Ever since he composed his first line of hand-set type in 1969, Barry Moser, the extraordinarily talented book designer and illustrator of literary classics and children's books, has dreamed of doing a Bible. With the publication of Moser's magnum opus, The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible which he designed, handcrafted, and illustrated his dream is realized. It is a triumph of bookmaking and the art of the illustrated Bible. Using contemporary human beings, among other sources, as models, Moser presents over 230 images, with at least one for almost each book in the Bible. The last major work by a single illustrator to come close to the completeness Moser has achieved is Gustave Dore's La Sainte Bible published in 1865. Moser observes that Dore didn't bother with four of the five books of poetry. The best known example of an illustrated Bible in this century is Marc Chagall's Hebrew Bible, published in 1957.
Moser emphasizes that The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible is first and foremost a reading Bible. A Bible to be enjoyed as a book as well as a sacred text. The King James Version of the Bible is used, following Frederick Scrivener's 1873 critical edition of the Cambridge Paragraph Bible. In that edition, verse numbers were eliminated as well as much of the italic which had come to be used to indicate words not in the original languages. The design and type, composition and editing, and paper and binding have all been chosen and executed with the utmost care and expertise. The engraving medium, called Resingrave, has just recently been invented, and its results are virtually indistinguishable from wood engraving. The relief engravings, as Moser refers to them, are printed directly from the blocks.
Moser's hope is that his pictures might draw an entirely new audience [to the Bible], an audience that might not be particularly religious. Or perhaps a religious audience who might have grown tired of the piety and indexterity that is so ubiquitous in ÔBible pictures' . . . My intention is to strip away the layers of pious heavenmindedness that have been applied by centuries of devout limners and expose the flawed, human veneers underneath. And, indeed, the engravings do seem to portray ordinary human beings either caught up in, or at the center of, extraordinary events. The individuals are not larger than life; they are life itself. They are at turns haunting, disturbing, and tragic, but they are consistently compelling and thought-provoking. Moser's model for Jesus was a chef at an Italian restaurant; for the Virgin Mary, a waitress; for Job, South-African playwright Athol Fugard.
Do these illustrations represent Moser's personal interpretation of the Bible? He responds that his work is more of a personal response as opposed to interpretation. He says that a lot of my images could be seen to be sermons of sorts, and like a preacher, it would take me half an hour at least to explain what I mean. Moser, who is now 57, in fact did have a preacher's license and served Methodist churches in his native Tennessee and in Georgia many years ago. He told a Newsweek reporter that I quit being a preacher because I fell into utter disenchantment with the church. But I never became disenchanted with the idea of God. The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible is an extraordinary achievement, but Moser does not expect everyone to like it or agree with it. I just hope it makes them think, he says. Perhaps to think on an old verse or story in a new way from a new point of view. That, after all, is the responsibility of an illustrator, otherwise it's just a matter of making some pretty pictures and sticking them into a book and calling them illustrations. Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.