A TERRIBLE BEAUTY: MOSER'S BIBLE
by Catherine Madsen

The bones do live.

CATHERINE MADSEN is a contributing editor for Cross Currents.

There's a certain surprise in seeing intelligence and mercy operate at long range; generally it seems that only massive bureaucratic acts of displacement and destruction can affect many lives at once. We notice goodness, more likely, in the small-scale efforts of people within speaking and touching distance to make the world more habitable. At bad moments one can believe it impossible for any desirable gift to be widely given.

The Poor Shall Never Cease Out of the Land

The publication of Barry Moser's illustrated Bible is one of the rare events that seem to reverse this law. Within two weeks of the book's release last October -- about the time it took for the first printing of fifty thousand to sell out -- it became clear that this was a work of art of genuine importance: an unmistakably serious work which nevertheless had a wide appeal, and which bridged the usual gaps of sympathy between Christians and Jews, black and white, popular culture and high culture, right-wing and liberal Christians. No artist since Rembrandt has handled biblical subjects with such intimate confidence and such trust in the unbeautified human face; no illustrated Bible has so rooted itself in the modern sensibility.

Moser is the foremost American master of wood engraving -- a close and arduous process that uses the end grain of the wood as the printing surface -- and the first artist since Doré in 1865 to illustrate the entire Christian Bible. Even Doré did not undertake to illustrate every book, whereas Moser has produced over two hundred and thirty images and provided each book with at least one illustration. The sheer scope of the work is difficult to absorb; one keeps turning the pages and discovering new images, as if they multiplied on the sly while the book was shut. The work is as finely detailed, and as wonderfully inventive, as the illustrations of the Alice books, Frankenstein, Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz, and Moby Dick on which Moser made his reputation, but carries far greater emotional authority and moral weight. All the magnificent earlier work now appears as simply the technical apprenticeship for the emotional and moral ordeal of confronting the Bible. ("Life is more important than art, that's why art is so important," James Baldwin once said.)

The circumstances of the book's production are instructive. The project was underwritten by Bruce Kovner, chairman of the Caxton Corporation (an investment management company) and collector of Moser's and other fine bookmakers' work, who upon first meeting Moser several years ago asked, "What have you always wanted to do that you haven't done yet?" His patronage during the four years it took to do the illustrations -- one year of reading and three of twelve-hour days in the studio -- let Moser fulfill a desire of thirty years' standing. As the best patronage does, it also opened a crack in the world through which something that had not existed could escape the high pressure of oblivion on the other side and pour itself into existence.

Advance publicity in Newsweek, the New York Times and elsewhere tended to emphasize the price tag -- $10,000 -- of the hand-bound Pennyroyal Caxton edition of four hundred copies. There is also a $30,000 edition of fifty copies, on handmade paper with original drawings. Elegant and costly editions of this kind are the only way -- failing public support, and imagine the ideological and bureaucratic snafus of public support for an illustrated Bible -- to finance work on this scale: living expenses, car payments, books, payments to models, meetings with a board of distinguished advisors, the purchase of tools and supplies. As it is, without computer typesetting and a plastic substitute for the traditional boxwood (Resingrave, a slight variation on the formula for lawn furniture) the project would have been prohibitively expensive. (The type is elegant and restrained, and Resingrave performed its function superbly. Even plastic has come of age.) In the end, all this expenditure also made possible the $65 trade edition from Viking Studio -- the one that sold out in two weeks; the price is steep for a Bible, but not bad for an art book, and a publisher that could never advance money to an illustrator on the necessary scale can go on reprinting ad infinitum at more or less reasonable cost. The accumulation of wealth, and its selective redistribution, are subjects into which one cannot inquire closely without grief and anger; at the same time, if there had been no one able to spend substantial amounts on art, the work could simply not have been done. Goodness doesn't come cheap; perhaps the greater prevalence of large-scale evil is due to the reluctance of the lovers of goodness to spend money on it.

The text is printed with chapters but no verses, which has the effect of presenting the King James Bible as readable prose; it also dispenses with the italics and syllabified names that distract so many readers in the attempt to read the translation as narrative and caution them to read it as Holy Writ. The relative ease of reading, along with the arresting liveliness of Moser's composition -- he is influenced by the camera angles, croppings and lighting effects of film and photography -- makes the text engrossing in the same way an illustrated book of Arthurian tales might be; it would be pointless to resent the archaisms (or even the real ineptitudes of translation) when the words are paired with those pictures. A book is a world, and one can savor it slowly.

Abraham and Isaa

Of course any artist who takes on the Bible must rise to a series of art-historical challenges almost overpowering in their authority. Rembrandt's Raising of Lazarus and Henry Ossawa Tanner's Annunciation are hard acts to follow; after Michelangelo anybody might simply avoid the Last Judgment. Moser has risen to the occasion as any confident artist does, on the buoyancy of his own invention: he uses a good many visual puns and quotes, including some known only to himself, and tries as a general principle to do what a reader of the Bible does not expect. Adam and Eve -- somewhat sagging and middle-aged -- pick their way down one of the rivers of Eden, faces in shadow, genitals in prelapsarian light; the murdered Abel lies like a mirror image of Mantegna's dead Christ, foreshortened not from the feet but from the left shoulder; Jephthah's daughter reposes virginal and naked on a pyre of sticks. Jonah's greybearded, intensely still head rises strangely out of the water, against the dark flukes of the diving whale. Paul, on the floor in prison with scroll and pen, reaches two fingers along the pavement toward an inquisitive rat. There are faces: a puffy-eyed and determined Potiphar's wife; an intense, intellectual Deborah (after a photograph of Julia Margaret Cameron's); David with his slingshot, a surly Intifada youth; the boy king Josiah with payess, after the photograph of an unidentified boy who was lost to the death camps. A half-blind, crop-haired Witch of Endor; a spacily dissolute Daughter of Babylon; Ezekiel living on the streets, eyes wild and hair tangled, companioned by a small surprised-looking dog. Abraham's face, in Abraham and Isaac, wears strata of unsolved emotion: exhausted, expectant, apprehensive and faintly cynical, ear wearily cocked to heaven for the last word, glazed eyes far beyond reason, he meets God's test with a sort of reciprocal test: Nu? I'm waiting. Isaac, a soft child of six or seven, looks up shocked and trusting, the knife at his neck.

Gustav Niebuhr, writing in the Times, notes that where Doré offered crowd scenes Moser presents individuals, "in an era that prizes the individual above the crowd." In some religious and ideological circles, "individualism" is a fighting word, as if the individual can be valued only at the expense of the community; looking at Moser's pictures one cannot rate the individual second. It is, after all, through faces -- Lévinas says this -- that we learn the foremost moral demand: to preserve the life of the individual, who is fragile. (Moser's next project is Shakespeare: Lear, Timon, Hermione, Caliban.) The community, like it or not, is made up of individuals, who suffer and love; we must learn to value them or despair of being valued ourselves.

No artist has done so much in a long time to take the New Testament away from the pastel pietists. Moser restores male pungency to Jesus at a level that compensates for any number of anemic Victorian Christs. His Jesus is stringy and dark: in Jesus Rabboni he looks out of the page with an ugly, radiant grin while a plump crafty-looking child leans adoringly on him; in This is My Blood of the New Testament, he holds out with a look both stricken and purposeful a gleaming bowl of dark liquid. The other New Testament figures are equally striking in their sheer human likelihood: a skinny, crazed John the Baptist; a calm hardbitten Magdalene; a Mary whose face repels adjectives by its stillness and inwardness; a radiant, reverent black matron as the convert Rhoda in Acts. (This is the first Bible to represent with joy and integrity the whole ethnic range of the biblical world.) Once or twice Moser takes the road more traveled by: Behold the Man, for example -- though a work of remarkable texture and atmosphere -- perhaps leans too much toward dignity rather than accuracy in its portrayal of humiliation and suffering. But there is something about the New Testament that exerts a great deal of control over the permissible artistic responses. The text itself requires assent, or dissent; also, when the artist knows that part of the audience is waiting to be offended on God's behalf, certain inhibitions are bound to set in. On the whole Moser has resisted those inhibitions most admirably. (It was with regret that he gave up his original plan for a black Adam and Eve; he finally felt he had to allow Genesis to be Jewish scripture, and sacrificed archaeological accuracy -- and a swipe at the right wing -- to the limitations of history.) Certainly he has done full justice to the images of suffering that lurk in our recent memories, in some cases rivaling or surpassing the crucifixion as emblems of agony: if one or two of his images of Jesus remind us mainly of other images of Jesus, The Poor Shall Never Cease out of the Land and The Valley of the Dry Bones remind us of the twentieth century.

The biblical world is not for Moser a realm of safety and answers, but a realm of instability and unremitting moral challenge. Nowhere is this more evident than in the minor images of violence and disorder that punctuate the text, some of the most striking in Paul's letters: the rotting face and scattered bones in The Bondage of Corruption, the absence of the leprous or amputated forearm of the man Bearing the Burden, a dog snarling over a dead bird (recalling an earlier cur in Second Kings that makes off with Jezebel's hand). Even the still and lucid The Forgiveness of Sins through Blood -- a plump woman clutching the foot of the cross with both hands, her rapt face upturned to the toes of the crucified feet, blood trickling into her mouth and down her chin -- is no comfortable image of redemption. All these images achieve a remarkable fusion of shock and serenity: passed through the mind of an artist who takes joy in his work, even images of wreckage and suffering absorb joy. Moser dedicates the book to "my children, and their children, and all the generations to come," and the gift is not incongruous; children, who already know about suffering, do not need to be spared these images. Many will be grateful to be offered a book that contains neither stupid, unassimilable violence nor Disneyfied cuteness.

Moser is a skeptic, a son of the Christian South; as a child he was not a reader. At nineteen, after a brush with death, he became a lay minister, a vocation that did not last. This history, including his defection from piety, lets him enter into the text with enough exuberance, gravity and chutzpah to free it from its respectable moorings and give it back to us in the form of experience. Auden speaks of the adolescent conflict "between the needless risk and the endless safety"; Moser, refusing to be sidetracked by either, has found out the path of the needful risk. He has taken a text that we think we know and made it both utterly strange and more strangely familiar. Perhaps nothing essentially different is meant by "Behold, I make all things new."

Engravings from The Holy Bible: King James Version (Barry Moser, Illustrator) courtesy of R. Michelson Galleries, Northampton, Mass., www.rmichelson.com.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring/Summer 2000, Vol. 50  Issues 1/2.