Monday, 19 September 2011

For the Love of God (and Nudity)

For reasons I cannot fathom, our home possesses about fifty Bibles. Okay, I may exaggerate a little, but there are a great many of them dotted around the house. Some are Lily-Rose’s, given at her christening, some come from Mr Walker and some from me. Added to this are numerous old Bibles, given to me on the death of various relatives. It seems that if anyone dies in my family, the Bible, Book of Common Prayer and so on all make their way to me. I cannot bring myself to part with any of them because that would seem wrong (and would possibly make the Baby Jesus cry, as I was once told, and with Christmas approaching I daren’t do that), so should a vampire army possess the South coast, make your way to my house, it will protect us all. Anyway, for further reasons I cannot fathom, I recently bought another Bible…

Yes, yes, I know, but in my defence I offer three pieces of information. Firstly, it was £2.50. Secondly, it comes from 1907, and thirdly, it boasted that magical word ‘illustrated’. How could I refuse?
Joyce Ethel Haycox was the proud owner of this sturdy volume, as it was given to her in 1907 by her Godmother Mary Ethel Briscoe, with the quote ‘Thou hast put gladness in my heart’ (Ps 4.8), which is a lovely sentiment. It is a little battered but who isn’t when they are 104 years old. I didn’t really examine it in depth before buying it, but when I got it home and looked at the plates I suddenly started to recognise works, for example…

Oh, well hello Ford Madox Brown, I didn’t expect to see you here…and hang about…

Now, I began to check the illustrations in earnest and suddenly realised two things; that I had been looking at religious imagery as a matter of course while studying Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art, and secondly, I was surprised to see it in context. But why should that be? I was brought up with church and some Sunday schooling, so why was I astounded to see the religious images I am so used to in the context to which they were intended? Is it really as simple as the secularisation of society or is there more to it? Also, is anything added by looking again at our familiar images in a religious context? Blimey, this is all very serious for a Sunday morning (when I am typing this) and I’ve not yet had breakfast. Time for some toast before I continue. Talk amongst yourselves, I’ll be back in a minute, and don’t worry, there will be gratuitous nudity I promise, and not mine this time. Praise be.

Right, there are 88 illustrations in the Children’s Bible, listed by subject in the contents, with no mention of the artists. Flicking through there are works by Cabanel, Seddon, Eastlake, Millais and Ford Madox Brown, together with artists I’m not so familiar with, like Guillick and Alexander Ender. In fact, such a wide range of artists are shown, you suddenly realise that religious pictures were a natural part of people’s repertoire, the Bible providing familiar and commercial source material to artists.

The Parable of the Lost Piece of Money by J E Millais
One of the things that strikes me looking through the Bible is how great some of the pictures are, they bring stories to life and give an air of excitement that (forgive me) is sometimes lacking in Bible study. Imagine you are sat in a cold church with a less than inspiring vicar telling you in a low, endless monotone, the story of Samson and the Lion, Judges 13, of how the spirit moved him in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol….gosh, I feel tired just typing it. Now look at the illustration in the Children’s Bible…

Samson and the Lion by Leon Bonnat
 Oh my goodness. I’m not sure it’s entirely necessary to wrestle the lion naked, but I’m not about to argue with the Bible. Good heavens. I may have answered the calling as a Sunday School Teacher if I had known about the lion-wrestling… What was I saying? Oh yes, a great picture can bring a subject to life and make it memorable. How about this…?

Esther and Haman by Ernest Normand
Blimey, it’s all going on in the Bible, look at Esther denounce that naughty Haman. Attempting to read the story of The Advancement of Mordecai, it is hard going, even in a child’s Bible, so the picture enables you to get the story instantly and also engender interest to persevere with the text.

 Other pictures are not quite so gripping…

Joseph Introducing Jacob to Pharaoh by E J Poynter
 Lovely, but not the most exciting aspect of Joseph’s story. Why illustrate it? It’s not like there is a lack of great moments in his multi-coloured coat to rags to riches story, and the Bible has four illustrations for his story alone, with his coat, his sale and his explanation of Pharoh’s dream making up the other pictures. No Potipher’s wife? Shame.

From the good to the dull to the damn right awful…

Speak, Lord, for thy Servant Heareth” by J Sant
 Oh now, come on, even Millais would have been ashamed of that one.

He Knew the Scriptures from his Youth” by J Sant
 James Sant, may you hang your head in embarrassment, however a career in Disney awaits. Look how huge their eyes are. That’s not right at all, it puts the fear of God in me. Maybe that’s the point. On to better things…

The Light of the World, obviously.
As pictures of Mr Jesus go, this has to be one of my favourites, and as engravings for a book go, this is a stunner. The lamp is so glorious and the up-light on his face is beautiful. Top work, Mr Hunt.

Christ Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown
I know it’s just a feeble excuse for me to show Hot Fred Stephens, but really it was that or Samson and his Lion again. When I used this picture last time, it didn’t occur to me to think of it in a Bible, even though it is obviously Mr Jesus. It’s just one of the pictures I know. Therein lies a problem for a modern art historian. I have to get the mind-set of the audience of the mid Victorian period who would not only consume this picture in their high-brow arty journal, but also in church on a Sunday, so ingrained was religion in society at that time. I’m in two minds whether people were out-and-out more religious than we are today, but what they definitely were was more straightforwardly religious, and more conversant with the text, as it were. Doesn’t mean they believed it any more or less than we do, as a society, but they just accepted it as the background noise of life, unquestioned and incorporated into everything.

I can’t imagine popular artists now including religious subjects in their work without people regarding it with some narrowing of eyes. It would be like a pop group releasing a hymn as a single. I guess there are a couple of reasons why artists produced religious works, other than being moved by the Spirit to do so. Firstly, as we saw with lovely Samson, you can get away with some very holy nudity and it’s okay because it’s Biblical. Hallelujah! Secondly, it would sell. People would know the subject and well rendered, it would be extremely commercial.  I suspect for most artists it was a little of all of those points that resulted in their artistic output, as I would guess that most artists at the time would have liked to be thought of as more moved by the Spirit than by the purse, how ever understandable the reverse would be...

Nude lion wrestling anyone? Amen to that….


  1. You make my day! Great amuzig post!

  2. I enjoyed this post very much.
    Many pop groups use religious and mythical themes (e.g. Queen, Iron Maiden, Lady GaGa even), hidden within their works. Some are more outgoing with it, e.g. Queen in their lyrics (check out the early works; Lily of the Valley, The March Of The Black Queen, White Queen, Ogre Battle, etc.) and also their videos.
    I suppose Lady GaGa would follow into those footsteps as an extension, having named herself after a Queen Song (Radio Gaga) and following into the pomp footsteps (the "Fame Monster").
    Then there are pop stars like Robbie Williams who openly declare themselves spiritual and fare well with their music being a medium for it.
    Maybe another question is, what is the difference between spirituality and religion nowadays? It seems to me that spirituality is "in" to a degree, but religion is watched with a careful eye more because of the organised aspect of it.

  3. Lovely illustrations - looks like one of the Dalzial Bros productions.

  4. Thank you Defer, so very interesting points. I am a big fan of early Queen, and indeed Lady Gaga seems to enjoy enraging sensibilities with her approach to religion, which I thoroughly approve of. Organised religion does seem to be feared these days, which no doubt our Victorians would have thought very odd. I wonder what we do now that will be as deeply questioned in the future?

    They seem to be a mishmash of different engravers as I suspect it was a mass produced Bible, but the quality of some, especially The Light of the World is exquisite.

  5. Courage, Anxiety, Despair by James Sant is amazing.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx