My hope is that this will be useful to anyone who wants to make religious art, or to understand it. My idea is not to make a scholarly text or a university course; it is to offer, free of charge, something more accessible, comparable perhaps to a cookbook in which a professional chef shares his recipes.

Color me thrilled. And hey, speaking of technology – blogging as tool and all that – here’s a bit from a recent post on Mass Media and Sacred Worship:

I have heard many times the claim that the Catholic Church should have great success in her New Evangelization, because Catholicism is a visual religion and contemporary society is also visual. But to call Catholicism a visual religion is a meager assertion; it is no more visual than any of a thousand kinds of paganism. It would be more accurate simply to say that human beings are visual animals. The visuality of Catholicism is only remarkable because the religion’s most obvious alternatives are rather inhuman. 

And contemporary society, judging by (for example) its reductive architecture, is not very visual at all. Its interest in visual things is almost entirely concentrated on television and computer screens; it is not any pictures, but specifically motion pictures, that interest contemporary man. Even the static pictures now ubiquitous (advertisements, posters, billboards) are meant to be seen while walking or driving or rapidly flipping pages in a magazine; they may not move, but their frame of reference does, which gives the same subjective result. In contrast, a study taken in 1980 indicated that most visitors look at a painting hanging in an art museum for about ten seconds. The same study, taken in 1997, lowered the time to three seconds. Contemporary man does not love pictures; he loves motion. 

Live-action motion pictures create the most convincing false reality yet devised by technology. The intensity of the imagery, the sophistication of the editing and the ever-more impressive special effects fill the modern mind with an inventory of powerful, nearly unforgettable images. Regardless of his life experience, every man now knows what a cavalry charge looks like. He knows what a dinosaur in the flesh looks like. He knows what an exploding planet looks like, even though no man has ever seen a planet explode. These images become the references for his visual imagination; when he pictures death, judgment, heaven or hell, he pictures something resembling a cinematic special effect he has seen. 

Traditional sacred art and traditional sacred liturgy are symbolic; to appreciate them, a man must recognize that his senses are unworthy of the greatest realities, and that hieratic and canonized types, arrangements and gestures are needed to suggest them. It is a logic entirely contrary to that of live-action motion pictures, which attempt to show anything and everything as it really (supposedly) looks. 


I believe that the influence of live-action motion pictures has contributed enormously to the iconoclasm of recent decades. I also believe that any lasting restoration of traditional sacred art and traditional sacred liturgy will only be possible if Catholics seriously consider and seriously restrict their use of the media of mass entertainment. This would entail removing televisions from our homes; and seldom (if ever) patronizing the cinema, thus reclaiming our imaginations from Hollywood. But it also would entail resisting the intrusion of this technology into new places, most importantly our places of worship.


Ecce Quam Bonum, by Daniel Mitsui

Ecce Quam Bonum, by Daniel Mitsui
(from Psalm 133)

The gifted and industrious artist Daniel Mitsui, a great favorite here at Korrektiv, has released the text (and illustrations) of a lecture he delivered earlier this month. The subject: Catholic religious art, and Mitsui’s approach to it as student and draftsman. This presentation is thought-provoking, edifying, and a pleasure to read. Here’s a taste, from near the conclusion:

You have undoubtedly seen [medieval ‘drolleries’] in the margins of illuminated manuscripts: frolicking monkeys, marauding woodwoses, flirting peasants, anthropomorphized pigs playing bagpipes, funny monsters composed of various parts of men, birds, beasts and reptiles[…]. This grotesque, romantic, comical element is not limited to manuscript margins; it is found in almost every medium of medieval sacred art. […]

This same element can be encountered in the worship of the medieval Church: a Festival of the Donkey honored the beast that bore the Blessed Virgin on the Flight into Egypt; during the Mass, certain responses were brayed rather than chanted. […] Medieval sculptors and engineers introduced automation and puppetry into the church […]. [An] example is the Boxley Rood of Grace, a crucifix whose Christ moved his arms and eyes and mouth by means of wires operated by a hidden puppeteer. For all that the Middle Ages can truly be described as a time of liturgical solemnity, monastic discipline, personal piety, scholastic disputation, crusading zeal and fleshly mortification, the faithful of those ages never lost their sense of humor or their spirit of romance.

I tend to keep the company of other traditional Catholics, and their reactions when hearing about these practices diverge; some think they are wonderful. Others are horrified, and see in them only a precedent for current liturgical abuse and artistic gimmickry. To my mind, they are very different.

To learn why Mitsui thinks they are different — and to help yourself to much more food for thought — click here for the lecture.

[Lecture link via Mr Mitsui’s April 2013 newsletter, which is packed with art, including a commission for the American College of Surgeons; a preview of a forthcoming set of Stations of the Cross; and the Ecce Quam Bonum that illustrates this post.]

[For Korrektiv‘s previous coverage of medieval drolleries, click here.]

The Catholic Illustrator’s Guild Interviews Daniel Mitsui

Here. At one point, our man takes up the question of cartooning:

“I do think that cartooning can teach an artist a lot about sacred art. Visually and compositionally, a comics page from the early 20th century resembles an illuminated manuscript. The figures in mediaeval illustrated manuscripts often look cartoony, simply due to the speed (fast) and scale (small) at which they were drawn. My own figures often look cartoony for similar reasons; I can draw very realistic figures if I have charcoal, a kneaded rubber eraser, and models willing to sit still for six hours, but they’re not something I can improvise easily.

There is also a vigorous comic tradition at the edges of mediaeval sacred art – in manuscript drolleries, misericord carvings, gargoyles, and, ultimately, Hieronymus Bosch – that is very interesting in itself, and even more interesting when considered as an essential part of the iconographic system.

Personally, I credit cartooning with teaching me to compose narratives. For example, I recently received a commission to illustrate a spiritual journey in allegory; it involved a woman climbing a mountain with her family, falling away from them, being led back to the path by a priest, and rejoining them to ascend to the summit. I was able to compose the story in a single continuous landscape. It begins in the top left corner, then moves counterclockwise around the border, breaks into the center of the drawing, and zigzags to the top center. It’s complicated, but I think that anyone can understand the events, and their chronology, without any panels or numbers or arrows to direct him. I wouldn’t have been able to compose that without having read a lot of Popeye and Krazy Kat and Little Nemo. “

But that’s just a snippet. Go thou and read.

Daniel Mitsui had a fruitful Lent…

…at the very least, aesthetically. On Holy Saturday, he completed his latest drawing of the Crucifixion, and it is remarkable. Go visit for a larger view and an explanation of the various elements. And while you’re there, why not poke around and buy a piece or two? Artists gotta eat!

Daniel Mitsui…

man on fire, goes after Eric Gill (whose work is pictured at left):

“Such hypocrisy should not be unexected from Gill, the consummate fraudster who made countless men believe his sham religiousity. In a great satanic prank, he concealed the weird, disgusting wrongness of his religious art just enough to convince patrons to place it within their chaste sanctuaries.

He duped Rev. Vincent McNabb, the spiritual advisor to the Ditchling Guild, and one of its benefactors. He duped his fellow craftsman Hilary Pepler, although after Gill moved to Wales their friendship ended and never resumed, even after their children married. Gill duped G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, who published his articles in their distribuist journals. He duped Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker. Day admiringly quoted Gill in her essay On Pilgrimage. This is what he wrote, what she quoted:

‘The point is that the whole world has got it firmly fixed in its head that the object of working is to obtain as large an amount of material goods as possible, and that with the increased application of science and the increased use of machinery that amount will be very large indeed, while at the same time the amount of necessary labor will become less and less, until machines being minded by machines, it will be almost none at all. And the point is that this frame of mind is radically un-Christian and anti-Christian. And the point of that is that it is therefore contrary to Nature and contrary to God – as anti-God as any atheist could wish.’

True words, but wholly insincere. For sexual predation is the ultimate materialism; nothing is more materialistic and mechnanical than the reduction of a person to a mere instrument for orgasm, a warm piece of flesh with a few wet orifices. Abusive and unnatural sex implies the mere carnality of the body. In no other sin save murder is the person more thoroughly thinged. To Gill, the person ceased to exist entirely: man, woman, child, blood relation and lower beast were all the same to him.

A sexual predator, to paraphrase one, has got it firmly fixed in its head that the object is to obtain as large an amount of sex as possible, and that with the increased application of science and the increased use of machinery that amount will be very large indeed, while at the same time the amount of necessary love will become less and less, until machines being minded by machines, it will be almost none at all. A worldview that does not count chastity among its foundational virtues is necessarily materialistic; a degradation of personhood that begins in the bedroom will find its way into the battlefield and the torture chamber, the factory and the mini-mall.”

That’s just a Godsbodyish snippet. It’s really an excellent essay. Do go read.

More variations on a(n Angelic(o)) theme

IMG_20140420_114814From the Laudamus Triduum Missal, illustrations by Daniel Mitsui.

Site news

Added a few links on the sidebar: Good Country People, Labora/Editions, Signposts in a Strange Land. No, seriously, check them out.

And can we all please give a round of applause to sitemistress extraordinaire Dorian Speed of Up to Speed, who took time out of her ridiculously busy schedule to embiggen our Mitsui avatars? Thanks.

More soon! How are everybody’s projects? Gaga Confidential slouches toward publication. The sketches should be good.

‘… on the sand, / Half sunk, a shattered flattered visage lies …’

At the very end of Lent 2012, the six members of the Korrektiv Kollektiv received, as a gift from Matthew Lickona, cartoon portraits from the pen of the wonderful Daniel Mitsui. What Mitsui memorialized in those small and startling figures, with unobtrusive allusiveness and an unsettling but corrective touch of the grotesque that exemplified the Korrektiv ethos of the classic period, was a golden age: a flowering, a ripening, the sun at zenith.

But flowers fade; ripeness turns to rot; light declines toward a slow, final failure; and shadows lengthen and coalesce unto the great shade, Night, who is herself the shadow of Death.

You couldn’t have noticed all that fading, rotting, and declining, though, since none of it showed on the surface — until November 1. On that day — All Saints’ Day (bitter irony!) —  a mistake was made.

Now, at the beginning of Advent 2012, Mr Lickona has once again hired Daniel Mitsui — not to memorialize glory this time, but folly.

Fittingly so: Our Faith teaches that wrongs can be not merely prevented, not merely undone, but actually redeemed. And this is true.

For example: Though my addition to this blog’s roster may be a loss for you, the reader (not to mention the dragging-down it entails for Jonathans Potter and Webb, Mr Finnegan, Mr Lickona, Mr JOB, and Ms Expat), I get a brilliant Mitsui portrait:

Enigmatic, spooky, funny, and a good likeness to boot, though enough obscured to provide a useful degree of plausible deniability. I could hardly be happier with it. If only it had not come at such awful cost to you, dear friends.

Thank you for the picture, Mr Mitsui. Thank you for the present, Mr Lickona.

Thank you (in advance) for forbearing to sting, scorpion.

Open Hand, Closed Fist

Consider the relevance of this:

… another traditional medieval and Renaissance piece of iconography: the open hand of rhetoric versus the closed fist of logic. The open hand and closed fist is a dual metaphor about the presentation of material, either as the hard, aggressive, and unapproachable fist of logic, or the gentler, welcoming, and open hand of rhetorical. The first threatens, the second offers aid and gifts. — From “The Iconography of Rhetoric” by Terri Palmer

… when examining this image by Daniel Mitsui:

I’d like to think this “dual metaphor about the presentation of material” cleverly touches on Korrektiv’s core modus operandi.

Furthermore, there’s the Blemmyes reference, which I admit bothers me a little. Is Mitsui poking a little fun here? Yes, I think so, and that’s all right. But I also incline towards a more sympathetic interpretation: “Sometimes I feel like a naught, sometimes I don’t.” In the Blemmyes, Mitsui hit on a pretty good image for that sentiment. Brainless, or all brain, or, better yet, a unity of heart and brain.

An overdue thank you to Mr. Mitsui.

Lay down all thoughts; surrender to the void.

‘[O]nly in the far east and in modern times have artists valued blank space’, says Daniel Mitsui in his 2002 essay on horror vacui. ‘Only Buddhists and Nihilists are interested in nothingness.’

Ten years later, I still don’t know enough either to endorse or reject those assertions. But seeing these iPad miniTM billboards around town, which push Apple’s minimalist aesthetic to an extreme I find both self-parodic and vaguely unsettling, brought Mitsui’s essay to mind.

See also: The last stanza of Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’.