Monday, April 25, 2011

Barry Moser and The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible

At some point during my work on the HCSB Study Bible I became aware of this awe-inspiring project by master illustrator Barry Moser (with some help from other luminaries, such as renowned typographer Matthew Carter). As the prospectus claims, The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible is probably the most significant edition of a fully-illustrated Bible since that of Gustave Doré, in the mid-nineteenth century.

Working in a medium called Resingrave, Moser produced a vast series of black and white images to accompany the biblical text that are arresting in their graphic intensity. Considered on the whole, their undeniable beauty is offset by a jarring—sometimes even disturbing—coarseness and realism. The images range from the nearly abstract, to the poetically symbolic, to the indelibly human, and the work manages to exude, at the same time, a sort of timeless grandeur and an immediacy that is strikingly contemporary.

Another thing to appreciate is that, despite its lofty aspirations, this really is an edition of the Bible designed with reading in mind. The text of the Authorized/KJV translation is set in double columns with subheads to mark each chapter, but without verse notations, paragraph breaks or indents (pilcrows are employed instead) and italic type (used in most AV editions to denote words not present in the original text) to impede smooth and fluid reading.

I wish that I could convince someone, among the very few individuals I know who might actually possess the means coupled with the inclination, to invest in a Primary or Deluxe edition, so that I might have the borrowed privilege of perusing such an exquisite masterpiece of printing and binding. For those of us who don't have ten (for the Primary) or thirty grand (for the Deluxe) to spare, there is a reasonably priced, single-volume facsimile edition available in both hardcover and perfect-bound paperback. I ordered the latter a few weeks ago and was delighted to discover that the large format (8.25" x 11.812") faithfully replicates the text and illustrations at their original size. Only slightly disappointing is the fact that the margins are trimmed in a bit, so you don't quite get the benefit of the generous white space and luxurious page proportions of the original, which are a historical feature of Bibles and other “showcase” bound texts ever since the age of illuminated manuscripts, but given the need to economize that’s understandable, I suppose.

One slight word of caution to those who might consider a purchase: as alluded to above, several of the images are at least a bit disturbing and some might be said to push the boundaries of propriety. (One image depicts a woman kissing the feet of the crucified Christ, and possibly gulping blood flowing off of his toes.) There is a good deal of nudity depicted as well, though I would’t characterize any of it as gratuitous. Just take that into consideration—at any rate, it’s still a worhwhile addition to your library, in my opinion, and a very notable artistic endeavor.

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