Artist Barry Moser takes on the challenge of illustrating the Bible

The worthy book illustrator uses images not to usurp the power of the word but to act as a hinge between the imagined world of the author and the reader's reflected imaginings of that world. The illustrator is the priest in this marriage. Barry Moser, now at the ripe age of 69, has for some time been the American master of this ancient craft, emerging from the shadow of his teacher Leonard Baskin many years ago. He's taken on the big books: The Divine Comedy, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (which received the American Book Award for typographic design), Moby-Dick, Frankenstein, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Odyssey.

He's recently completed the biggest book of all -- the biggest, at least, in the Western tradition. Moser is the only artist of the 20th century to illustrate and design the Bible, the first artist to illustrate both the Old and New Testaments since Gustave Doré in 1865. Three editions of The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible have been printed (the name combines the names of Moser's own Pennyroyal Press and the investment management firm Caxton Corp. -- itself named after the first major English printer -- which belongs to the "angel, patron" Bruce Kovner, who funded the project). There's a $65 edition from Viking Studio (a subsidiary of Penguin); a $10,000 edition, of which there are 400 copies in print; and an extremely limited edition (30 copies; 10 have been sold), which includes a deluxe presentation of five volumes with original engraving blocks, photographs of models taken by Moser and assistants as part of the composition process, and original drawings -- all for $30,000. "People will gobble those up because they're so rare," Moser explains, but then admits, "Selling a $10,000 book is not an easy sale.

"It's never been an issue," he adds. Moser's as gregarious a sort as anyone would hope to meet. Round, balding, white-bearded, he greets with a firm handshake and an open smile, attracting amity with a homey Tennessee accent and a loquacious spirit. Nothing is off-limits in conversation, even that most taboo subject (especially when talking about the Bible): money.

Playwright Athol Fugard was Barry Moser's model for the face of Job: "I was at Princeton with him in 1995. We were teaching there together, and when we were introduced I said, ¨Would you be my Job?' He said, ¨I'd love to be your Job.'"
Playwright Athol Fugard was Barry Moser's model for the face of Job: "I was at Princeton with him in 1995. We were teaching there together, and when we were introduced I said, ¨Would you be my Job?' He said, ¨I'd love to be your Job.'"

"If we make money, it will be wonderful. The biggest issue is putting money back where it came from so my angel, my friend Bruce Kovner, who funded the thing, isn't out of pocket."

Patronage has gone the way of the Medicis, and Moser realizes the unique position he is in. Kovner put up $2 million for the project and gave Moser artistic autonomy. If the 400 books are sold, there's a $2 million profit. If not, nobody's going bankrupt.

However, Moser confesses that when publishers were bidding for the rights to the popular edition, the absurdity of the book business stung his pride. "Here you got Little, Brown giving Paula Barbieri a $3 million advance for her tell-all about doing the nasty with O.J. I think this book might be of somewhat more value; maybe we could legitimately think that we could get one-sixth of that advance.

"The amount of money that was offered in the first round of bids -- I laughed. I called (friend and publisher) David Godine, who wasn't one of the bidders. I said, "I'm insulted.' He said, "Give me the figures.' And he thought about it for a while, and he said, "Actually, it's a very generous offer.'

"I went away from that thinking, "My nose has been rubbed in this again.' I was being avaricious. I was looking for some big bucks here. They didn't come, and when they didn't come I got my nose out of joint and here is God slapping me alongside the head and saying, "You're forgettin'.'"

Moser's experience includes a brief stint as a Methodist preacher, so such talk fits his manner -- as does a worldly sophistication, with brief verbal flights into French and Italian that are even more becoming from a native Tennessean's mouth. Moser conveys a demeanor appropriate for the harnessing of a project as vast as the Bible -- a combination of self-effacement and self-confidence.

"My desire to do this project started about 30 years ago when I first learned how to set type by hand," he says. "I was teaching myself how to do this, and in teaching oneself how to do something you're always going to the history books to find out how it was done before you, and that's the way you learn your lessons.

"As I'm doing my studies on great examples of typography and design, I find they're all Bibles, or most of them are. A lot of the great monuments of printing are Bibles -- at least in the English tradition, and I even probably would be correct to say in the European tradition and the Euro-American traditions. I thought, "That's what I want to do one of these days. I want to do a Bible.' Now, that I had been a boy preacher when I was in college didn't make that any less a desirable avenue; in fact it made it more interesting, because while I fell away from the church I never really fell away from this text, from this language more than anything."

Next Page »