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Medieval Christianity gets pop-art facelift

Posted By Marisa Martin On 04/25/2012 @ 10:18 pm In Diversions,Faith,Front Page,Reviews | No Comments

"St. Patrick," by Mitsui

Daniel Mitsui is artist of the contradictory: Creative orthodoxy, fiery, artistic conservatism and guarded zeal flood his work.

His beautifully rendered, fantastic modern iconography successively caught the hearts of Catholic leaders all the way to the Vatican, where he recently received a commission.

A young family man and seriously Catholic, Mitsui seeks to continue and broaden a tradition where art directly and even officially serves the church. To that end he studied medieval European and Asian art, Christian iconography, illuminations, calligraphy and church history. He weaves these concepts into his own art in new and reinvigorated forms, creating a contemporary art infused with the spirit and letter of the past.

At first glance some of Mitsui’s work may appear almost identical to ancient inspirations from the Book of Kells or the Lindisfarne Gospels, which he considers the “pinnacle of the illustrator’s art.” Mitsui also refers to lesser known manuscripts from that era, but his work displays notable differences; modern, personal symbols and references to microbiology frequently show up. In a tribute to St. Benedict, tightly drawn traditional patterns and symbols morph unexpectedly into an undefined ink blots as a background.

Mitsui’s “Last Judgment” and “Our Lady of Philerme” have the initial appearance of almost Byzantine rigidity in groupings and technique until you peer a little closer. In the elaborate maze of minute, background massings, he places his own symbolic and meaningful marks. There you find tiny centipedes, skulls, mitochondria, chambered nautili, lizards, amoebas and cells in anaphase placed in concentric circles or fractal expansions. Geometric patterns and tiled tessellation fit into larger, organic shapes expressive of the complexity of creation, among other things.

His microscopically small organisms and boundless detail swimming through his pages could work as an argument against evolution, although I haven’t asked his personal opinion on the subject.

"Lady of Philerme," by Mitsui

Mitsui’s art is some of the most detailed free-hand drawing I’ve seen in modern times, (excepting the “Buckingham Palace on a grain of rice”-type thing). Almost all his work is very small in scale, from a few inches square to not much more than a foot across, making it even more incredible. Reminiscent of Escher and Hieronymus Bosch in some places, his work at times echoes a little psychedelia, Piranesi and even Audubon’s nature studies. Rarely does Mitsui use a simple, spare design for his religious work.

In spite of the Japanese name, Mitsui makes more use of Latin and Greek texts in his drawings, staying true to Catholic authenticity. Rarely does English or other modern language grace his pages.

"St. Michael Fighting the Devil," by Mitsui

However, when he turns to Asian stylization such as his “St. Michael Fighting the Devil,” the effects are “Zap! Zowee! Kapow!!” Or to be more dignified, a stunning hybrid between a Japanese Ukiyo-e print with the raw energy of a comic character, as Michael straddles the writhing beast with upraised sword and fierce glare.

The Japanese version of the saint and serpent proved immensely popular. Mitsui was asked by “many people” to do more, and he came up with “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” based on a classical Japanese print. He used “Chujo-hime and the Spirit of Her Wicked Stepmother” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi as inspiration, because it featured a chaste and virtuous woman who also suffered greatly.

One of the most arcane of touches is the creation of his own unique script rather than continuously working with traditionals like Carolingian or Gothic. Mitsui developed it by incorporating elements from scripts that appealed to him so it could be used with modern ballpoint or felt pens. He hasn’t come up with a name for it, yet but the man obviously hunts for challenges.

In the tradition of ancient illuminated manuscripts, some of his pieces depict such unhappy events as beheading and martyrdom. In his beautiful, illuminated “Chi-Rho,” Mitsui adds 15 cosmic signs of the end of the world according to St. Jerome, such as number XI: “The earth will vomit up the dead and their bones will come out of their tombs.”

This is highly unusual for modern Christian art, which often steers toward subjects more suitable for polite dinner conversation.

Requiems, books of hours, momento mori, liturgies, epic lives of saints and the Bible all inform Mitsui’s work, which is quite complex. It contains both visual details and sometime requires elaborate explanation to translate the Latin and Greek texts and church symbols embedded in his art.

This has endeared Mitsui to church officials, specifically the Vox Clara Committee who commissioned him to create five, color illustrations for the 2012 interim edition of the Roman Pontifical. These include “Crucifixion,” “Last Supper,” “Presentation in the Temple,” “Descent of the Holy Ghost” and “Christ the High Priest.” Realized in colored inks on Bristol board, as much of his work is, his style is heavily influenced by “15th century panel paintings, tapestries, manuscripts and incunabula.” Mitsui also designed a cover and spine, as well as versals, or ornate calligraphic initials for them.

Mitsui's "Roman Pontifical" series

Theologically dense, they each illuminate church doctrine in three parts, with a central image surrounded by appropriate symbols, Old Testament prefigurements and scenes depicting liturgical rites. For instance “The Last Supper” includes “Sacrifice of Melchizedek” and “Fall of the Rebel Angels” on the same page. Only people with an advanced seminary degree could fit those themes together with some logic, but it’s still interesting to look at.

Mitsui is ardently involved with the church in many areas, belonging and contributing to groups such as the Catholic Illustrator’s Guild and The New Liturgical Movement (or make that “Novus Motus Liturgicus.”) They encourage creation of liturgical art, do some critiquing and discuss the historical and future roles of art and the church. In Mitsui’s case, he often refers back to past Encyclicals, councils and catechisms of the Catholic Church as it applies to art and other subjects.

His zeal for Christian issues and art is glaringly apparent in an article Mitsui wrote in 2005. It involves Arthur Eric Rowton Gill, a famed British sculptor and calligrapher who is described in many places as “ardently religious,” or something to that effect, after he converted to Cathokicism. While publicly a spokesman for God, he privately made blasphemous artwork and was later exposed as a perverse, sexual predator who indulged in sex with his own children and various species among other things. Some of this information didn’t appear until the 1980s.

Years after Gill’s death, his work is still proudly shown and physically attached to some of Britain’s most prestigious monuments such as Westminster Cathedral and BBC buildings. Mitsui and other ardent Catholics would like to see these sculptural works removed because of the moral stigma and deception attached to them. Demonstrations inside the Cathedral protest Church authorities’ refusal to remove the Stations of the Cross carved by the now notorious pedophile. Other Catholic authorities stopped short of removal, but suggested that more distinction should be placed between Gill’s “artistic skills and private life.”

In a recent collaboration with author T.M. Doran, Mitsui illustrated the cover and title page of the mystery novel “Toward the Gleam,” published in 2011 by Ignatius Press. Mitsui described the challenge of the project where he developed a “runic alphabet and a decorative vocabulary” that was completely unique from any known civilization.

Mitsui’s beautiful website features massively illustrated church history on everything from Passion plays to the fictitious Gotham Cathedral in the (1989) “Batman” movie. Quoting medieval poetry, the Catholic Encyclopedia and lives of the saints, he expounds on the church and its relation to his art. Mitsui also interviews and hosts other Catholic artists in his newsletter “The Lion and the Cardinal.”

A fascination with antique bookplates led Mitsui to create them for private commissions in his unique style along with business and calling cards, luthier’s labels, colophons or logos. Even artists have to diversify at times. Some of Mitsui’s original drawings are available as well as signed prints. He embellishes a few with gold leaf (see his website for more detail), and all prints keep to the original size.

Mitsui is creating a buzz with his neo-traditional icons and illustrations. His name stirs up admiring comments by artists, writers and apologists who catch hints of a resurgence in religious art. The secular world and mainstream art critics aren’t getting too worked up, but what else is new? Mitsui is clearly more concerned with his reception in the “The City of God” than the “Big Apple” at this point.


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