Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Illuminated Bibles in the 21st Century (2)

This summer, I had the opportunity to spend several days at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN. I went there to see the St. John’s Bible, an ongoing project to produce the first Bible in many centuries to be completely hand-written and illuminated by professional calligraphers. St John’s Abbey sponsors the project though the actual work is being carried out in Wales by a team of calligraphers led by Donald Jackson.

Four of the seven volumes have now been finished and are on sale in facsimile reproductions. The SJB’s illuminations are distinctive in content and contain a mix of styles by different artists, sometimes together in one illustration. They range from highly illustrative medleys (such as the distinctively African Garden of Eden scene) through atmospheric evocations of mood (such as the incipits for Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) to visual celebrations of textuality (such as the Ten Commandments illumination or the incipit of Matthew that casts Jesus’ genealogy in the form of a menorah). Like the text (which is modern English, the NRSV translation), the illumination art takes mostly modern form while consciously evoking many of the conventions of medieval illuminated manuscripts, such as text emphasized by color, marginal animals (often insects painted very realistically), as well as the style of the hand written letters themselves.

The original pages, however, have not yet been bound together as books. This allows their many illuminated pages to be displayed in traveling exhibitions, as well as at St. John’s. Almost a dozen pages from the newest volume, Wisdom Literature, were on display this summer. The manuscript pages are very striking—more so than the full-size reproduced facsimiles available for sale, as I was able to tell because I could compare them nearly side-by-side in this display. Displayed in museum cases, these manuscript pages work exactly like icons to draw attention to a transcendent reality—in this case, the biblical text itself. Viewing the illuminations made me refer to the text and want to re-read passages again.

St. John’s has produced a bible that combines the qualities of original art, icon and reproducible book—a form that draws attention to unique original in order to generate interest in its limitless reproductions. Its old-fashioned form—hand-written and illuminated parchment—works well to grab attention in the art museum culture of the twenty-first century.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Illuminated Bibles in the 21st Century (1)

The New Testament of The Bible Illuminated is being released next month in the USA (see previous post about the Swedish version). The publishers kindly sent me a review copy which I’ve been leafing through. Here are some initial impressions:

As advertised, the photographs in The Book: New Testament usually succeed in prompting a reaction, whether its a boy holding a gun aimed point blank at the reader with Jesus’ warning about coming violence printed below, or a swimming polar bear to illustrate the theme of hope in Romans, or gut-wrenching views of oil-covered waterfowl and butchered animals to illustrate Revelation.

Dag Söderberg, the Swedish advertising executive behind The Bible Illuminated, does not treat each book the same way. Matthew contains various kinds of pictures tagged with particular verses. Mark, on the other hand, contains only portraits of 20th century celebrities without captions. A list at the end of the gospel identifies each with the charitable work they have done, but their arrangement conveys some fierce ironies: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Angelie Jolie occupy facing pages, as do Princess Diana and Che Guevara, while the Gospel’s incipit page presents a young Muhammed Ali in boxing pose. Luke contains only photographs illustrating the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. John, by contrast, contains only black-and-white photographs, some captioned by verses but many not.

Perhaps most puzzling are several pages in Acts depicting Dreamhack, “the largest computer festival in the world,” and the blank gazes of young people fixated on digital games. The same scene appears on the inside of the front and back covers. The placement of the pictures in Acts then makes the eerie glare of computer screens appear at beginning, middle, and end of the volume—maybe an ironic contrast between the deadening effect of electronic media and the “living” word?

Though the look and feel of The Book: New Testament amply fulfills my expectations of the aesthetic and production values that an ad executive brings to Bible publishing, the title of the two-volume series, The Bible Illuminated, places the work within a very old tradition. Once you start looking for it, the heritage of medieval illuminated manuscripts can be recognized in various ways, such as the use of incipit pages and the use of boxed verses or yellow highlights for emphases. Despite appearances, then, the The Book: New Testament does not attempt a radical aesthetic innovation in bible publishing but rather consciously updates an ancient and venerable tradition with new production values and methods.