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Illuminating the Bible

July 7, 2010

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

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 10:34 am

    As far as whether images in the Bible would detract from the beauty of God’s Word, I think it depends entirely on the images, both quantity and quality. The images should be designed to support the text, not overwhelm it, and should seek to be faithful to the spirit of what they are illustrating. They should not be considered independent works of art.
    In some ways, it is a similar question to ask whether study notes detract from the truth of God’s Word. Notes obviously can, if they promote erroneous doctrines (a classic example is the Scofield Reference Bible, which played a major part in popularizing Dispensationalism, which I believe to be false), but they can also be a great help to someone attempting to learn more about Scripture.

    • July 7, 2010 10:39 am

      Do you think the images in the Bible I have mentioned support the text rather than overwhelming it? Do you think one of them does that better than the others?

      It’s interesting that you bring study notes into this discussion, although the interpretative import of study notes is very different than an image, which can be interpreted in many different ways. In other words, study notes are like having a commentary attached to your Bible, but images are something entirely different.

  2. Anna permalink
    July 7, 2010 11:11 am

    ….unless you consider that artists function as theologians in presenting biblical passages/ideas as images…

  3. July 7, 2010 11:17 am

    Yes, I definitely grant that the artist function as theologians, but they still do so with images instead of words, which is a very different way of presenting truth and beauty.

  4. July 25, 2010 5:50 pm

    I think our understanding of God’s Word should be expanded. How do we describe the ineffability of God but but through translation into human language and human understanding? We are told by John that the Word was with God in the beginning, and whether we understand that passage to refer to Christ or to something entirely different, the “Word,” in this sense, is most certainly not text.

    That leads me to question, then, if images or illustrations of the Bible can be understood as detracting from the text. Perhaps the images of St. John’s Bible may not be the images we carry around in our heads, but they are an equally valid expression of the Word.

    • July 25, 2010 6:10 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts, Cara. I believe that Jesus is the full expression of God’s Word, but that Scripture is also God’s Word on the basis of inspiration and not just a witness to God’s Word.

      In answer to my final question in the post, however, I do not think that illuminating the Bible detracts from the beauty of God’s Word. In fact, I think it can allude to and tease out meaning that we have not understood before or fully grasped. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “equally valid expression of the Word,” but I definitely think that these images can help us encounter and understand God’s Word as revealed in the person of Jesus and in Scripture.

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