Daniel Mitsui tells Simon Caldwell what inspires him in his work, as he begins a new decade-long project illustrating Bible stories
Daniel Mitsui loves to draw the Old Testament. Since 2010, when he became a full-time artist, most of his commissions have been scenes from the Gospels or of patron saints, often commissioned for a baptism or other event, and the opportunity to show more ancient figures was a rarity.
But now Mitsui has embarked on a 14-year project to depict the Bible in 234 pictures in ink on calfskin vellum.
He will bring 124 stories from the Old Testament to life, as well as summarise the life of Christ in 40 larger pictures. Others will show the lives of the saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary, or scenes such as the Last Judgment. Mitsui is not working in chronological order, but painting each image by commission. Those he has already completed are striking. One is entitled “The Repentance of Nineveh” and it depicts Jonah as totally bald. “Our instinct nowadays is to say, ‘We are drawing a prophet, we are going to give him a big long beard,” explains Mitsui.
“But one of the things I enjoy most in what I do is learning and analysing older traditions and expressing them again. I really love finding these conventions and bringing them back,” he says.
“I discovered that it was commonly believed that Jonah’s experience inside the whale was almost a digestion and when he was vomited out on the shore he’s lost his clothing and his hair.
“The way that makes him look is almost like a newborn infant and the implications of how you relate to him is of him being born again when he comes out of this thing that resembles the tomb. Smaller, thoughtful things like that I really find thrilling.” Mitsui’s depictions of Christ are equally impressive. They include one of the Sacred Heart which represents a departure from sentimental depictions of 19th-century artists, and harks back to the 13th-century inspirations of St Gertrude the Great, the German mystic.
It is an illustration with a distinctive “Gothic feel”, a real yet simplified human heart forms a powerful central focus. Then the picture extends in detail, with Christ’s halo richly adorned with such creatures as sea horses, pangolins, platypuses, lyrebirds and chameleons, which the artist has incorporated as symbols of universality.
The work has proved very popular as a contemporary version of a classic depiction of Jesus, with Mitsui asked to recreate it time and again.
Gothic art is where Mitsui, 38, is most at home. Even as a child he was captivated by the drama and aesthetic of medieval religious art, enchanted by illuminated manuscripts.
In the early 2000s, he was guided, like most students at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, toward trends in gallery art but found them uninspiring.
In 2004, after he was baptised as a Catholic, he began to perfect a style which is unique because it is firmly rooted in the tradition of Sacred Art but by no means not confined by it.
“I don’t necessarily say I want to take traditional medieval art and make it modern,” he says, “but I am going to take it because I like it and I am going to try to follow certain principles because they are there, but I am not going to stop myself from doing anything or drawing on any of the other influences that might make it better.”
Mitsui is offering the world a style of art that is fresh. Mitsui is, in fact, so original that he was noticed internationally within a year of turning professional, working from a studio at his home in Hobart, Indiana, when the Vatican commissioned him to illustrate an edition of the Roman Pontifical.
He has since accepted a number of commissions from churches. Seminarians use his work to announce their ordinations, Catholic parents to celebrate the sacramental progress of their children. His art appears in altar cards, book plates and even a series of colouring books.
An early commission was to depict St Michael in the style of a Japanese woodblock print. The resulting image shows the archangel as a Samurai leading the angels in a battle against Hell, with demons depicted as dragons.
“People really responded to it,” recalls Mitsui, whose father was a Japanese American. “They really loved that drawing and came to me asking me to do more.”
The novelty and versatility of Mitsui reveal an artist at the height of his creativity, yet there is far more to come.
He expects his biblical scenes to take him to 2031. After that might come the project of his lifetime: drawing the visions of St Hildegarde of Bingen, the 12th-century mystic who is one of his greatest inspirations.
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