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.)

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.

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