Somewhere around the year 1122 AD, Benedictine artist/monk Roger of Helmarshausen, under the pseudonym Theophilus, wrote a treatise on artistic crafts titled ON DIVERS ARTS. It is the oldest surviviving manuscript on the arts written by a practicing artist. It describes 12th century techniques in painting, glass, and metalwork. This is Theophilus’ prologue to the work, a moving letter to artists and craftsmen, in which he reminds us of the source of our gifts and the necessity of humility, generosity, gratitude, and an appreciation for our share in God’s creating power. Notes in red are mine.
Theophilus, a humble priest, servant of the servants of God, unworthy of the name and profession of monk, to all who wish to avoid and subdue sloth of mind and wandering of the spirit by useful occupation of hands and delightful contemplation of new things: the recompense of heavenly reward.
The Source of Artistic Talent
We read in the account of the creation of the world that man was created in the image and likeness of God, and was given life by the breathing-in of the Divine breath; that by the excelling quality of such distinction he was preferred above all other living creatures, so that, capable of reason, he might participate deservedly in the wisdom and skill of God’s design, and that, endowed with freedom of choice, he should respect the will and reveal the sovereignty of his Creator alone. But, although he lost the privilege of immortality through the sin of disobedience, being pitifully deceived by the cunning of the devil, nevertheless he transmitted to the generations of posterity his distinction of knowledge and intelligence, so that whoever devoted care and attention to the task can acquire, as by hereditary right, the capacity for the whole range of art and skill.
Holding this purpose before it, human ingenuity, in its varied activities in pursuit of gain and pleasure, brought this purpose through the waxing of time eventually to the predestined era of the Christian religion. So it came to pass that a people devoted to God converted to His worship that which His own ordinance had created for the praise and glory of His name.
All of creation finds its perfection in the worship of God. He is the source of our gifts and talents which find their true purpose when they are directed to praise and glorify Him. When we artists use their artistic talent to praise and glorify God, man is sanctified in the process.
Wherefore the pious devotion of the faithful should not neglect what the ingenious foresight of their predecessors has transmitted to our present age, and man should embrace with avid eagerness the inheritance that God bestowed on man and should labor to acquire it. Let no one after acquiring this glorify himself in his own heart as though it had been received from himself and not from elsewhere. But let him be humbly thankful in the Lord from whom and through whom all things are and without whom nothing is. Let him not hide his gifts in the purse of envy nor conceal them in the storeroom of a selfish heart but, thrusting aside all boasting, let him simply and with a cheerful mind dispense to those who seek. Let him also fear the judgment in the Gospel on that merchant who failed to return the talent to his master with interest and went without thanks, and by the evidence of his own mouth deserved the epithet. “Thou wicked servant.”
The purpose of artistic ability is not to serve the artist’s ego but rather to serve our brothers and sisters by bringing them a step closer to Christ. The artist, like every other person in the proper use of his or her gifts, is a servant to others. “For what is an artist in this world but a servant?”
Fearing to incur this judgment, I, an unworthy human creature, almost without name, offer freely to all who desire, in humbleness, to learn, the gifts that God, who gives abundantly and undemandingly to all, has deigned to grant freely to me. I admonish them to see exemplified in me the blessed kindness of God and to wonder at His ample generosity. I urge them to believe unquestioningly that the same is there for them if they will add their own efforts. For just as it is wicked and hateful for a man through evil ambition to grasp at a forbidden thing that is not his due or to take possession of it by theft, so also it must be ascribed to laziness and to folly if he leaves without trial or treats contemptuously a rightful inheritance from God the Father.
What we have received without cost we should freely give without cost. As God has generously given to us, so should we give generously of our time and talent to those who seek to develop their own gifts in spirit of faith and humility.
Value Your Natural Talent
Therefore, whoever you are, dearest son, whose heart God has inspired to investigate the vast field of the divers arts and to apply your mind and attention to gather from it whatever pleases you, do not disparage any costly or useful thing just because your native soil has spontaneously and unexpectedly produced it for you. For he is a foolish merchant who suddenly comes across a treasure while digging the soil and neglects to gather it up and save it. If your common shrubs should produce myrrh, frankincense, and balsam, if your local springs should pour forth oil, milk, and honey, if spikenard, cane, and various aromatic herbs should grow in place of nettles, thistles, and other garden weeds, would you despise all these as cheap local products and travel over land and sea to procure foreign ones that are no better and are perhaps of less value? Even in your own judgment this would be a great folly. For although men normally accord highest rank to, and guard with the greatest care, every precious thing that has been sought after with much sweat and acquired at extreme expense, yet if now and then similar or better things turn up or are found for nothing, they are guarded with similar or even greater vigilance.
Therefore, most gentle son – whom God has wholly blessed in that there are freely offered to you things which many obtain only after intolerable effort, plowing the waves of the sea at the greatest danger to their lives, constrained by the necessities of hunger and cold, or wearied by long servitude to the professors, and yet remain unflagging in their desire for learning – gaze covetously and avidly upon this treatise on divers arts, read it through with tenacious memory, and embrace it with an ardent love.
If you study it diligently you will find here whatever kinds of the different pigments Byzantium possesses and their mixtures; whatever Russia has learned in the working of enamels and variegation with neillo; whatever Arab lands adorn with repousse or casting or open work; whatever decoration Italy applies to a variety of vessels in gold or by the carving of gems and ivories; whatever France loves in the costly variegation of windows; and whatever skillful Germany applauds in the fine working of gold, silver, copper, and iron, and in wood and precious stones.
In his creativity man shares in the creative power of God. Made in His image and likeness, man is what J.R.R. Tolkien described as “sub-creator, the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.”
When you have read this again and again and entrusted it to your tenacious memory, you will repay your instructor for his pains if every time you have made good use of my work, you pray for me that I may receive the mercy of almighty God who knows that I have written what is here systematically set forth neither out of love for human praise nor from desire for temporal reward, and that through envious jealousy I have neither stolen anything precious or rare nor silently reserved anything for myself alone, but rather that I have given aid to many men in their need and have had concern for their advancement to the increase of the honor and glory of His name.
In the 1965 movie, The Agony and the Ecstasy, there is a scene where Pope Julius is admiring Michelangelo’s painting of God the Father. “Is that how you see him?” he asks the artist, “Not angry, not vengeful, but strong, benign loving.”
“The act of creation,” replies Michelangelo, “is an act of love… I am grateful for His gift to me.”
God has given each of us great gifts to use to help each other, we should never cease in being thankful.
Peace be with you