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(Editors note: The images in this article have been removed as permission to use was limited)

Barry Moser is an engraver, painter, author, and lecturer on the art of the book. He has won major awards for his children's books and letterpress editions of literary classics. The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, a recent edition of the King James Version, was designed and illustrated by Mr. Moser, and is the topic of the following interview.

SBL: Why did you choose to design and illustrate the KJV? Why not a modern (or as some would argue, more accurate) translation?

Moser: This decision was purely aesthetic. Well, aesthetic and fiscal, with a bit of tradition thrown in as well. Aesthetic because, as George Steiner has put it, the King James Bible is the "greatest monument of the English language," and I just happen to agree. It has a majesty that none of the other translations can even approach. Besides, it was the KJV that I knew as a kid. Fiscal because by using it I would owe nobody anything. And traditional because all of the great printed Bibles in English since 1611 have used the KJV text, such as the 1903 Doves Press and Bruce Rogers' Oxford Lectern Bible. I wanted this Bible to belong to that fellowship of books.

SBL: Why are there traditionally so few illustrated Bibles (excepting children's editions)?

Moser: Actually there is a great tradition of illustrated Bibles, especially so if one considers illuminated Bibles as being illustrated. Most all of the manuscript Bibles that I know have pictures and decorations, including the Gutenberg.

In our time we have images made for the Bible by Dali, Chagall, Baskin, Roualt and a few others. Curiously, there aren't many Protestant Christians among them. Ever since the break from the Roman church, Protestants have been exceedingly wary of images. They expunged them from their sanctuaries and from their Bibles. Notably bad images do, however, appear in their Sunday School literature!

Since pictures bring the reader to a confrontation with the text in such an intimate way, that is, through the eyes—which is where we get most of our information and perceptions—it can easily become an uncomfortable situation for the reader. Especially if the images are violent, erotic, or do not conform to the preconceived notions of the reader, or to the dictates of the reader's particular brand of Judaism or Christianity. I am thinking here of the rape of Tamar, the lovers in the Song, and Moses' Ethiopian wife, which by the way, of all my images has caused the greatest amount of hate mail.

Speaking as an illustrator I think it may have to do with making images that are religious in nature—and as such are required to be responsible to that nature—and at the same time to stand apart from any meaning they are supposed to have. This is exceedingly hard to accomplish as it means making images that are powerful, intelligent, and perceptive without being saccharine, pious or obsequious—images that refuse to cow-tow to a particular, sanctioned perspective.

SBL: What is the process you take to get from text to image—what sort of research, exegesis, and thinking do you do in the stages of creating an image?

Moser: Wow. We don't have space for me to adequately answer this question. I read. I look. I study. I listen to music. I ask questions of people a lot smarter than myself. And then I read some more. Look some more. And ask more questions.

What do I read? Obviously the Bible itself—and when dealing with a specific image, say, Jepthah's daughter, I read five English translations besides the KJV. I also read Jack Miles, Leo Steinberg, Karl Donfried (with whom I teach at Smith College) and a score of other scholars and commentators. I read a good deal of the midrash, which led me to conclude that what the midrashim do and what I do is pretty much the same: we expand on the words and themes of the text. We see it from a new point of view hoping to add a bit of light and truth to the subject.

I try to keep an open mind. To take in as much as I can and retain what feels right to me. And then this is what turns to bone inside me and my images. I must admit, however, that for this work, I did not seek out much commentary by ultra-conservative Christians or Jews. I was one once.

I read José Saramago and Flannery O'Connor and a host of other literary lights who deal with religious notions and ideas. Bach and Monteverdi helped me along more than even I am aware of. They showed me things through my ears that I could never see through my eyes. I wish I could explain but I cannot.

What do I look at? I look at all my predecessors, especially the great lights of the Renaissance and Baroque era and those of the modern epoch. I look at other Bibles and study their design and typography. I look at films and photographs by folks who are concerned with the same sort of imagery that I am. And in this I am always trying to find, with O'Connor and Breughel, the divine within the apos.

Of whom do I ask questions? I had three advisors on textual and theological matters: one poet, Paul Mariani, who is a Roman catholic who reads and studies the Bible (and who just happens to be one of my closest friends); Michael Coogan who was the editor of the Oxford Guide to the Bible; and Shalom Goldman, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Emory University, served as my advisor on all things Judaic. I asked, I listened, and I was educated.

SBL: What is your approach to the biblical text? Do you take it at its word? Do you see some passages as historically-based and others as more "mythological?"

Moser: I do not take it at its word. I take it at its spirit. I take it as literature. I am not concerned a jot or a tittle about its historic accuracy or inaccuracy. It makes no more difference to me if Joshua actually razed Ai than it does if Ahab really went after a white whale called Moby-Dick. My job as illustrator is to serve the text, not any one ideological or theological point of view. But, I have to add immediately that I took no liberties with the text. In fact, I approached it in an almost Falwellian, Robertsonian literalism, though I suspect that neither of those two would much admire this work.

SBL: How did you choose which people or stories to illustrate?

Moser: Again, a short question with a very long answer. I will try to be brief. The book is to me what a canvas is to a painter. If it works it has to work in all its parts equally—type, text, image, design. Part of the design of the book, as with the design of a painting or a building or a piece of sculpture, is rhythm. I want the images to occur at rhythmically interesting intervals throughout, and I want those images to surprise the reader with pacing, scale, and placement and to surprise the reader with unexpected bits of humor, or violence.

Once I had the rhythm of the occurrence of images well established I went in and read the text (again) at those points, finding passages, stories, and psalms that I and my advisors felt were significant and that would give rise to strong images. And as you might suspect, that often led me up dead end streets, as well as into unexpected and pregnant domains. Through it all I tried as best I could to adhere to John Gardner's dictum that the writer, or illustrator if you will, must always avoid the cute, corny, and obvious.

SBL: Which illustrations in this edition are you particularly happy about, and why?

Moser: I am actually happy with quite a few, but if I had to choose one I suppose it would have to be the Crucifixion. Actually there are two Crucifixion images and here I am talking about the first one. It's a diptych, and in it we can see a lot of what we've already discussed going on. It is not corny. It's not obvious.

And it sure ain't cute. Taking its cue from Breughel's Crucifixion, it brings the event down to a common scene. The folks there that day certainly did not know what was happening—not in any historic context. How could they? They were going about their daily routines just as we do today. I imagine that crucifixions were like public hangings in England. Vendors sold snacks. Kids ran about, unless their mothers shielded their eyes and ears from the blood and screams. Adults laughed and joked and ate corn dogs pointing to their victims with smug satisfaction and deriding them. Maybe some talked religion or politics. This is pretty much as it is stated in Matthew's account when he says they reviled him and wagged their tongues. It gets to the heart of the matter, much in the vein that Jack Miles said that in order to understand the horror of crucifixion one has to imagine (or in my case, study photographs of) lynchings where the victims were hanged, mutilated, and often burned to cinders.

I am fond also of Potiphar's wife. My image changes her from a sultry temptress into a frustrated, older woman, the wife of a politician who probably takes no interest in her anymore, and who, when her advances were rejected by the young Joseph, lashed out through hurt.

There's also the tower of Babel.

SBL: Which ones do you think of as controversial, or innovative?

Moser: The three I just mentioned fall into the latter category I think. Moses' wife in the former. I am surprised that more rancor was not invited by the lovers in the field that illustrate the Song. Or for that matter by the significant amount of nudity that occurs throughout. But nobody yet seems to object to Adam's penis; but some folks have objected strongly to my Nativity because the as yet uncircumcised penis of the baby Jesus is right out there for all to see. A chain of religious booksellers refused to carry the book because of that one image.

But let me say that it was never my intention to be controversial. My mission was to be respectful, but provocative, nothing more. I did not want readers to come away from looking at my illustrations feeling ho-hum. The Bible ain't ho-hum, so why should accompanying images be?

SBL: Would you change anything, in retrospect?

Moser: I would not have Jesus clothed at the Ascension. Our embarrassment by, and our shame of our nakedness is, as the Bible tells us, a result of the Fall. It is a condition of humankind. It does not seem to me that this would be a condition of, say, the angels (my Wisdom is naked, though Michael and Gabriel are not—but that's an intentional anachronism that would take far too much time to explain). And, for me at least, it certainly does not stand to reason that the ascending figure of the Christ would conform to those self-same human foibles.

Pages of the Pennyroyal Caxton edition may be viewed at:

Citation: , " Book Artist Barry Moser," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2003]. Online:


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