The subject of illustrations to the Bible includes not only two‐dimensional designs, such as paintings, drawings, engravings, photographs, stained‐glass windows, and mosaics, but three‐dimensional works as well, such as statues and bas‐reliefs. Raphael's madonnas, Michelangelo's Moses, the windows of Chartres Cathedral, the ceiling mosaics of the Santa Sophia in Istanbul, and Ghiberti's great doors to the Baptistry in Florence are all, in a sense, Bible illustrations. Annotations to the Bible are also illustrations of it, and originally this was perhaps the primary meaning of “Bible illustrations.” In at least one of these senses, there have been “illustrations” of the Bible since it was written and canonized. Not only were there biblical commentaries from the earliest times, but the interpretation of the commandment against graven images (Exod. 20.4) as a total prohibition of visual representation of sacred (or perhaps any other) scenes was not uniform even in Jewish tradition—note, for example, the cycle of paintings of scenes from the Hebrew Bible on the walls of the Dura‐Europos synagogue, destroyed by the Persians in 256 CE.
The earliest Christian visual representations of the Bible were apparently emblematic, with Jesus depicted as “the fish” (the Greek word for fish, ichthus, was understood as an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God's Son, savior”), and up to the fifth century the crucifixion was always shown symbolically rather than literally. The first narrative cycle of biblical illustrations is the mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, 432–440 CE, and narrative art is much more common in the West than in the eastern churches. Often postbiblical traditions are also represented; for example, Job is depicted as a bishop and as the patron saint of music.
We are concerned in this article with illustrations in Bibles, largely a Christian phenomenon. The earliest such illustrations now known, from about 400 CE, are for separate sections of the Bible, particularly the Pentateuch, the Gospels, and the book of Revelation. Complete illustrated Bibles first appear in the Carolingian period in the eighth century.
The visual matter in such illuminated manuscript Bibles generally consists of three kinds of work: illuminated initial letters, particularly the first word of a book, often merely formal but sometimes representing more or less relevant scenes, such as Paul preaching; decorated borders, with flowers or scrolls or beasts, usually not closely related to their texts; and miniature pictures representing a scene in the text. The illuminated Romanesque Bibles were often very fine, but in them the illustrations were generally less important than the decorations. The illuminated initials in Bibles of the seventh and eighth centuries indicate the dominance of the text over the designs. Among the best‐known early illustrated Bibles are the seventh‐century Lindisfarne Gospels in the British Museum and the eighth‐century Book of Kells in Trinity College, Dublin.
In some cases, the illustrations were not only derived from the text but were more extensive and perhaps even more important than it. The Bible Moralisée, made for Louis IX about 1240, had some five thousand illustrations, now scattered among the Bodleian Library, the British Museum, and the Bibliothèque Nationale. Indeed, the Biblia pauperum, the Bible for the illiterate poor, consisted chiefly of illustrations. The Biblia pauperum was a textbook of Christian typology, often showing two Old Testament exempla or types (such as Moses in the wilderness) flanking their New Testament echo or antitype (such as Christ in the wilderness), accompanied by appropriate quotations and an explanatory verse in Latin. These were particularly popular in Germany in the thirteenth century. Later, books printed from engraved blocks of wood (not from movable type) with biblical illustrations were also popular in Germany, though they are comparatively rare in Italy and Spain. These block books were enormously influential in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; their images were copied in sculpture (e.g., misericords), tapestry, stained glass, and paintings. They became the visual lingua franca of the medieval church.
The first printed Bible, that by Gutenberg in the mid‐fifteenth century, had no printed illustrations, but in some copies manuscript borders and initials were added to make the work as beautiful as the manuscript Bibles that it was imitating. There were woodcuts in a German Bible of 1478–79, and later illustrators included Hans Holbein in a Bible of 1522–23 and Hans Burgkmair in a Bible of 1523. Since then, many great artists have made at least some biblical illustrations; among the best known are those by Raphael and Gustave Doré, and, in the modern period, Georges Rouault and Marc Chagall.
In England, Winchester was the most important center for early book illustration and its artisans produced innovative and very fine work particularly about 1000, remarkable especially for depictions of the Ascension and the creator. The Bible itself was central for Protestant reformers, and Luther's translation of the Bible was one of the most popular books ever published. Further, Luther actively encouraged illustration of the Bible, so long as the text was followed meticulously. But biblical illustration was slow to develop in England, partly because the country was aesthetically backward and partly because the English Puritans were strongly iconoclastic, deploring all visual representations of holy subjects. It was not until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 that significant illustrated Bibles were printed in England.
The first great illustrated Bible of the Restoration is the two‐volume folio of The Holy Bible printed at Cambridge by Field with a hundred marvelous double‐page plates by Jan Visscher; a splendid copy bound by 1673 in velvet with watered silk endpages is in the Norwich Cathedral Library. As in most fine book illustration in England before 1750, the artists and even the engravers were from the Continent, chiefly from Holland and France. An equally ambitious folio edition of The Holy Bible was published at Oxford by John Baskett in 1716–17 with sixty‐seven plates mostly designed by Louis Cheron and engraved by Michael Van der Gucht and Claude Du Bosc, as well as engraved initial letters. This was issued on two sizes of page and with two suites of designs, and the magnificent copy in the Bodleian is printed on vellum, lined in red throughout, and bound in velvet with the arms of the university in silver plaques on the covers.
Before 1750, however, the illustrations in most English Bibles came from separately published suites of designs engraved by John Sturt (1716) and James Cole (1724) and added to plain texts of the Bible by the bookseller or the purchaser. One reason for this may have been that copyright of the King James translation of the Bible belonged to the crown and was assigned only to the university presses at Oxford and Cambridge and to the royal printer in London. As John Reeves, “One of the Patentees” (see Printing and Publishing, article on Royal Printer's Patent), explained in his great, nonillustrated Holy Bible of 1802, “These privileged persons have confined themselves to reprinting the bare text, in which they have an exclusive right; forbearing to publish it with notes, which, it is deemed, may be done by any of the King's subjects as well as themselves.” Toward the middle of the eighteenth century, enterprising publishers began publishing the King James translation with notes and with illustrations, and, to distinguish their productions from those protected by the crown's perpetual copyright, called them The Family Bible or even The Royal Universal Family Bible (1780–82). Other ways of evading the copyright were to publish a History of the Holy Bible, or a paraphrase, or an abridgment. Frequently, perhaps normally, these works were published in inexpensive parts, often sixpence each, in folio, with extensive illustrations, sometimes a hundred and more engravings. There were scores of these bulky publications during the eighteenth century; among the most impressive editions were those printed in Birmingham by John Baskerville (1769–72), with engravings by James Fittler (London, 1795), and with plates after Richard Corbould and Charles R. Ryley (London, 1795). But the most ambitious illustrated Bible ever published in Britain was that undertaken by Thomas Macklin and published in parts from 1791 to 1800 with seventy huge and splendid plates designed by the greatest English artists, such as Benjamin West and Sir Joshua Reynolds, and engraved by the best of the English engravers. Macklin's influence on English artists and publishers was great. For instance, in the first twenty‐one years of Royal Academy exhibitions (1769–89), there had been an average of six or seven biblical illustrations per year, but in the eleven years from Macklin's announcement of his great undertaking in 1789 until its completion in 1800 seventeen biblical subjects were exhibited per year. In addition Macklin held his own exhibition of the biblical pictures he had commissioned. There were later popular Bible illustrators in England, most notably perhaps John Martin, but no illustrated edition of the Bible in England has surpassed that of Thomas Macklin.
G. E. Bentley, Jr.