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  • Beautiful for Situation:Bible Literature and Art in Modern Books for Children
  • Joyce Elizabeth Potter (bio)

Shaped by their childhood reading in the King James Authorized Bible, many adults find in the great literary classics dimensions of space and feeling doubly those of their own souls, dimensions known by cultural orientation as well as by the intimations of imagination. Especially with those major classics that refer significantly to the Bible, readers already versed in the Bible find multiple rewards. There are dramatic scenes with infinite spacial extent, characters with histories longer than recorded time, and ideas in a metaphoric mode of perception destined to live both for their beauty and for their apt conveyance of nature's truths.

In Milton's Paradise Lost there are the children of Eden following their sad pathway from out a gate soon to be closed until the unknown evening of the world falls; in Melville there is the great leviathan, epitome of the moral freedom of one man; and in a host of shorter classics from both England and America, there are a host of basic allusions to the Authorized Bible: the lamb of William Blake, Coleridge's church in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Thomas Hardy's kneeling beasts in "The Oxen," Eliot's steep pathway in the "Journey of the Magi," O'Neill's strong eagles in All God's Chillun Got Wings, and Faulkner's resurrection week-end in The Sound and the Fury. On a larger world scene, readers of the King James Bible are still in familiar literary territory. Because of that version's nature as a translation of highly translatable and widely translated materials which are, in their entirety, centuries old in origin, its readers discover both ancient and modern world classics as if they were land surrounding a beloved estate of childhood. The Anglo-Saxon [End Page 186] "Dream of the Rood," Dante's Divine Comedy (and in particular "Purgatory"), Dostoyevski's The Idiot, and Gide's "Le Retour de L'Enfant Prodigue" are just a few such discoveries, just a few directly adjacent to the estate.

Because of the metaphoric mode of perception in the Bible, a highly pictorial mode with images merging common and fabulous realms of life, not only literary classics but also classics of art may first appear to one already read in the Bible as discoveries from out his or her own mind. Images which appeal to the artist are as central to the Bible's epic themes as they are familiar from nature and graphic in their fantasticality. From the wilderness journey of Abraham to the triumphal "Palm Sunday" ride of Christ into Jerusalem, there is the image of a narrow roadway leading home. There are the migrating and perigrinating animals, especially sheep, which move in flocks and herds, like the stars in multitude and in individuality. The Creator of humankind, God, the central persona of the Bible, calls them by name (Psalms 147:4). There is the image of God Himself, humble as a human shepherd leading his sheep by still waters (Psalms 23) yet also kingly, dressed in flowing royal robes (Isaiah 6:1), and grand, clothed with the galaxies as His ordinary and discardable clothing (Psalms 102:26). There are the scenes of warfare and daily business, of Absalom hanged by accident from an oak, of the apostles struggling with their fishing nets, of Jesus mocked in the costume of purple robe and thorny crown. There are the fantastic images of an ass pausing before an angel, a man safely praying within the body of a great fish, a fire leaping brightly from out water-soaked wood, an immortal red dragon, a woman clothed with the sun, angels with six wings, cities built of precious stones, and morning stars singing together.

In the art of the ages and in a host of individual styles, these vivid images extend the estate of the Bible. One finds art based on the Bible in the early illuminated Gospels of Syria, the Rabbula Gospels, with their six-winged seraphs; in the English Lindisfame Gospels, with their clearly delineated evangelists' symbols; in the famous Irish Book of Kells; in the lavish books...


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pp. 186-192
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