Detail from "Crucifixion" by Daniel Mitsui (http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/millefleur_popule_meus.html | Used by kind permission of the artist)
is a young artist who has, over the past dozen years,
established himself as a unique talent, combining remarkable
technical skills with a traditional vision of sacred art. In 2011 he
was commissioned by the Vatican to illustrate a new edition of the
Roman Pontifical, and the following year he established Millefleur
Press, an imprint for publishing broadsides inspired by the work
of 15th century printers. He recently corresponded with Carl E.
Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his background,
work, approach to sacred art, and his ambitious
plan to “draw is an iconographic summary of the Old and New
Testaments,” which will take some
14 years or
so to complete.
You attended Dartmouth in the early 2000s, where you studied a
wide range of mediums; is that where you decided to focus on on ink
drawing on calfskin vellum, which you describe as your specialty?
What attracted you to that medium, and what are some of its
Mitsui: I have been drawing primarily in ink since I was
seventeen or eighteen years old. At first, I used very cheap
materialsballpoint pens and printer paper, which are not even
archival. Despite their shortcomings, I was able to use them to make
drawings that were precise and detailed. Precise, detailed artwork is
what I have always liked and always tried to make.
I went to college, I had in mind that I would become an oil painter,
just because that seemed like the most prestigious medium. That was
bad reasoning, and oil paint was something that I never learned to
use properly. For a while I enjoyed making animated films, but the
detail that I put into the drawings was wasted, as they could only be
seen for a twenty-fourth of a second! Intaglio printmaking I enjoyed,
as it is an exact medium; the reason I have not practiced it since
leaving college is that it requires very expensive equipment and
my years of schooling, I made ink drawings on my own initiative;
eventually I started using better pens and paper. This medium allowed
me to use my particular abilities of concentration and manual
precision to their best advantage. To me, specific materials and
tools are not as interesting or important as the picture itself. I
enjoy working with good materials and tools of course, but their
purpose is to put in place, as exactly as possible, the picture I
want to make.
is for this reason that I now prefer to draw in ink with metal-tipped
dip pens, on calfskin vellum. When used carefully, dip pens make the
finest, most controlled lines. Calfskin is a very exact and forgiving
surface for drawing. Paper is composed of randomly arranged vegetable
fibers, but vellum is composed of organized layers of skin cells. The
ink does not bleed much on it, and it is easy to scrape away the top
layer cleanly with a knife. I use a knife almost as much as a penfor
making corrections, sharpening lines, or etching details into the
ink. Goatskin is a fine drawing surface as well, but I prefer
calfskin because it is thinner and translucent.
"Tree of Jesse" by Daniel Mitsui (http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/tree_of_jesse.html | Used by kind permission of the artist)
In 2004, the same year you finished at Dartmouth, you entered the
Catholic Church. What was your background prior? What drew you to the
Church? And how did that affect you as an artist?
Mitsui: My late father had been raised a Baptist, but did
not profess any faith during the years of my childhood. My mother had
been raised Catholic; my parents had married outside the Church. Our
home did have a crucifix on the wall and a Bible on the shelf (some
of which I read privately); for a while, my family attended Mass on
Christmas and Easter and rarely on other Sundays. Although I was not
baptized until I was an adult, I have believed Catholicism to be true
for as long as I can remember. I do not have a natural explanation
early childhood, I remember an attraction to anything resembling
medieval art: Lego castles, Eyvind Earle’s painted backgrounds to
the Sleeping Beauty animated motion picture and Trina Schart
Hyman’s illustrations to St. George and the Dragon were
particular favorites. Obviously, these are not religious works, but
the association between medieval art and the Catholic Church early
formed in my mind. I remember as a young child being fascinated with
the spires of gothic churches near the library where my mother
worked, imagining what must be inside them. The first Gothic
buildings that I saw from the inside were the chapels at the
University of Chicago. I was perhaps fourteen; this made a very
strong impression on me. About that same time, I encountered
reproductions of illuminated manuscripts for the first time and was
immediately fascinated, most especially by the Lindisfarne Gospels. I
was deeply affected also by reading a translation of the Divine
it was best that my idea of the Catholic Church was formed more by
medieval art and literature than by the typical parochial experience
in the Chicago suburbs during the 1980s and 1990s! Had I been a more
courageous child, I would have sought religious initiation on my own,
or demanded it; instead, I determined to seek it after leaving my
parents’ house. But during my first few years away at Dartmouth, I
was depressed and resisted my religious desire. Eventually, I had to
admit to myself that I could not remain indifferent so I contacted
the priest on campus and went through the RCIA program at the student
center. I was baptized and confirmed, and received my first
communion, at the Easter Vigil in 2004, shortly before graduation.
that time, I also determined to devote my creative effort to
religious artwork; this represented not so much a change as a return.
During the years when I was resisting my faith, I was most influenced
by early comic strips and the surrealist art of Max Ernst; I realized
that I liked these because of their affinity with illuminated
manuscripts and the works of late medieval masters such as Hieronymus
"Sacred Heart" by Daniel Mitsui (http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/cor_iesu.html | Used by kind permission of the artist)
art todaywhether visual, musical, or literaryseems preoccupied
with personal experience and expressing one's feelings, passions,
desires. But you emphasize, in your site, that you are intent on
being “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.” Why that particular approach? In what ways is it counter
to the prevailing tastes of the larger “art world”?
world has need for different sorts of art that are intended to do
different things; indeed for different sorts of art made as an
expression of religious faith. Some of those are very personal and
singular, and great because of that. But there is a distinction
between sacred art and secular art that is Catholic in its subject or
motivation; the criterion of sacred art is that established by the
Second Council of Nicaea.
art is always traditional. In its symbolism, it visually presents the
exegetical method taught by Jesus Christ to the Apostles and
elaborated by the Church Fathers. Its content and arrangement
corroborate the liturgy, ultimately bearing witness to the same
perpetuated memory of sacred events. Its presentation of space and
time and light is philosophically correct. Discovering and continuing
this tradition is to me very interesting, very satisfying.
it would be easy to misunderstand this requirement of tradition to
mean that only a specific primitive style of art is truly sacred. I
do not think that is correct either; sacred art must also glorify God
through beauty as much as possible. I think these two requirements
are nowhere met better or more harmoniously than in the art called
Gothic, which emerged in the middle of the twelfth century.
art is a summary of the sacred art of the preceding ages, put into
order and expressed more clearly. Yet it looks very different from
early medieval art; it is refined and gorgeous in a way that early
medieval art is not. I do not think of Gothic as a mere historic
style characteristic of a certain time and place, but as the best
example of art made according to Catholic principles that are
enduringly true. This is why I make it the foundation of my own
"St Adelaide" by Daniel Mitsui (http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/adelaide.html | Used by kind permission of the artist)
address you gave in 2015 at the opening of exhibit of your work
at Franciscan University of Steubenville you stated, “How beautiful
that the Catholic Church celebrates the finding of things that have
been lost, and the retaking of things that have been stolen. This
seems especially relevant in our own age; at times I feel that most
of my religion has been lost, or stolen from me.” What are some
ways in which religion has been lost or stolen? In an increasingly
secular and even anti-Christian age, what do you think the role of
the Catholic artist should be?
Mitsui: We are living in a time comparable to the
iconoclastic crises of the seventh and eighth centuries. A contempt
for tradition, including artistic, is encountered at all levels of
the Catholic Church. That is obvious enough.
earlier, less recognized, damage was done to sacred art in the late
sixteenth century. The brief and unspecific instructions of the
Council of Trent for bishops to oversee sacred art within their
dioceses were interpreted by some as permission to subject the entire
tradition to critical judgment. The most thorough of these censors,
John Molanus, was blind to the symbolic order in medieval art; he
condemned and forbade every traditional composition that he did not
understand, which amounts to nearly all of them. His writings were
influential far beyond his own diocese. Through no fault of their
own, religious artists working since the time of this censorship
inherited of an impoverished iconography.
meaning of traditional sacred art became obscure; medieval works that
once catechized the unlettered now require written commentary to
interpret. In such a time, I believe that those aspiring to make
sacred art must be scholars and teachers as well as artists. They
should know the work of archaeologists and iconologists who, since
the late 19th century, have deciphered many traditional symbols and
compositions; they should continue that work and make it popular.
Visual expressions of theology, no matter how profound or beautiful,
are ineffective if nobody understands them.
From your perspective as a working artist, what in general is the
state of the visual arts within the Catholic Church in the U.S.? What
can be done to encourage and help artists?
Mitsui: It’s unwell. One of the biggest problems is that
the institutions of the Catholic Church, such as dioceses and
parishes and seminaries, do not dependably defend tradition. Many
bishops and priests are hostile to it, and even those that want
traditional sacred art are worried about provoking rebellion from the
faithful who do not. What emerges as a result is a kind of insipid,
just-traditional-enough art that avoids causing offense only because
it is easy to ignore.
feel sorry for sacred artists who depend on institutional patronage.
It seems that they expend most of their creative energy fighting for
permission to make the best art possible. Art does not flourish under
such conditions; to make the best art possible ought to be every
artist’s job description. Although I would like to see more of my
own artwork in churches, I am grateful that I am able to sell most of
my drawings and prints to private individuals. This means that I do
not need to fight these battles.
encourage all aspiring sacred artists to take responsibility for
their own formation and to make the most beautiful, most traditional
art that they can without compromise. That, of course, would be
easier if sound instruction were more widely available. I am trying
to fill some of this need myself; I recently
started a web log for writing about the principles and symbolism
of sacred art, and the methods of making it. I offer there
educational material for free download, including coloring sheets and
activities for children.
"St. Hugh of Lincoln" by Daniel Mitsui (http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/hugh_lincoln.html | Used by kind permission of the artist)
What are some past projects and commissions that you've worked
Mitsui: I recently completed a drawing of the Tree of Jesse that
included all of the ancestors mentioned in St. Matthew’s genealogy.
To fit all of these figures in a coherent picture, I designed a
framework of Gothic tracery through which the tree climbed, as if on
a trellis. The combination of the orderly, geometric forms of the
framework with the organic forms of branches, flowers, leaves and
almonds was, I think, very effective.
recent drawings of St. Hugh of Lincoln, St. Adelaide and Sarah the
Matriarch were especially satisfying because I successfully used new
methods for working on calfskin vellum: applying ink via sponges and
decalcomania for natural textures, scratching details with a
knifepoint, drawing on the reverse side to create ghostly images. The
trees in their backgrounds I modeled on the artwork of Eyvind Earle,
one of my earliest influences. Their ornament I based not only only
Gothic, but also on Northumbro-Irish and Persian forms.
2015, I was challenged by one of my patrons to create a new,
unsentimental image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I determined to
reconnect this devotion to its early expressions in the visions of
St. Gertrude, and to create an image with the vigor of late medieval
art. This became one of my most popular drawings; I made several
versions of it over the following years.
recently revealed, on your site, an ambitious plan to “draw is
an iconographic summary of the Old and New Testaments,” which will
take about 14 years and will consist of 33 large drawings and another
165 or so smaller drawings. What inspired this decision? What else
can you tell us about the project?
Mitsui: For years, I have wanted to draw longer series of
pictures, consistent in style and size. Most especially, I have
wanted to draw more of those subjects that are the very raw stuff of
Christian belief and Christian art: the events of the Old and New
Testaments. No other subjects offer an artist such opportunity for
beauty and symbolism. Were I never to draw them, I would feel my
artistic career incomplete.
Summula Pictoria will be realized as 235 ink drawings on
calfskin vellum. Forty large ones, about 9 inches square, will
summarize the life of Jesus Christ. 124 smaller ones will summarize
the Old Testament; 56 more in the smaller size will depict 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 of the Tree of Jesse. The full
list is on my website.
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
in those years that I can be reasonably confident that my eyesight
and manual dexterity will endure.
plan to devote much of the next two years to research and planning,
improving my technical skills and raising funds for the project. The
pictures I plan to draw over twelve years, from Easter 2019 to Easter
"Sarah the Matriarch" by Daniel Mitsui (http://www.danielmitsui.com/00_pages/sarah.html | Used by kind permission of the artist)