The creators of two extraordinary new editions of the Bible--one about to go to press and the other in the early stages of production--have grappled with a variety of personal "demons" in undertaking what each believes is the culmination of a lifetime of artistry.
American Barry Moser, who has illustrated, designed or contributed to more than 200 books, said his biggest psychological hurdle in portraying biblical subjects is following the great artists who preceded him.
"What can I, an old clodhopper from Tennessee, contribute to the iconography of the Holy Bible not already done by Michelangelo, Leonardo and Caravaggio?" Moser, 59, said in a telephone interview last week while vacationing in Martha's Vineyard.
Moser's two-volume rendering of the King James Version, illustrated with 232 engravings, is in the final stages of production and scheduled to be released Oct. 1. The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, named for the artist's press in Northampton, Mass., is believed to be the first major Christian Bible illustrated by a single artist since Gustave Dore's La Sainte Bible of 1865.
"It will be the only fully illustrated Christian Bible in the 20th century that I know of," said Moser, who consulted librarians at Princeton, Dartmouth, Smith and elsewhere.
Englishman Donald Jackson, scribe to Queen Elizabeth II and one of the world's foremost calligraphers, said he wakes up in the middle of the night "with toes curled tight and fingers clenched," worrying over details of a project that officially began in the spring and will continue until 2004.
Jackson, 61, is the primary illustrator and calligrapher for the Saint John's Bible, a seven-volume, 1,150-page work that is "the only handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned since the advent of the printing press 500 years ago," according to the Benedictine monks of Saint John's Abbey and Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minn., who hired Jackson.
The final product will consist of hand-painted illustrations and gold illuminations on vellum, and every letter will be printed with a goose quill pen. When completed, the $3 million Bible will be available on CD-ROM and will be sent on a worldwide tour of libraries and museums.
By month's end, Jackson said from his scriptorium (writing room) in Wales, there should be a tentative but complete plan for the entire project, which first will be laid out on a Macintosh computer. He will use the computer to generate fonts (lettering styles) similar to the ones he designs so he can electronically plan each page down to every line and word. The fonts will be used to convert the words from a digital copy of the New Revised Standard Version.
The monks selected this translation for the Saint John's Bible because of its general acceptance by Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches, but also for its use of gender-inclusive language that is "non-intrusive," said Gregory A. Hoye, Saint John's director of public affairs.
Like Moser, Jackson said he has to live up to the work of former illuminators--in his case hundreds or thousands of medieval monks. But many of Jackson's challenges are more modern--the stresses of meeting deadlines, of selecting the right team of two dozen or so artists to assist him, of choosing the right lettering styles and illustrations to achieve the look and readability he envisions.
And because the monks of Saint John's want to illustrate scripture from a "contemporary perspective," Jackson said he must determine what is appropriate to the text without going too far.
For example, for the Book of Revelation, the last part of the project and the one he is most excited about, Jackson plans to show skyscrapers, rather than medieval castles, crashing to the ground during the Apocalypse. But he isn't sure about depicting automobiles or painting people in modern clothing.
"Those are the kinds of things I struggle with," he said.
Though daunting, the project is "the thing I've been preparing for all of my life. It's the calligraphic artist's Sistine Chapel," said Jackson, whose official job as the "queen's scribe" includes such tasks as penning court documents and marriage papers for the royal family.
Moser, who prefers the title of designer, printmaker, illustrator or engraver, has created illustrated editions of such classics as "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "The Scarlet Letter" and "Moby-Dick." But none matched the challenge of doing the Bible.
"It's an Everest of sorts," he said. "I decided that if I'm going to fulfill my calling as artist of the book, why not do the big one?"
And the big one will carry a big price. The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible will be printed in two limited editions, a "regular" edition of 400 copies selling for $10,000 each and a deluxe edition of 50 copies at $30,000 each. Viking Studio will offer a smaller trade edition for $65.
Moser said he found an "angel" in collector-arts patron Bruce Kovner, who is underwriting the $2 million cost of producing the Bible. Moser said Kovner will be repaid with some interest, and then they will split any profits equally.
"We agreed we were not in it to make money," Moser said. "We're in this to make a beautiful book."
Moser said he did the book simply because he wanted to, partly because of the artistic challenge and partly to address the religious uncertainties he has wrestled with for more than 30 years.
"I'm not a practicing Christian, and I have no connection or truck with or much respect for any of the organized churches that espouse the name of Christian," said Moser, a man who at 19 became a Methodist preacher "in the Pentecostal kind of way." But he stopped going to church, he said, because he felt he and others were preaching a message of exclusivity, of saying there was only one way to get into Heaven or understand God.
The Pennyroyal Bible has given him a chance to look anew at such issues as whether Jesus was divine. "I still struggle with that," he said, adding that his first illustrations were of Jesus's death on the Cross. "I shed tears over the passion of his life."
Moser said his dream is to bring new readers to the Bible "through illustrations so interesting they will want to read it." To give the Old and New Testaments new life, he used live models and contemporary photographs of people--people who are imperfect--to draw new readers to the text.
"There are no halos in my book," he said, because there are no perfect people in the Bible other than Jesus. "I'm flawed, and the Bible is written by flawed people about flawed people."
Moser's model for Jesus was Lewis Silver, a chef in an Italian restaurant who cooked for a dinner party at the artist's house. Moser said he watched the ponytailed Silver for a long time, then asked him to let down his hair. He knew he had his Jesus.
"I nearly fell over," he recalled. "I said, 'It would make it more perfect if you were a Jew.' "
"Well, I am," Silver replied. "I'm a Sephardic Jew."
Others who modeled included a waitress, who appears as Mary, and his poet friend Donald Hall, portrayed as the poet of Ecclesiastes. Moser used himself as a model "for reasons of expediency," such as when he didn't want to ask someone to pose for a bloody Goliath's head or a filthy Apostle Paul in chains.
Moser likes the imperfections of the ancient printer's and engraver's art because it shows the "directness of having the human hand involved. That's what's lacking in so much computer-generated materials. You lose the sense of the human hand. It becomes too slick, too perfect."
But Moser also used a computer to create his Bible. The type is computer-generated. And he begins most illustrations by drawing them using a computer program called Photoshop, then redrawing the images on 3/4-inch-thick blocks of polymer resin.
He then engraves the material, which is similar to that of PVC pipes and responds much like high-quality boxwood, he said. Boxwood once was the engraver's choice but is now too rare and expensive to use.
As different as the two Bible projects are, their creators are very much the same in one respect. Each admits having artistic arrogance, or pride, which they said can play a demonic role when allowed to take over and cloud the artist's judgment.
Yet such monumental tasks as these would not succeed without knowing through passionate involvement that certain artistic decisions must be made. "At the end of the day, it has to be an intensely selfish thing in the best sense of the word," Jackson said. "If it doesn't mean something to me, it probably would fall very flat.
More details on these Bibles are available at their respective Web sites, www.saintjohnsbible.org and www.pennyroyal-caxton.com.