When I was young, one of my parents would end our meal together by pulling me up on their lap and reading a story from the Bible Story Book, a big blue book full of illustrations. These illustrations may not have been of the highest quality, but they made these stories come alive for me. Not only did I learn about Sampson’s bravery and strength, but I could picture what it looked like for him to spread out his arms and push on the giant pillars. I still remember some of those images: Noah gathering the animals in the ark, Moses pulled out the weeds by Pharaoh’s daughter, David hurling the stone at Goliath, Joseph leading Mary and Jesus back from Egypt. I learned these stories because I heard and saw these stories. They were ingrained into my imagination.
But illustrated Bibles are not just for children. In fact, there is a long history of illuminated Bibles dating back to the very beginning of the church. These illuminated Bible were not simply full of illustrations, but the work of exquisite craftsmanship including burnishing with gold foil and commissioning scribes/calligraphers to write out the text.
The work of illuminating Bibles, however, is not limited to monasteries hundreds of years ago. Illuminated Bibles are still being commissioned and produced today. Some, like the Bible Illuminated, have been critiqued for having an agenda and twisting the meaning of Scripture, since according to this production, the main purpose of this Bible is a reminder “to live in harmony with our fellow human beings, the importance of justice and mutual respect, and the urgent need to care for the planet we cohabit.” Another example, the Saint John’s Bible, is the work of a team of artists and the renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson (example pictured above). The images are stunning and makes the reader consider passages from an entirely new angle.
One project for which I am particularly excited, however, is the Four Holy Gospels project, an illuminated manuscript of the Gospels by New York artist Makoto Fujimura and published by Crossway (2011). You can view a preview of the project, in which Fujimura hopes to represent “the greater reality that the Bible speaks of… for the pure sake of integrating faith and art in our current pluralistic, multicultural world.”
These projects in illuminating the Bible bring up many questions about the role of art in helping us grasp the biblical drama and motivating us to participate in this drama. Is there something appropriate in the abstract art of the Saint John’s Bible and Fujimura’s project, giving space for our imaginations to fill in the details of the scene? Do you think an illuminated Bible has the power to integrate faith and art in our current context, as Fujimura maintains? In connection with Anna’s post yesterday, if Christians are concerned with beautiful books in general, it seems we should be concerned first and foremost about the beauty of the Bible. But does adding art to the Bible detract from the beauty of the Bible as God’s Word?
*Bible Story Book: Amazon
*Acts Frontispiece and Incipit: The Saint James Bible