The Common Good
July-August 2000

A Revelation in Black and White

by Julie Polter | July-August 2000

Artist Barry Moser's new illustrated Bible shows that the people of scripture---and books themselves---are very much alive.

p>A "blur of romance" tends to cling to our notions of people in the Bible, as Annie Dillard writes in Holy the Firm. Perhaps we find it oddly comforting to believe that God would only choose to be revealed to "simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes....while we now are various, complex, and full at heart."

Too much of the mass-produced art accompanying or inspired by scripture has reinforced this sense of remove from the flesh-and-blood humans who once lived those Bible stories. Jesus, his beard neatly trimmed, gazes beatifically and benignly at something off to the side. The Pharisees and the shepherds and, perhaps, one or two women (the latter so often interchangeable, as though they were all modeled on a young Marlo Thomas) pose stiffly, characters in some eternal Bible school program. Is this really where God did all those mighty acts and quiet whisperings, in this safe and sentimental world, among these bland, pastel people?

Given so many Sunday school watercolor figures, The Holy Bible as rendered by book designer and illustrator Barry Moser comes as a revelation. The illustrations are black and white, printed from relief engravings that were based on photographs. The wonder of human muscle or an ancient garden emerges from nothing but line, light, and shadow. The handcrafted, limited letterpress edition, published by Moser's Pennyroyal Caxton Press, was intended (and priced) for book collectors and museums. But the accessibly priced trade edition, published by Viking Studio, is still a book of imposing heft and startling artistry.

The eyes pulled me in first: Shiphrah, one of the two Hebrew midwives in the first chapter of Exodus, staring straight out of the page, fierce and wise. The prophet Ezekiel, eyes wide and wild, haunted with visions. Jesus, smiling broadly, his gaze warm and sparking with what must be a very good joke indeed. These are eyes that have stories to tell, that stay with you through the day.

But there are more than faces. Flip through this Bible and you will see naked bodies (taut and sagging, with and without boils, alive and dead). Birds, snails, and Balaam's ass. The cosmos and the valley of dry bones. Women - enough to assure one that in Bible times as now, women must have been about half the population and came in every age, size, and temperament. In this Bible, you are constantly reminded that these scriptures are about the unfolding story of God's relationship to people. Real people who laughed, lusted, loved, hated, wept, questioned, stumbled, soared, took risks, played it safe, and sought God as badly or as well on any given day as you or me.

Moser wants nothing to do with biblical illustration that is so idealized that no one can identify with it. "Most of the limners of biblical themes in our times come off with pictures that look like what it feels like to have gone to the county fair and eaten too much cotton candy - so sickly sweet," Moser says. "Their piety gets in the way."

MOSER WAS A TEEN-AGED preacher for a couple of years in his native Tennessee, but since then he's not had much to do with the institutional church.

"I'm a member of the church of Flannery O'Connor," he says, laughing. He keeps a well-thumbed copy of that darkly comic Catholic writer's collected letters (The Habit of Being) on his work desk next to his art books. Like O'Connor, Moser is deeply shaped by the religion-drenched, story-spinning culture of the South, the way that both faith and gossip deal in sin and redemption, the flesh, blood, and mystery of human life.

He sees the potential of this Bible as both a cultural and spiritual mission. "I know of no other single source of inspiration in Western culture for as much music, art, and architecture as the Bible," he says. Yet, he's constantly appalled in his teaching when he makes biblical allusions and the students don't get it. "They might have heard of Adam and Eve; might - can't even take that for granted. If I could bring a new generation to this particular piece of writing, I'd want to do it."

On the other hand, if through this edition of the Bible some people find a new or deepened relationship to the sacred, he'd find that wonderful too.

"As a boy preacher, that was my whole purpose in life, to bring people to the gospel. I find it ironic that 40 years later I'm doing the same thing. But in a different way. In a secular way."

Moser is sort of the antithesis of the tortured artist. Whether speaking to a group or one-on-one, he is affable, warm, gregarious - like the funny, story-telling uncle we all wished we had. "I love to make pictures for stories," he says. "I love literature, I love the relationship between those two things."

At the same time, it is a vocation that he is passionately serious about. For this Bible he sometimes worked up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week during the four years it took to complete.

He studied the biblical art that has come before, the good, the bad, and the masters such as Carravagio, Rembrandt, Dürer, and Gustave Doré. Moser's is the first fully illustrated Christian Bible since Doré's La Sainte Bible in 1865 (Marc Chagall completed an illustrated Hebrew Bible in 1957). Moser began planning the illustrations by compiling a list of religious images from art history books, and then adding the subjects that he's simply always wanted to do. He further augmented the list to create an even, compelling rhythm in the book, so that you don't go more than 10 pages or so without an image. In the end he created 232 hand-engraved illustrations, from full-page portraits and dramatic scenes to small, delightful metaphorical illustrations in the Psalms. (During the research phase, he was surprised to find that most illustrators before him had ignored the Psalms and other books of poetry.)

MOSER HAS ILLUSTRATED more than 200 children's books and literary classics (he works in both engraving and watercolors). The majority of these books are for mass production; others are specialty books, handcrafted from paper to press. In either case, and whether the book is The Holy Bible or The Three Little Pigs, Moser insists on designing the whole book: cover, typography, layout, as well as the illustrations. His favored title isn't illustrator, but booksmith. Some say the days of books being objects that you can hold in your hands are numbered. Work such as Moser's - with weight, texture, palpable craft - stands as an almost sacramental counterpoint to words and images conveyed solely on computer screens.

Were the stakes higher for Moser because the text in question is sacred? He confesses some ambivalence about the role of illustration. "On the one hand, illustrations in books do a great disservice to the reader," Moser says. "The reader sees those images and thinks that that's the way it really is." But defining truth, whether in a children's book or the Bible, is not his goal. "Good art always asks the question rather than answering the question. I don't think that anyone should think that what I present is what Jesus looked like - it's just one man's idea."

But it is clear that production of this Bible is a career pinnacle that he approached with years of anticipation and preparation and with deep respect for the text. He consulted with several biblical scholars during the process, and he sought not only to ground himself in the text but also to find different angles into its meaning. "One of the big revelations for me in this project is that I started reading the Midrash [rabbinical scripture commentaries]. I do the same thing the midrashim do; they take a story and take it somewhere else, expand on it."

He includes a striking number and variety of images of women. "If I had a choice to do an image of a woman rather than an image of a man," Moser says, "I would do the image of the woman. But I would not do this at the expense of the text itself. If the primary story is about a man I will stay with the literature; that's my responsibility." He says this approach was influenced by his three daughters and five granddaughters. "I wanted my daughters to be able to see themselves reflected in these pages, to feel called by it. I want my grandkids, my great-grandkids one day to open this thing up and read about Shiphrah and Puah, and know the great heroines that they were."

While Moser generally avoided anachronisms in these illustrations, some modern events did influence his interpretations. "My meditations on evil led me to my own time," he says. In the illustration of the death of Abel, Abel's figure is

modeled on a dead body on a cart in Buchenwald. Underneath the body is fabric that might be a burial shroud, but whose stripes echo a prison uniform. An illustration in Zechariah, "Turn Ye Now From Your Evil Doings," is centered on a burning cross. "This reflects on my childhood, seeing the Ku Klux Klan march up my street when I was 15. A burning cross is an obvious symbol, because it is a perverted symbol." The flames coming up off of the cross in the illustration becomes a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. Within that are other faces from photographs of Holocaust victims.

While Moser's Bible has received widespread critical praise, not everyone is pleased by it. He has received hostile anonymous letters that ask, "Why do people like you want to trash the things that are sacred?" He remains clear about his intent. "The opposite is true. I'm trying to find the sacred in the quotidian. It's as simple as that."

"My work is one of the things that I do hold sacred," Moser says. One personal benefit of this project, he says, is that it brought him back to prayer. "Not prayer in the sense of 'Our Father' or 'Hail Mary,' but in the sense that my work is my prayer." At the bottom of the acknowledgement page for this Bible, Moser has placed, in Hebrew, the final line of the Book of Nehemiah. Moser translates it as "Remember me, O God, for my work."

It is the ancient hope of the artisan, when the work is done.

JULIE POLTER is associate editor of

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