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.