Meet Daniel Mitsui, Modern Artist With a Medieval Gothic Heart
Pen-and-Ink Drawings Depict Jesus, Saints
“It’s a very creative piece,” says Father Brad Hagelin, pastor of the Seattle-area church. “It’s obvious that it comes from a place of devotion. This is the artist’s calling. It was like commissioning an icon from a monk who has a great devotion.”
The artist, Daniel Mitsui, who is married with four young children, is no monk, and he prefers not to talk at length about his Catholic faith because he does not want to leverage his devotion as a way to attract clients. But his idiosyncratic yet traditional Gothic art, inspired by illustrated manuscripts, panel paintings and tapestries from more than 800 years ago, has drawn a devoted following. Clients praise his work as “richly layered and very complex” and “beautiful, reverent, thought-provoking and mystical.”
Working from his studio at his home in Hobart, a small city in northwestern Indiana, Mitsui specializes in pen-and-ink drawings. His art is scooped up by churches, devout Catholics for their shrines at home, and seminarians announcing their ordinations. Recent clients include a Knight of Malta from England who commissioned a Lady of Victory drawing and the Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky, which had Mitsui design the intricate pattern for new carpets.
As a measure of his stature as an artist, the Vatican commissioned him to illustrate a new edition of the Roman Pontifical. In 2011, he completed his work for the liturgical book that contains the rites performed by bishops.
He is a serious artist with a touch of whimsy: He’s authored a series of coloring books. Published by Ave Maria Press, the series includes books on the saints, the Rosary and labyrinths.
No matter the medium, Mitsui takes great pains to create art embedded in Church Tradition.
“Art without tradition is pretty, but without deeper meaning,” he said in a lecture at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. “Tradition — art — has a content that comes down to us from the beginning of the Church. It doesn’t belong to us. It’s not about self-expression, but the history and tradition.”
Mitsui, 37, is an unlikely torchbearer for traditional Catholic art. He was not baptized until he was a senior at Dartmouth College. His mother had been raised Catholic, and he went to Mass only on Easter and Christmas. His conversion was “not a dramatic moment. It came by the grace of God,” he says.
Growing up in a Chicago suburb, he admired the Gothic architecture at the University of Chicago. But his attachment to Gothic art was solidified by a fortuitous — or providential — discovery.
Shortly after college, while working at a liturgical arts supplier, he picked up a book about medieval Gothic art by Émile Mâle, a French art historian. He was hooked. His growing faith fed his appetite for traditional Catholic art, and his immersion in Catholic art fortified his faith.
Mitsui jokingly calls himself a “spirit of Nicea II Catholic.” His understanding of the role of religious art has its roots 1,200 years ago with that Church council, which reversed an earlier council’s suppression of sacred images and restored the use of icons for devotion. Mitsui often quotes from the teachings of the Second Council of Nicea: “The tradition does not belong to the painter; the art alone is his. True arrangement and disposition belong to the Holy Fathers.”
These ancient prescriptions regarding art are especially relevant today when art is trivialized, he says. Even sacred images find their way onto coffee mugs and T-shirts. People look at it but don’t really see it. “Unlimited quantities of art can be reproduced. When you see it on Facebook, you hit the ‘like’ button,” he says. “But you don’t engage with it. The idea is that the image is disposable. There is such gluttony of images that the meaning of the art is an afterthought.”
The religious artist needs to be knowledgeable and intentional. “Art should not just be familiar and comforting. It needs to be real and beautiful and interesting. It needs to engage people intellectually and spiritually,” he says.
Like most of his work, intended not for churches but for private devotion, the Our Lady of Seattle drawing is quite small — 12 inches by 17 inches. But the level of detail of the drawing, done on deerskin parchment, is astonishing. Mary is dressed similar to a treasured statue of Our Lady of Seattle at St. James Cathedral in nearby Seattle. The “Undoer of Knots,” the one we can turn to in times of need, carries the Christ Child in a sling. She stands astride a crescent moon, with 12 stars above her head. The shape of the piece suggests a copper shield, a reference to a Native American artifact.
Another enthused patron of Mitsui is Father James Smith of St. Francis de Sales Church in Mableton, Georgia. He treasures Mitsui’s depictions of the Stations of the Cross and the Mysteries of the Rosary. The art is part of the priest’s devotional life. “Art is not just a pretty picture. It’s very helpful to pray. It’s helpful to knowing and loving God,” says Father Smith of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. “He [Mitsui] imbues his work with so much research and knowledge. So much symbolism is incorporated into his art.”
Over the next decade, Mitsui is working on incorporating all the major events of the Old and New Testaments into his work. Begun at Easter 2017 and slated to be finished by Easter 2031, he’s drawing 250 biblical scenes. Like a medieval encyclopediast, he envisions his highly ambitious Summula Pictoria: A Little Summary of the Old and New Testament to include the foundational events, stories and beliefs rooted in the Bible.
“It will be the most important and profound events from the Book of Genesis to the death of the apostles,” he says.
He’s using metal-tipped dip pens and paintbrushes on calfskin vellum, and the prodigious output possibly could become a book. At least, functioning as a visual online catechism, the full-color art will be available for all to see and savor.
Besides 40 drawings of the life of Christ, the project also will include 124 smaller drawings related to the Old Testament, 56 illustrations depicting the lives of the Mary, John the Baptist and the apostles, and 13 portraits of other holy people.
“It’s a legacy I want to leave,” Mitsui says. “I don’t want to regret never having done them.”
Like his other art, the Summula Pictoria will emanate from the past but strive for relevance for today’s faithful.
“I don’t want to make 13th-century art,” he says. “It’s not as if art from that time has an ending principle. I want to embrace the same ideas but make a new connection to them now.”
Jay Copp writes from
La Grange Park, Illinois.