BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS

Artist Barry Moser takes on the challenge of illustrating the Bible

The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, printed at the end of the 20th century, retains the 17th-century language of the King James Bible -- "the monument of our language," says Moser. "Our language owes more to this text than any other but Shakespeare, but Shakespeare owes his to this. And Whitman and Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor -- you can name a whole bunch of them.

"If one is going to try to be as good as you can be in a particular field -- and I'm just tenacious enough and dumb enough to bite off something this big and try to do it. It takes the chutzpah to bite it off. It takes self-confidence to think that you can pull it off. And it just takes a hell of a lot of work to actually pull it off -- I think work more than anything."

On a schedule of 12-hour days over three years to compose the 231 engravings contained in The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, Moser also enlisted himself as a model for those poses he felt he couldn't ask someone else to do. (There are various "celebrity" models in the book: the poet Donald Hall as Ecclesiastes; poet, biographer Paul Mariani as Appolos; playwright Athol Fugard as 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.'") The head of Goliath is a self-portrait, for which Moser wore a wig and dripped Hershey's syrup from his mouth to represent blood. He also had himself tied, cruciform, to a wall for 15 minutes as assistants took photographs. "This part of my hand turned blue from circulation being cut off for that long," he chuckles at the folly of his obsession. "I don't ask anybody else to do that. And I didn't even use the image."

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.'"

The images he has chosen reflect Moser's love of portraiture, as well as his idea of the Bible's major theme: the individual's singular confrontation with God. "I think all of us have at some time or another in our life confronted the idea of God. When -- in my opinion and in my experience -- the confrontation with God happens alone. It can also happen in what is called the communion of saints and going into a church situation with the loveliness of numbers. But the real confrontation, the real meaning, is what's in our own individual heads -- that's where the confrontation is.

"That's the primary reason for my emphasis on the single figure. It's not so much the portrait as it is the single figure, the solitary voyager. It's like Alice. Alice is a solitary voyager. It's like Odysseus. It's like Dante. These are my favorite characters in literature anyway. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz -- she's on the voyage solitaire. It has to do with that more than anything.

"And to a lesser degree, and certainly as important, is that these figures are not only portraits but they're looking at you. In most instances they will engage you with their eyes.

"You've just turned to Ruth and Naomi," he observes as pages of the text are slowly turned. "Ruth has sat down, I presume -- either that, or Naomi is walking on a wall. They're arranged simply because that's the way the lights and the darks fall. It's a formal thing. But it doesn't stop you and say, "Hey, what are they doing?' We see human figures in this relationship all the time. Ruth is not looking at you. She's looking back toward Bethlehem, looking back toward that to which she is not going to return. Naomi could be looking at us -- there's no eye, just darkness -- she's in shadow; she has her hand to her mouth. To me it's saying, "You sweet darling, you should go back. You shouldn't take care of an old woman. You shouldn't go with me.' But is she going to say that, because she really wants it? She needs her to go with her. It's that moment of pause.

"It comes from art-history class way back when, and studying the "Discobolus,' the great Myron figure of the guy throwing the discus. It was pointed out that Myron chose to show the discus thrower in the moment before throwing it -- not throwing it, not in the middle of the action and not at the end of the action, but the moment before. That stuck in my mind like white on rice. I play with that all the time, the moment before. Look at the image of Samson in the temple of David; it's the same thing. He's got one hand on one of the columns; he's got one hand searching for the other. Now he's going to turn, find this one downstage and everybody's going to die, himself included -- an act of self-sacrifice. It's in that moment before things happen that so much tension is built.

"If I show my reader what is happening or what has happened, which I do a couple times but for the most part I don't, because if I do I rob you of the experience of you doing what you want to do with it. Basically what I try to do is to set the stage. That's the reason for the portraiture; you do the rest of it. I give you a suggestion of what her face is, but now you're going to take her and flesh her out. You're going to put her into three dimensions and let her walk through the oasis or the little town.

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