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LECTURE on CATHOLICISM & ART ~ DANIEL MITSUI

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.]

‘… 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’.

Patronage

This deserves to be known, especially in light of the discussion/investigation of Catholic patronage of the arts that Ms Expat and Ms Speed have been leading —

The Korrektiv is not the only group to have commissioned original work from the Lord’s talented servant Daniel Mitsui in the past year.

Mitsui says:

In 2011, I was contacted by the Executive Secretary of the Vox Clara Committee, a Vatican committee of senior bishops from episcopal conferences throughout the English-speaking world that advises the Holy See on English-language liturgy. The Committee will publish in 2012 an interim edition of the Roman Pontifical, including new translations of certain texts drawn from the revised Roman Missal. I was commissioned to create a series of five color illustrations for this Pontifical, depicting the Crucifixion, the Last Supper, the Presentation in the Temple, the Descent of the Holy Ghost and Christ the High Priest. The central images are surrounded by appropriate symbols and Old Testament prefigurements, and the corner scenes depict liturgical rites contained in the Pontifical[.]

This is remarkable. Mitsui himself keeps a web log, and (I believe) first gained wide recognition on the Internet. He is a traditionalist unafraid to express unpopular — usually thought-provoking — opinions (e.g., regarding film, he has repented of his earlier cinephilia and now says ‘the cinema [since the dawn of the talkies] has been a blight upon culture, producing nothing valuable enough to justify its existence.’). He is still in his late twenties or early thirties. And here he is, designing witty avatars for the Korrektiv and sacred illustrations for the Vox Clara committee, within the span of a year.

I hope Mr Mitsui will not mind one of these Vox Clara images, appropriate to the day, appearing below at reduced size. Please click through to view a larger version.

Roman Pontifical, Drawing 2: Last Supper – by Daniel Mitsui

 

Click here to view more illustrations in this series and to read about the Roman Pontifical project. And click here to view more of Mitsui’s work, both sacred and secular.

Of his religious work, which has a special reverence and integrity, Mitsui says:

In my religious work, I attempt to be faithful to the instructions of the Second Nicene Council, which stated that the composition of religious imagery is not left to the initiative of artists, but is formed upon principles laid down by the Catholic Church and by religious tradition… The execution alone belongs to the painter, the selection and arrangement of subject belongs to the Fathers. […] My hope is to be faithful to the ancient traditions, but to express them in ways that correspond to the needs of the present.

Needs of the present, indeed.