March 2018 Print

The Beauty and Meaning of Sacred Art

by Daniel Mitsui

Traditional sacred art visually expresses the thought of the Church Fathers; symbolism is one of the governing principles. God is the author of all life and all history, and is reflected in every created thing. Animals and plants, stones and celestial bodies are symbols of doctrines or moral truths. The Sun represents the New Testament and the Moon the Old. The events of the Old Testament are like dim, moonlit types of the life of Jesus Christ, who taught this doctrine Himself as he prophesied his Crucifixion and Resurrection. He is like the serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, like Jonah in the belly of the whale.

The Church Fathers interpreted all of the numbers 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.

No theologian contributed more brilliant interpretations of nature, numbers, or the Old Testament than Augustine of Hippo. It was St. Augustine who articulated an important rule of symbolic exegesis, that the literal sense of things remains sacrosanct:

“Believe before all things when you hear the scriptures read that the events really took place as is said in the book. Do not destroy the historic foundation of scripture, for without it you will build in the air.... All that the scriptures say of Abraham really happened, but he is at the same time a prophetic type.”

Multiple Layers of Meaning

God has always written His allegory with fact. Greater meanings do not obliterate lesser meanings. Moses really saw the burning bush; Jonah really emerged from the great fish. A butterfly emerging from its chrysalis represents the Resurrection not because some poet imagined it. The symbolic meaning is really there. God put it there when He created the first butterfly.

The Augustinian principle stands in opposition to two errors. The more common one, held in nearly every modern mind, is to think that the symbolic meaning is pure fancy. And to think that reality—cold, hard, objective reality—is a matter of quantities and extensions moving within a grid of space. Reality, to the modern mind, is a matter of physical science. It is mathematical, but its numbers are not symbols of anything—as far as physical science is concerned, they are the only things that actually exist!

In truth, it is the mathematical description of the world that depends on human imagination. There is no grid; there never has been a grid. Why does the whole modern world believe that things exist within a grid? It may in part be because the idea has so long been expressed in visual art.

In the fifteenth century, Humanist artists made innovations in painting that eventually were adopted all over the world. Filippo Brunelleschi invented a method of linear perspective that requires the artist to establish vanishing points toward which parallel lines converge. The intersections of those lines place objects in the picture, like coordinates. Leon Battista Alberti wrote the first treatise on the method; he actually instructed artists to paint while looking through a frame in which a perpendicular network of strings has been fixed. Other artists developed a method of shadow projection compatible with linear perspective. This requires an artist to fix not only vanishing points but also light sources; the manner in which shadows are cast by objects in the painting onto other objects in the painting is determined analytically.

A Change in Perspective

The conventional wisdom says that these artists simply discovered the way to paint realistically—that medieval men had always seen the world this way, but were not clever enough to figure out how to make pictures of it. But any mind that has not been trained to do otherwise will place objects in the field of sight in relation to other objects, not in relation to an invisible grid. It will consider their significance; not merely the way that they occupy space and obstruct light. Medieval art looks a certain way because medieval men saw the world that way!

Perhaps nothing represents the way that modern men have learned to see than a digital photograph, a rectangular grid of pixels. And to a man with a camera, everything looks like a photograph. Have you ever seen somebody look at the real world that God made, then crane back his neck, close one eye and hold up his thumbs and forefingers at arms’ length to create a small rectangular frame for his field of vision? This is no way to comprehend, with all the sain­­ts, what is the breadth and length and height and depth....

A digital photograph is the visual expression of one error, the modern way of considering reality. There is an opposite error, one that dismisses not the symbolic sense of things but the literal. Arguably, the Church Father Origen strayed this way. An artistic expression of this error might be an abstract expressionist painting, or an inkblot. You can make it mean whatever you want, because it does not actually represent anything. It is nothing but its significance.

Many historians of art understand any artistic development relative to these two extremes, conventionally named abstraction and realism. They place Cubism close to the inkblot, and the stylized sacred art of the Byzantine and Coptic churches just a little further away. They see Gothic art as a movement toward the digital photograph, and Neoclassical art as a movement further still.

Gothic Art and the Augustinian Principle

These different kinds of art would better be understood as different paths corresponding to different ideas. The path to the digital photograph is Cartesian; the path to the inkblot is Origenist. Gothic art is not an intermediate place between these two, but a different path altogether, corresponding to the Augustinian principle.

Gothic art, like no art before or since, presents both the literal and allegorical senses as convincingly true. It began in France around 1140; almost immediately, almost miraculously, it displayed a symbolic order more perfect than any art that preceded it. Over the following centuries, the anatomy, landscapes and natural forms within its pictures became more detailed and less stylized. It became realistic without becoming meaningless.

This was possible because the world presented in Gothic art is not the world imagined by the physical scientist. It is rather the world whose dimensions God established - qualitatively, not quantitatively. He established them by making the perceptible differences between light and dark, sky and water, land and sea—not by extending homogenous time or space, as along the axes of a Cartesian grid.

The means by which mankind knows and understands this world are God-given: the bodily senses, those five wits that medieval laymen daily prayed God would rule and protect. The world described by sense perception is the primary reality that mankind inhabits, the reality from which he might ascend to a higher realm. That higher realm is the realm of the spirit, not the realm of physical science.

And Gothic art, like patristic exegesis and like the sacred scriptures themselves, describes the world in the terms of sense perception, not the terms of physical science. To the senses, things like cold and darkness obviously exist. They are things; they can be depicted as things. The description of them as the mere absence of energy—no matter how true in the terms of physical science, no matter how proven from experiment—does not overrule the shivering of hands or the squinting of eyes. A thing that does not really exist cannot bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever!

As a contemporary artist who wishes to be true to the principles of Gothic art, I know how deeply ingrained the modern ways of seeing are. I must make a conscious effort to place objects with a picture according to principles of hierarchy, symmetry and symbolism—to do what medieval artists did instinctively. I must remind myself that when I see a cross, I perceive it immediately as a cross, as two beams joined at a perfect right angle, and that I may as well depict it as such, no matter how many rules of linear perspective I break. When I see a pattern on a draped piece of fabric, I perceive the pattern as a whole, regardless of the folds. Many Byzantine iconographers and Gothic painters depicted fabric patterns unbroken over folds and creases. I follow their example. These aspects of traditional sacred art are not marks of crudity or inability, but of an older way to apprehend the world.