New Edition: The Barnes & Noble King James Bible
illustrated by Gustave Dore
Barnes & Noble, 2012
The Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classics editions have been a standard offering of the giant U.S. book-retailing firm for many years, and in that time some memorably hideous volumes have trundled off the company’s presses – portentously embossed little cenotaphs designed to be given as presentation gifts (most commonly for college graduation) from adults who never read to young people who barely know how to read. A large part of the appeal of such gift volumes is to perpetuate the Arcadian illusion that college students spend any time at all actually reading the canon, as opposed to inhaling canisters of nitrous oxide or sleeping through classes on hegemonic hermeneutics. In this sense these productions can easily be characterized as anti-books, effectively encouraging the unlettered complacency great works of literature are supposed to destroy. Most such ornate volumes are very intentionally designed to be seen and not read, and therefore most genuine readers will choose their dog-eared Penguin Classics every time.
But, as a wise once-upon-a-time Barnes & Noble veteran was wont to say, even a blind pig finds a truffle now and then; in the last couple of years, Barnes & Noble has managed to produce a few leatherbound volumes of true worth. Their Jane Austen volume is very pretty, their Arabian Nights volume is gorgeous, and they had the inspired idea to make such a classic out of Gray’s Anatomy – such things do a great deal to compensate for random lumpy Dickens omnibuses. And recently the company has come out with its single most impressive leatherbound classic to date: a big, fat King James Bible complete with all 241 of the famous Gustave Dore illustrations that have been synonymous with Biblical art for over 150 years. Other bibles sometimes reproduce one or two Dore prints (God creating the world is a popular frontispiece), but this volume reproduces all of them, spaced regularly throughout the text.
To a remarkable extent, Dore was a self-taught engraver and painter. Forced by the death of his father to become the breadwinner for his family, he developed a whirlwind work ethic and, soon, a style of illustration that was entirely his own, grander, more stately, and more infused with grim Gallic humor than was the work of any other artist of the Victorian period. Dore gained his first measure of real fame as an illustrator of classic works of literature – his edition of Rabelais sold well enough to make him a small fortune (which he promptly spent), and there were many, many other literary adaptations before and after it. But it was the appearance of his Bible illustrations in 1865 that truly established him as the premiere illustrator of his day. When those illustrations began appearing in England in the following year, sold in instalments and accompanied, of course, by the mighty and pervasive lines of the King James translation, an entirely new level of popularity was reached.
Something beyond popularity was reached as well. Dore’s illustrations, his conception of the Bible, quickly entered the Western zeitgeist. Virtually every Biblical adaptation of any kind since – from opera settings to comic books to Franco Zeffirelli’s magnificent and entirely Dore-inspired TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth – has been explicitly indebted to Dore’s engravings. Certainly every movie adaptation of any Biblical event – from the most trivial and amateur to John Huston’s deeply strange and wonderful 1966 The Bible – has used Dore’s work as a handbook and guide.
The artist was a fairly wishy-washy Catholic, but he warmed to his work. By the time his commission (from a French religious publisher, not his usual house) was in full swing, Dore was actually studying historical and archeological works in search of visual accuracy for dress and setting. More importantly, he was deeply contemplating the multitude of dramatic strains that interweave in almost every great Bible story, and he wasn’t afraid to go wherever his contemplations led him. The results could be scandalous (he portrayed the person of God, which caused an uproar when paintings based on his engravings were first shown in London), or grand (is there any Bible-reader in the world who hasn’t thrilled to his shot of Samson bringing down the roof on his tormentors?), or even ponderously playful, as in his engraving of a victorious David holding aloft the gigantic head of Goliath – holding it directly over his own head in a way guaranteed to make viewers do a double-take.
They could also be mildly subversive, as seen in his engraving of the world in early days of the Great Flood. The picture shows an isolated rock outcrop in the stormy sea – the Ark is nowhere to be seen, and these we see but a tiny handful of the victims Noah has left behind: pathetic naked humans cling to the base of the rock (some of them trying to hold their children away from the rising tide), and above them huddle some small children and a valiant tigress with one of her cubs held gently in her mouth – in other words, that last rock refuge harbors only creatures who by their very nature are innocent, and it thereby quietly questions the whole point of the story as it’s told in Genesis. And the whole thing is done in masterful blacks, with the gap between storm clouds and horizon forming a pitiless straight line of light in the background.
Dore’s New Testament illustrations were largely less powerful than the ones he did of the Old Testament, and they were immeasurably more popular. They share many visual cues with Dore’s contemporary Jean-Leon Gerome: the saints have holy lights around their heads, and Jesus himself is almost always inhumanly lamblike, as impeccably composed as Stephen Fry narrating a documentary on A.A. Milne. Dore was very canny in how he used the immense dimensions of his works (they were often billboard-sized in the studio); sometimes, as in his picture of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus fleeing from Herod’s persecution, the sky and horizon seem almost to swallow the Holy Family, thereby emphasizing their outcast status, whereas at other times, as in the graphically effective depiction of the resurrection of Lazarus, all that empty space is annihilated by dark vertical shadows and rock quarry-walls, the better to illuminate poor Lazarus in his white winding-sheet (the light in the picture seems to trickle down from the face of Jesus, along the bodies of the onlookers, and finally to the front of the saved man).
Some of these illustrations are only workmanlike, but considering the speed with which Dore worked, unbelievably few – for long stretches, it’s just masterpiece after masterpiece (a feat that wouldn’t be duplicated until an entire long generation later, when N. C. Wyeth managed it for Scribner Classics). Barnes & Noble has won the gratitude of readers everywhere by resurrecting the whole run of them and putting them right where they belong: in a splendidly produced leatherbound Bible with high-quality paper, a golden sewn-in bookmark, a prettily fussy cover, and a reasonable cost (about the same as a single DVD you’ll watch once and then forget). Once upon a time, this would have been called ‘the family Bible’ and carefully passed down from generation to generation. Now, it runs the risk of getting lost in the scattershot overflow of books on display in the Barnes & Noble ‘superstores.’
But it’s worth the effort to find. This Bible is a pearl of great price.