Inspired by Medieval Art
Daniel Mitsui’s work returns the Church’s art back to its principles
If you have ever been to a Confirmation Mass or an ordination Mass, then you might have seen the Roman Pontifical. The Roman Pontifical is a liturgical book used primarily by bishops for various sacraments such as Confirmation or Holy Orders.
That’s where Daniel Mitsui, a Gothic-inspired religious artist, comes in. Mitsui was commissioned by the Vatican to illustrate a new edition of the Roman Pontifical, finishing the esteemed project in 2011. Mitsui attended Dartmouth College, where he studied oil painting, drawing, lithography, wood carving, etching, film animation, and bookbinding. In 2012 he established Millefleur Press, his imprint for publishing artwork using traditional printing presses. He also gives various lectures discussing the nature of sacred art and its grounding.
Mitsui plans to draw an iconographic summary of both the Old and New Testaments over the course of the next 12 years.
“In my work, I attempt to be faithful to the Second Nicene Council’s instruction that the composition of religious imagery is not the painter’s invention, but is approved by the law and tradition of the Catholic Church,” he said.
Mitsui spoke with Catholic Digest about his work on the Roman Pontifical, his future projects, and what it means to make Catholic art.
When did you first become interested in art?
I have been drawing avidly for as long as I can remember. My attraction to medieval art is also very long; favorites of my early childhood included Lego castles, Eyvind Earle’s painted backgrounds to the Sleeping Beauty animated motion picture, and Trina Schart Hyman’s illustrations of Saint George and the Dragon (Little, Brown and Co., 1984). At the age of 14, I encountered reproductions of illuminated manuscripts for the first time, and I was immediately fascinated; the Lindisfarne Gospels, written and illustrated by a Northumbrian monk around 700 A.D., made an especially strong impression.
Is there a particular artist or art style that inspires your work?
I want my work to continue the traditions of medieval religious art. I consider Gothic art, which emerged in the middle of the 12th century, to be the most beautiful and precise art made according to Catholic principles. It summarizes and orders the traditions of the preceding ages. It presents time, space, and light from a heavenly outlook; this is why it does not employ linear perspective, cast shadows, or blank space. One of its most important principles is symbolism; its artists believed, in the words of Honorius of Autun, that “every creature is a shadow of truth and life.” The events of the Old Testament, animals and plants, celestial bodies, even numbers, are full of mystical significance and teach about the holy Gospel.
Gothic art was most intellectual in the 12th and 13th centuries, so I defer to the art of those centuries for iconographic guidance. I especially value the art made under the direction of Suger of St. Denis, the metalwork of Nicholas of Verdun and of Godfrey of Huy, and the statuary and glass in the cathedrals at Chartres and Sens.
The true spirit of Gothic art includes a farsighted and generous consideration of beautiful forms; this is one reason why it so quickly became established internationally. Its artists, while maintaining the iconographic and doctrinal integrity of the Christian tradition, admitted being influenced by almost any beautiful thing they encountered. In this spirit, I have been finding ways to introduce elements of Northumbro-Irish, Japanese, and Persian art into my drawings.
What was it like to work on the new edition of the Roman Pontifical?
This edition of the Roman Pontifical was published in 2012 by Vox Clara, a committee of senior bishops from episcopal conferences throughout the English-speaking world that advises the Holy See on English-language liturgy. It included the new translations from the revised Roman Missal.
I was never privy to the committee’s deliberations; the committee’s secretary communicated their instructions to me. I contributed five full-page color illustrations to the book: the Crucifixion, the Presentation in the Temple, the Last Supper, the Descent of the Holy Ghost, and Jesus Christ the High Priest.
The timeline for the project was much shorter than I prefer. For a few months, I was working every weekday evening and Saturday, right around the time of my second son’s birth. The experience turned me into a coffee drinker for the first time in my life. It also did a lot to establish my reputation as an artist; it was one of the first large commissions I received after I decided to leave my day job and devote myself to drawing full time. It remains the highest-profile project that I have completed.
Can you tell us more about Millefleur Press?
The illustrations used are taken from my own ink drawings on paper or vellum. I also design my own typefaces. I treat high-resolution bitmap scans of pictorial, decorative, and typographic elements like printers’ blocks, rearranging them into new compositions for letterpress printing. Many of the broadsides are printed on handmade papers with special inks.
My method is not exactly the same as Gutenberg’s. I hire pressmen who operate machines much faster than his, and they transfer the images and text onto plates by a photochemical process. But the printed sheets are made by the same essential mechanism of contact and reflection, and they look, feel, and smell very much like prints of the 15th century.
What sorts of artwork do you produce?
Ink drawing is my specialty. I work in black and white, half color, and full color. I prefer to draw on calfskin vellum, but I sometimes use paper, papyrus, or goatskin. Almost all of my work is religious in subject; the only secular commissions that I usually accept are for bookplate designs.
I sell original drawings, giclée (full-color digital) prints, and letterpress prints under the Millefleur Press imprint. I color some of the Millefleur Press prints by hand, adding illuminated details in gold and palladium leaf.
I design all the ornamentation that appears in my religious drawings. This includes lettering, tile patterns on walls and floors, damask patterns on vestments and hangings, and decorative wood and stone carvings on background architecture. Three coloring books featuring my artwork have been published.
Explain your project of drawing an iconographic summary of the Old and New Testaments.
This project, which I have named the “Summula Pictoria,” will be realized as 235 ink drawings on calfskin vellum. Forty large ones, about 9 square inches, will summarize the life of Jesus Christ. One hundred eighty smaller ones will summarize the Old Testament and the lives of the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and the apostles. There will also be 13 iconic portraits of holy persons and larger drawings of the Last Judgment and the Tree of Jesse.
These subjects that are the raw stuff of Christian belief and Christian art; were I never to draw them, I would feel my artistic career incomplete.
I plan 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. And I want to begin this task soon, so as to complete it while I’m reasonably confident that my eyesight and manual dexterity will endure.
I plan to devote much of the next two years to research and planning, improving my technical skills, and raising funds for the project. I plan to draw the pictures over the course of 12 years, from Easter 2019 to Easter 2031.
MITSUI ON HIS LECTURES
I believe that today, when the meaning of traditional sacred art has become obscure, those aspiring to make such art must be scholars and teachers as well as artists. Visual expressions of theology, no matter how profound or beautiful, are ineffective if nobody understands them.
So, although I am a fairly slow writer and a rather nervous public speaker, I consider it part of my duty as an artist to both write and speak. You can read my past lectures on my website (DanielMitsui.com) and shorter essays on my blog (DanielMitsui.blogspot.com). I speak publicly once or twice a year.
One of my lectures, “Heavenly Outlook,” discusses the perspective and symbolism of sacred art. Another, “Invention & Exaltation,” discusses the sources of religious knowledge and the relation of sacred art to sacred relics. I have another, “Gold Out of Egypt,” which is about matters of nationalism and enculturation.