Holy Beauty or Unholy Marriage? Discovery, Provenance, and Social-Theological Musings on the Hexham Abbey Bible
Dr. Bruce T. Martin, Th.D., Historic Bibles & Engravings
My task in this essay is to assess the Hexham Abbey Bible from a social-theological perspective. Which is to ask: “What is the meaning or enduring value that the Hexham Abbey Bible presents to us, 350 years after its creation?”
Five years ago, a 1629 Bible was discovered that, in the English-speaking world, is unique, because it includes — interleaved among its New Testament pages — over 100 full-page engravings, dating for the most part to the second half of the 1500’s. As I will show, this Bible — or rather the marriage — between the biblical-text and the picture-engravings, was made in northern England, at Hexham Abbey, around 1660-1661.
Surprisingly, the English-speaking world was very much at odds with the rest of the world when it came to putting pictures into Bibles, due to an interpretation of the Second Commandment against “graven” images. Picture-woodcuts had always been allowable in Bibles all over Europe. But in England, between 1525 and 1660, such sensibilities changed with the religious preferences of the reigning monarch, and it hardly mattered whether they were Catholic or Protestant.
The Great Bible of 1539, for example, sanctioned by King Henry VIII, a newly minted protestant, contained 50 picture-woodcuts of various biblical scenes. But Queen Mary I, his successor, a Catholic, forbade the printing of any Bible in English. After her, Queen Elizabeth I, a protestant, authorized the Bishop’s Bible in 1568. This Bible struck a kind of middle ground in its woodcuts of persons and stories. But after that, no pictures at all were authorized in English Bibles for the next 100 years. In particular, neither the Geneva Bible of 1560, nor the King James Bible of 1611, nor any official Catholic Bible printed in English, nor any of their subsequent editions, contained picture-woodcuts or engravings – at least not officially, until 1660.
The only exception to this rule was the engraved title page, which was considered a necessary expense. As a practical matter, engravings took up an entire page, and so could not be incorporated into a page along with the biblical text. Any engraving that was to be included in a Bible, therefore, had to be printed separately from the text, and then interleaved among the separate pages. Woodcuts, though, were a different matter, since they could easily be incorporated into the biblical text. Nonetheless, in England at any rate, woodcuts were mostly confined to maps or to drawings of Temple furniture. When small picture-woodcuts were used, they were mostly crude and cartoon-like compared to the more realistic looking copper-plate engravings.
Although a handful of interleaved engravings in Bibles are known from the 1630’s, using contemporary prints, they were suspected of fostering Roman Catholic sensibilities, or of breaking the Second Commandment. It was only after the English Civil War and the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660, that the marriage of picture-engravings with the biblical text was condoned. And ever since, publishers of English Bibles have, with great glee and an opportunity to make more money, incorporated picture-engravings into their bibles.
Today, the question is not about Roman Catholic or Pietistic sensibilities, or the Second Commandment, but about interpreting the engravings, both on their own merits and in combination with the biblical text. We are now asking, in a way that was inconceivable 400 years ago: “What effect does having pictures, placed alongside the biblical text, have upon the text, or upon the Bible as a whole?” Biblical scholars today do not in any way concern themselves with pictures, which is odd because so many bibles these days are filled with pictures, and one will often see special editions with images by well-known artists (e.g., Dore, Rembrandt, Chagall). So, the question returns once again to us, 400 years later, whether such an enterprise as interleaving pictures with the biblical text is inspiring or beguiling; whether, in such cases, we have created a work of Holy Beauty or an Unholy Marriage?
I hope to bring some clarity to this question, by reference to the Hexham Abbey Bible, the earliest known English Bible with picture-engravings dating to the 1500s.
Follow me, if you will, in a thought experiment. Imagine that you are a caveman or cavewoman – or, more precisely, a cave-child, 80,000 years ago, at the beginnings of human society. You are a fully-human child, just 6 years old – or rather 6 summers old – and your name is Sunshine, because the day you were born was bright and sun-shiny. It is mid-morning and you have just woken up from a good night’s sleep. You climb out of your family’s bear-hide blanket, that had kept you warm at night, and you make your way to the mouth of the cave, where your mother is tending the community fire pit.
You approach your mother, and gently tug at her deer-skin apron to get her attention. She looks at you and smiles. You say, pointing to your mouth, words that translate as “Mamma, I’m hungry.” And she says, pointing behind her, “Over there, Sunshine.”
Still continuing our thought experiment — What do you suppose the child and mother were thinking when they uttered those words to each other: “Mamma, I’m hungry” and “Over there, Sunshine”?
Now — in the interest of full disclosure — I am not a cultural anthropologist, nor am I a sociologist or an art historian. I’m merely a theologian. Still, I am fairly sure that when the child said “Mamma, I’m hungry” (pointing to his mouth) he or she was not thinking “I hope I get an Egg-McMuffin, like I got yesterday.” And I’m quite certain that when the mother said “Over there” (pointing to the bowl behind her) she wasn’t thinking “Go to the pantry and get the box of Fruit-loops; milk is in the fridge.” So, if they weren’t thinking that, what might they have been thinking?
In my own imagination, I suppose the child could have been thinking the following: “Yesterday, mamma gave me the most delicious blue berries that she and her sisters had picked the day before. They were so much better than the tasteless pale orange berries I usually get. I hope that mamma saved some of those blue ones for me this morning. Mamma, I’m hungry.”
And, in my imagination, I suppose that the mother might have been thinking: “Its mid-morning already, and the clan has already eaten. I’m glad that I saved some of those blue berries for my little Sunshine. Where did I put them? Oh yes, in the bowl behind me, along with some left-over nuts. Sunshine will love them, too, I’m sure, and they are good for him. They’ll put some meat on his bones for the coming winter. Over there, Sunshine!”
OK, you can stop being a cave-child — but now I’d like to reflect with you more carefully about thinking itself, and about communicating what we think. I promise that it has everything to do with the Hexham Abbey Bible. What looks, at first, like a simple exchange between child and mother, 80,000 years ago, is in reality quite complex. And I’m presuming that what was true then is true today.
From our thought experiment, I hope you noticed, among other things, that there was quite a lot of thought behind what was actually said or gestured. It’s not that there were complex social concepts bouncing around in their heads, such as love or duty or justice, but there was a story, a narrative, a snippet of experience, that crystallized into just a few words or gestures. Before a single word was uttered, or the slightest gesture made, both child and mother presupposed a much larger story out of the deep well of their experiences. This larger story is the “context” out of which our much smaller stories are told. What we communicate is only a fraction of what we are actually thinking. So, when we are presented with a text, or an engraving – such as we have in the Hexham Abbey Bible – we need to realize that there is a much larger story or context that was not told, and could not be told, within or behind the story that was actually told.
Now let’s take a closer look at communication itself.
It may seem obvious that, as physical beings, our personal presence is extended in the world, and thereby exerts “power” on the world, not merely by our voice and its various inflections, but by our gestures and by our tools. We use whatever non-verbals we have at hand to communicate alongside the verbal – it’s what we do. We communicate best, in fact, when our verbal and non-verbal speech-components complement and reinforce each other. Our verbals carry a certain tone and intensity. Our non-verbals, too, take on various forms — from facial and body gestures to written and graphic representations to technological instruments. Like a coin with two sides, we communicate with each other, as much as possible, both verbally and non-verbally.
What is not so obvious, is how we think – long before we begin to communicate. How we think is not obvious because it is a universal experience, it is not debatable, and is therefore not a subject of concern to almost everyone. Yet how we think is the basis for how we communicate. And how we communicate is vital for evaluating or assessing what we communicate. Thinking and communicating are made from the same cloth.
Most of us don’t stop and think about how we think, but those who have thought about it [e.g., R. Jenson, On Thinking the Human] tell us – and our experience bears this out – that whenever we think about something, or dream about something, we always form a picture of it in our minds. What we think about can be real or imagined, but we always form a picture of it, or a series of pictures, like snap-shots or frames in a movie. This envisioning, in our mind’s eye, does not have to be very clear and sharp, and most often isn’t, because they are incomplete and vague representations [Vorstellung] of what we are thinking, our concepts [Begriff] as we call them. Our mental representations of our concepts are the medium by which we think. We cannot, it seems, have one without the other. Our representations, moreover, rarely if ever stand alone; they are connected to one another like frames in a movie. What we think, therefore, whether our concepts or our memories, always comes to us in story form, and thus in pictures.
So here’s the first point I’d like to make, as we begin to understand the significance of the Hexham Abbey Bible: there is no human thought or communication without some kind of symbolic representation, or picture-world, both to think it and to express it. When we think, we do so in pictures; and when we communicate, we do so in word-pictures.
The second point I’d like to make is that, however an actual communication comes to be crystallized into words and gestures, there is always more behind them that is left unsaid and uncommunicated. And that “more” is a story that can never quite be told in full. It is the “context” for what is actually expressed, whether verbally or non-verbally, whether as a text or as an engraving.
There is third point I’d like to make as well, but I wasn’t adept enough to include it in my thought experiment. Whenever we express what we are thinking, we are creating; we are making things that did not exist before. And the things we make, no matter how simple or complex, always, always, have an aesthetic or pleasing quality to them. They are, for the time and place in which they are made, both useful and, if you will permit me to say, artful. Perhaps we should also say, beautiful — at least to its maker. We can’t help ourselves; we just do it. Everything we do or touch or speak, whether it is a simple tool or a complex communication event, are works of art. In this respect, we are all artists!
These reflections, I submit, have profound implications for assessing the relevance of the Hexham Abbey Bible. With these reflections tucked away safely in mind, let me tell you a tale of discovery.
My interest in rare bibles and in bible manuscripts began in the mid-1970s, while at seminary to become a pastor. I was fascinated by the old books and bibles I discovered as I wandered through the stacks in the dark basement of the library. I found myself captivated by the history of those many communities of faith that had kept these books and bibles, as precious relics for posterity. So, when the occasion arrived, some 30 years later, to develop a business that I could count on as being legal and moral, I began to collect, and then to resell, antique bibles and manuscripts, some dating to the early 1200s. Every day, I was fascinated by what I was doing. I was in hog heaven!
One of my first great acquisitions was a 1629 King James Bible, a first edition from the Cambridge University Press – the same edition, it turns out, as the Hexham Abbey Bible (HAB). Without this acquisition, and my subsequent appreciation of the 1629 Cambridge Bible as one of the most beautiful and elegantly printed of all the early English Bibles, I would not likely have noticed, or purchased, the 1629 Bible that is the centerpiece of our Exhibit.
Besides being the first official editorial revision of the King James version, the 1629 Cambridge Bible was the first to compete for business with the King’s printers in London, who until that time had a monopoly on printing Bibles. Having a monopoly, the king’s printers had no incentive, either to maintain or to improve on the quality of the bibles they printed. Therefore, ever since the monumental 1611 first edition, all editions of the “Authorized” Bible (the official name for the King James Bible) suffered from mediocre to poor quality — except, of course, those few Bibles that were specially printed and bound for wealthy clients.
So, when Cambridge University was granted a license from the king to print bibles, the University spared no effort to give the king’s printers a run for their money, and possibly break their monopoly. Cambridge – very unusually — printed their Bible on no less than seven different qualities of paper, or “issues,” in order to cater to (and sell to) a wide variety of clients. This proved to be critical for the creation of the Hexham Abbey Bible because one of those paper issues, a very thin rag-linen, was exactly the type of paper used to produce the engravings that were later inserted into one of those Bibles.
Another unusual aspect of the Cambridge first edition is its size, a medium folio about 12” x 8” (give or take a few millimeters). According to B. J. McMullin, a scholar whose work on the Cambridge Bible is unsurpassed, it was thought that the Bible would be used chiefly in churches, and therefore handled with great care, so most of them were bound using cloth or velvet materials. As it turned out, the Bible was quite popular apart from its church use, and as a consequence many Bibles suffered premature damage to their text due to inadequate binding materials.
To make matters worse, some of the seven issues (or “formes” as McMullin calls them) were made with inferior paper, though many were not. Because of these paper and binding problems, but also because the Bible itself was so beautifully formatted and printed, it is no wonder that the 1629 Cambridge Bible is today among the most prized of all the early English bibles, particularly if it is still in good shape.
With this knowledge (thanks largely to McMullin’s research) — and with the experience of having purchased other 1629 Cambridge Bibles in the meantime – I placed a bid for what was called a 1629 Cambridge New Testament.
Now, auction houses are notorious for providing scant information about Bibles, so all I had to go on was a picture of the title page, and its description as a New Testament. I also knew, thanks to Herbert’s Catalogue of English Bibles (1968), that in 1629 no New Testament (NT) was officially issued by the Cambridge University Press apart from its Old Testament counterpart. It figured, then, that this 1629 New Testament might just be something rather odd. Luckily for me, I was the winning bidder. I was in for a treat!
The moment of discovery came when I received the package and opened it up, very carefully. When I lifted the book from the box, already I could tell that the binding was fragile, so I laid it on the table, and opened the cover. At first, I was surprised to see a Book of Common Prayer (BCP) — which was almost always included in Bibles during this era, but usually bound before the Old Testament. So I didn’t expect to see a Book of Common Prayer along with what was advertised to be a New Testament only.
But then came the New Testament title page, in perfect condition. I turned the page, and there I saw, for the first time, a full-page engraving – and then another, and another, seven in a row! I was astounded, because I had never heard of engravings in Bibles this old, and what I knew about engravings wouldn’t have filled a mouse’s tooth. But there they were! I quickly flipped through the rest of the New Testament, and saw so many wonderful engravings that my heart was pounding. Not only were the Bible pages in near-pristine condition, but the engravings were on exactly the same kind of paper as the biblical text. I was perplexed and excited all at the same time. What kind of engravings were these, and how and why did they get into this New Testament?
So I did a bit of research. I looked them up on the internet (of course) and found that most were listed on the British Museum’s Online Collection. They seemed to come from the 1500s, but that was so preposterous that, at first, I couldn’t believe it. It took several days for me to be assured that, yes, they really were from the 1500s. I then called the Portland Museum of Art, and made arrangements to see the curator of prints and drawings. With 115 engravings altogether, I was sure that this was a major find – I just didn’t know at that time how big a find it was, and it wasn’t simply because of the engravings!
As it turned out, the curator had been on the job just four days when we met, and was not yet acquainted with the Museum’s collection. So she put me in touch with Dr. Ricardo De Mambro Santos, an art history professor at Willamette University, whom she knew was an expert in this period of Netherlandish engravings. After a lengthy stop at the library to consult the New Hollstein reference books, I ended up in Dr. De Mambro Santos’ office. When he saw what I had brought, his face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning, and exclaimed, “My friends!” — referring to Heemskerck, Wierix, Galle, de Jode, Goltzius, Sadeler, Collaert, de Vos, and several other Northern Renaissance masters. And, being the teacher that he is, he proceeded to show me what makes these engravings so important and exciting – my first “Aha!” moment.
We immediately decided that we would have an Exhibit to showcase the Bible and its engravings to the world. He would research the engravings, and I would research the Bible and its provenance. Of course, at that point, knowing next to nothing about the engravings, I was primarily interested in showcasing the Bible. As it turns out, it is the Bible plus the engravings that is so unique and compelling.
While Ricardo was doing his analysis of the engravings, I began to research the Bible. What I discovered, after five years of looking — and this is the truly remarkable thing – is that, to my knowledge, the Hexham Abbey Bible is the earliest English Bible with full page engravings, of any sort — and the only English Bible with engravings dating to the 1500s. These were mostly printed between 1565 and 1585, with a handful dating to the 1640s.
Are there any English Bibles similar to the Hexham Abbey Bible? And what is the history of extra-illustration? There are literally a handful of extant English Bibles, dated 1633 to 1638, containing contemporary engravings by Robert Young, which were then bound into bibles by Robert Peake. These so-called “Peake” Bibles were immediately regarded as “popish” (a word of derision in Protestant circles) because the Young engravings lent themselves to a Roman Catholic interpretation of the biblical text. In Puritan England, the experiment didn’t last long.
The next period of extra-illustrated English Bibles came at about the same time as the Hexham Abbey Bible, from 1660-1680. These Bibles contain contemporary prints by such artists as Hoet, Picart, Ogilby, and van Hove. One Bible, though, that is arguably closest to the Hexham Abbey Bible, is a 1679 King James Bible — extra-illustrated with 124 Old Master engravings printed by Nicholas Visscher in the 1640s.
Aside from these two periods of extra-illustration, and one similar to the Hexham Abbey Bible, we should note two specific outliers. The first is the Little Gidding Harmony Bible of 1630-1635, which is a cut-and-paste of contemporary engravings and biblical texts. Its purpose was to provide the Little Gidding community (Anglican, founded by Nicholas Ferrer, 1592-1637) with a Bible containing a single Gospel story. This was a “harmony” of the Four Gospels with lots of illustrations from whatever print media was available at the time. About a dozen copies are extant.
The second outlier builds on the idea of adding portrait engravings to historical works, first popularized by James Granger in the 1770s. This method, known as ‘grangerizing,” adds materials from other sources into already existing books, without rebinding them, as a way of personalizing them or enhancing their aesthetic charm. Grangerizing soon became a popular pastime, and reached its zenith with what is known as the Kitto Bible. This Bible was originally published in 1855 as an Illustrated History of the Bible, but was “grangerized” over many decades into what now stands as a whopping 60 volumes with 30,000 prints and various other items.
The Kitto Bible contains every imaginable sort of art media from a vast period of time – back to the early 1500s. Included, often in duplicate or triplicate, are engravings from many well-known masters, but also paintings, drawings, and anything else that seemed worthy – and much was worthy! The Kitto Bible is currently at the Huntington Library, along with 40 or so other “grangerized” books.
Unlike the two outliers, the Hexham Abbey Bible is bound and interleaved exclusively with Old Master engravings, not pasted in or tipped in. Like the interleaved Bibles of the 1630s and the 1660s, however, the Hexham Abbey Bible started as an independently published Bible of suitable size and paper quality, then disbound 30 years later and interleaved with 106 full-page engravings (some are two to a page, uncut, making a total of 115 engravings). Then at some point it was rebound. It is gauffered on all sides, meaning that geometric lines and symbols were embossed on the edges of the pages, after being gilded in gold foil. Gauffering was generally done, not only to make a nice impression, but to prevent oxidation and deterioration of the paper.
The Hexham Abbey Bible is therefore not a grangerized Bible, because nothing was added in to it over time, or was expected to be added. Nor was it meant to be mass produced. But it did have a specific purpose, and to that we now turn.
Provenance of the Hexham Abbey Bible
So far, we have set the stage for the creation of the Hexham Abbey Bible, and have claimed its uniqueness among all known English Bibles. We turn now to the Hexham Abbey Bible itself, to determine its provenance, who made it, how and why it was made, and why we are calling it the “Hexham Abbey Bible.”
To begin with, the Hexham Abbey Bible consists of a Book of Common Prayer, a New Testament, and a Whole Book of Psalms Collected Into English Meeter, in that order, all dated 1629. Since only a whole Bible was offered for sale that year, these three sections must have been disbound from a complete Bible – the Old Testament and Apocrypha taken out — and then recombined, along with 118 Old Master engravings.
The most likely reason this was done, even without the engravings, was to create a light-weight, New Testament and Prayer Book, for someone’s personal use, either in public or private worship. If this is what happened, then it is likely that there is an Old Testament companion volume to go along with the Prayer Book and New Testament combination. And if similar engravings were also added to the Old Testament volume, then, just possibly, there is an Old Testament Bible out there, somewhere, with Old Master engravings in it — waiting to be found!
An odd feature of the Hexham Abbey Bible is its near pristine condition, with nary a mark or smudge on it, except for the first few pages of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). (Because the BCP is soiled, whereas the rest of the Bible is not, it is likely that the BCP originated from a different copy of the 1629 Cambridge Bible than the rest of the Bible). Further, there are none of the usual biographical markers, such as births and deaths, that many owners wrote in their Bibles. And there are no ink markings or dog-ears or tears in the pages, or water stains, or blood.
Why should that be, if it was designed, along with the engravings, for regular worship purposes? Being in the rare Bible business now for 13 years, I have never seen an early English Bible in such good condition, overall, so I figured that something odd must have happened for a book designed for worship not to have been used.
But then it occurred to me that, in 1662, a new Book of Common Prayer was published, to unify factions of the Church that, for their own reasons, disliked or refused to use the previous version. It also occurred to me that, when King Charles II returned to England from exile in 1660, a new religious tone had also returned, that was accommodating, or at least more open, to putting picture-engravings in Bibles (hence, as we have seen, the second wave of extra-illustrated Bibles in 17th-century England).
Here was a confluence of events, in 1660 and 1662, that suggested the possibility that the Hexham Abbey Bible was created around 1660 or 1661, when it was safe once more to insert engravings into a Bible. But with the advent of a new Book of Common Prayer in early 1662, all previous Prayer Books – including, of course, the Hexham Abbey Bible (whether finished or not) — were suddenly obsolete and thus unusable, at least in public worship. With this scenario as our working hypothesis, we now had to discover who had owned the Bible back in the early 1660s.
The Hexham Abbey Bible offered two indicators of prior ownership. One is an old library bookplate pasted onto the inside of the front cover, with a coat of arms and a name written: “Rev. Robert Clarke.” The other indicator is an egret or swan embossed on the bottom of the outer spine. Happily, the bookplate also depicts an egret or swan, just like the one on the spine. We can therefore conclude that whoever bound the Bible is the same person who owned it. Unfortunately, however, the name Robert Clarke is like the name John Smith, so his identification, even as a Reverend, was impossible.
The key to the correct identification of Rev. Robert Clarke turns out to be the egret on the bookplate and spine. In 2013, as a matter of sheer serendipity, I found the same bookplate and the same embossed egret on a book that was for sale on eBay – only the owner’s name was not Robert Clarke but Sloughter Clarke. For me, this was a very unusual name! A quick search on the internet led me to a sale of property, in the late 1700s, in the parish of Hexham, in Northumberland, England.
Sloughter Clarke (1741-1820) and Robert Clarke (1771-1824), father and son, had been Lecturers at Hexham Abbey — the father from 1766 to 1801, and the son from 1801 to 1824. A Lecturer, at that time, was a priest commissioned by the owner of the Abbey to preside over all church related affairs; and often to adjudicate low-level civil disputes as well. And since Hexham Abbey could trace its history to 674 as a Benedictine Abbey, the Lectureship there was a plumb assignment. The Abbey continues to this day as the parish church of Hexham.
Since the egret on the family crest is identical to the egret on the spine of the Hexham Abbey Bible, it is nearly certain that Sloughter Clarke had the Bible bound in the form that we have it now, and that his son, Robert Clarke, inherited it and affixed it with his family bookplate and signature. The dating of the current binding to the turn of the 19th century, and possibly several decades earlier, is supported by a recent close inspection by Susan Lunas, the conservator recommended to me by the Hallie Ford Museum.
But this information does not yet take us to the origin of the Hexham Abbey Bible. Since the Bible is in near-pristine condition (apart from the first few pages), it figured to have lain on a shelf somewhere, unused for 350 years. On that conjecture, I traced the history of Lectureships at Hexham Abbey back to 1660. If someone created the Bible in 1660 or 1661, and shelved it in 1662, the Bible could have remained at Hexham Abbey until it was discovered and rebound by Sloughter Clarke somewhere between 1780 and 1800. This is a reasonable hypothesis, but it depends on the Bible being unbound, or poorly bound, at the time of its rebinding.
It turns out that the Lecturer and Curate of Hexham Abbey in 1660 was a well-known and highly respected clergyman named George Ritschel (1616-1683). His story, what little we know of it, is fascinating. And it is this story that leads Dr. De Mambro Santos and me to conclude that George Ritschel was in fact the creator of the Hexham Abbey Bible – and that it was he who married those Old Master engravings to the biblical text, to form what was at that time a useful and artful Prayer Book and New Testament combination.
So, on this 402nd anniversary of his birth, who was George Ritschel? I’ll tell you the short story (for academic details, see Dr. De Mambro Santo’s essay in this catalogue, Touching Heavens). According to his biographers (see Roger Howell, Jr., and Robert Fitzgibbon), Ritschel was born into a Lutheran family in Bohemia, in central Europe, in what is now the Czech Republic. Shortly after his education at the University of Strasbourg, Roman Catholicism became the only acceptable religion in Bohemia (besides Judaism!), and life promised to be difficult if you didn’t convert! Ritschel, by now a Lutheran by choice, chose not to convert, so he “renounced” his share of the family farm and moved away — presumably because he wanted a career in academia — but specifically because he was hired to do research for the well-known humanist, Jan Amos Comenius (1592-1670).
Ritschel’s research was focused on Comenius’ theory, or “method” as he called it, that young people, especially children, are taught best through the addition or juxtaposition or combination of a given text with naturalistic-looking images pertaining to that text. For Comenius, since the human mind is easily captivated and informed by bold images, or “ocular demonstrations” as he called them, these impressions — together with a written text or oral presentation — make for a quicker and more engaging grasp of the material. When a text – any text, according to this theory, is supplemented with detailed images pertaining to that text, the subject to be learned is both enlivened and etched in one’s memory. Imagine: text and images together! “Well, my, my my!” – to quote Detective Kenda (retired, from Colorado, USA; featured on Homicide Hunter, a reality-TV series).
Comenius’s theory of “ocular demonstrations” did not fall from the sky, but was based on a broad appreciation for creation (from the Bible), and for things created by people, as reflections of the glory of God, akin, surprisingly, to the Greek Orthodox conception of icons. As Comenius opined in his book The Great Didactic,
God Himself has filled every corner of this grand theatre of the world with paintings, sculptures, and images as living representatives of His wisdom, and wants us to be instructed by their means . . [T]hrough the work of Divine Providence, all things have been made with perfect harmony, so that superior things can be represented by inferior ones, absent ones by means of present ones, and the invisible things by means of visible ones. (32, 41)
For Comenius, pictures (or engravings) can be useful in instruction, not only because they are “representatives” of God’s handiwork in creation, but because they are in “perfect harmony” with the “invisible” and “superior” truths of God, presumably love, mercy, righteousness, and the like. On this basis, Comenius was convinced that his “method” was equally applicable, if not more so, to religious teachings and to the Bible.
Ritschel was tasked with tracing the philosophical pillars of Comenius’ educational theory, but he had a falling out with Comenius, a few years later, when Comenius rejected his work as being too technical for the more elementary book he intended to write (The Great Didactic, published in 1657). So instead of scrapping all his hard work, Ritschel wrote his own book, on metaphysics (Metaphysical Contemplations on the Nature of Things, 1648), which was a big hit in Germany; but in England, not so much. Still, this book, more than any other of the 5 or 6 that he eventually wrote, earned him a reputation for great learning. In fact, Ritschel was been called the most important philosopher ever to have immigrated from Bohemia to England.
Ritschel’s early research on Comenius’ behalf, as well as a couple of tutoring positions for the children of noblemen, took him to Holland, Denmark, and Germany, before his falling out with Comenius landed him permanently in England. Presumably, these countries offered Ritschel an excellent opportunity to become familiar with a wide range of Northern Renaissance art, including that which is represented in the Hexham Abbey Bible.
My interest in Ritschel’s biography, up to this point, has been to show that he was a committed Lutheran – to the extent of leaving his country of birth, rather than convert to Roman Catholicism; that he was exceedingly well educated in philosophy – even if his prowess wasn’t recognized by those around him; and that he was intimately familiar, both in theory and in practice, with Comenius’ theory that texts and pictures are a natural combination for learning, at least on the elementary level.
I’m going to skip over the intermediate portion of Ritschel’s career, in which he was a successful headmaster of a grammar school in England – quite naturally, I’d say, given his experience to that point. The school was in an area that was known for welcoming Bohemian exiles, and he likely had some extended family living there. Then, after 9 or 10 years of being a teacher, and quite suddenly, Rirschel resigned his position and took up (in 1657) a preaching position – the coveted Lectureship — in the neighboring town of Hexham. The reason for this change is unclear, but I note that his son, George, Jr., was born that year – which could have prodded him to increase his income as well as his social standing. But that’s pure speculation on my part.
What we know is that, in order to make a career change, from teacher to preacher — which in the context of the times was rather more respected than a teacher, Ritschel had to become, what he had thus far refused to become: a political animal. It is this change in orientation, more than any other consideration, I submit, that prompted the creation of the Hexham Abbey Bible.
No one knows exactly how Ritschel obtained his preaching credentials, or exactly why he was chosen, but the folks doing the hiring at Hexham Abbey were Puritans who, “in theory, were purged of Royalists and Anglicans, and loyal to the Parliament.” Ritschel signed a declaration of loyalty to Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, and was hired on as Lecturer. Yet just a few years later, during the Restoration, when it was no longer politically correct to be a Puritan – that is, around 1660, Ritschel “denied that he had ever been an active Puritan.” Moreover, according to his biographers, Ritschel later said, when reflecting on this period in his life, that “he had never been asked to express disagreement with the Augsburg Confession.” (This 1530 Confession is the standard by which Lutherans are identified.)
What prompted Ritschel to create the Hexham Abbey Bible? The period, from 1657 to 1660, that is, at the tail end of the English Civil War (in which Parliament was set against the Monarchy, and Puritans and Independents were set against Royalists and Anglicans), was one in which a teacher or preacher had to navigate, on a local scale, a succession of political and religious sensibilities – that is, if he wished to remain gainfully employed.
Having wormed his way into a preaching job at Hexham Abbey, as a Puritan or at least as a Puritan sympathizer, Ritschel, in 1660, found that he needed to persuade his new bosses, that he was, after all, an Anglican!
So Ritschel wrote a book, published in 1661, that defended Anglicanism against Puritan charges of idolatry and superstition (Dissertatio De Ceremonius Ecclesiae Anglicanae). The book, which “contain[ed] strong attacks on the Puritans”, was, tellingly, dedicated to John Cosin (1594-1672) who in 1660 returned from exile to became Bishop of Durham, and thus became Ritschel’s immediate superior. Once again, Ritschel was ingratiating himself to others, this time to his new Anglican bosses – in order, presumably, to keep his well-respected, cushy job. At any rate, Ritschel did keep his job, wrote several more books, and lived happily ever after.
Professor De Mambro Santos and I both agree that Ritschel’s political shenanigans forms the backstory for the creation of the Hexham Abbey Bible, and that the rich heritage of Hexham Abbey, through the Ritschel family of Lecturers and the Clarke family of Lecturers, provides good reason to dub the Bible that Ritschel created, The Hexham Abbey Bible. We admittedly do not know for whom Ritschel created the Bible, but that it was done in order to shore up his job and to appease his Anglican masters seems clear enough.
So let’s turn to the Hexham Abbey Bible and see what Ritschel did with it. On a broad scale, Ritschel undoubtedly wanted to create a worship book that was grounded on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but one that incorporated, back-handedly, anti-Puritan values. He used Comenius’ “method” of combining vivid pictures alongside a text, in this case the New Testament, to create a book that was worthy of either public or private worship – a book that would signal to all the world, or at least to his Anglican masters, that he, George Ritschel, was a true-blue Anglican. And if anyone asked, he could easily point to his recent book on Anglican rituals (1661) to defend himself against any suspected Puritan leanings.
In order for Ritschel to create what he did, he needed a suitable Book of Common Prayer and a suitable New Testament. He found one in a King James Bible rather than a Geneva Bible (which we may recall was the “Bible of the Puritans”). It didn’t matter what year it was, but the 1629 Cambridge Bible proved suitable for Ritschel because one of its seven paper issues (“forme” E in McMullin’s study) was made with the same light-weight, fine, linen rag paper as the copper plate engravings that he intended to interleave into the New Testament. The 1629 Cambridge Bible, a medium folio bible, was also suitable because it was large enough, at 12” x 8”, to hold the engravings. This particular Bible, with its matching paper type and paper size, to the engravings, was exactly what Ritschel needed.
After the Book of Common Prayer, and after the New Testament title page, but within the New Testament only, from the Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn) through Acts, Ritschel interleaved Old Master engravings – matching the storyline of the New Testament with those of the engravings. In nearly every case, the story depicted by the engraving precedes the story told by the New Testament text. In some instances, there are several engravings bunched together, but, again, they precede their Gospel-story counterparts.
As an aside, I can only speculate why Ritschel chose to use 16th-century engravings rather than 17th-century ones. Most likely, these were engravings that he had compiled from his earlier travels in Denmark and Holland, during his research for Comenius. Nonetheless, Ritschel did avail himself of a few engravings from the 1640s.
I’d like now to take a close look at 3 examples of Ritschel’s work, from the Hexham Abbey Bible, to see how they comport with his overall project – that is, not merely to enhance one’s comprehension of the biblical text (per Comenius), but to showcase his Anglican sensibilities (per Ritschel). There is, of necessity, a certain paradox at work here. On the one hand, the project of adding pictures alongside a text was, in theory, designed to increase the comprehensions of children. On the other hand, the project of creating an Anglican worship book that contained Puritanically offensive engravings, was designed to persuade intelligent adults of Ritschel’s current theological stance. Did it work? We will never know, because a new Book of Common Prayer was published in early 1662 – making the Hexham Abbey Bible, possibly incomplete at the time, obsolete and, for all intents and purposes, useless (if artful). So the Hexham Abbey Bible was set aside, until Sloughter Clarke (finding it at Hexham Abbey, or having obtained it through family connections with the Ritschels) either bound it for the first time, or rebound it to his liking.
Fast-forward 350 years later, where we are in a neutral position to evaluate the Hexham Abbey Bible, not only with Ritschel’s eyes but with our own. I have selected three examples from the Hexham Abbey Bible. One is relatively simple, one is frighteningly dramatic, and one is quite complex.
My first example – the relatively simple one — is the one at which the Bible is currently opened for display, at the Hallie Ford Exhibit [ill. 1]. This is a story, near the beginning of the Gospel of John, where Jesus attends a wedding, and turns water into wine. Oops! What I just said is an interpretation, isn’t it? To say that this is a wedding, or that water is turned into wine, requires that the text be read, or remembered. But if we haven’t yet read the text, the first thing we notice is Jesus – with a nimbus around his head – at a grand party, directing a servant to pour some liquid into a cup; and that liquid, judging by the well in the background, is water. Without reading the text, that is about as much as you can squeeze out of this picture.
But if one already knows the story, one suspects that this is a common wedding to which Jesus was invited, despite the kingly laurel on the groom and the crown on the bride; and that Jesus is in the process of changing water into an excellent wine. (What should we make of the little gremlin-face on one of the water jugs? Or the butt-crack action on one of the guests? Or that Jesus is barefooted?)
Quite apart from what the engraver, Johannes Wierix, may have thought — What does Ritschel expect his readership to get from this picture, even granting that they know something of the story beforehand? We cannot know for certain, but I expect that Ritschel wanted them to see Jesus turning water into wine, which would be a miracle, or a “sign” as the Gospel writer put it. I’m not an art historian, so perhaps I don’t see the finer nuances of Wierix’s design – or maybe they’re just not very important to me. But in this picture, there doesn’t seem to be anything else going on besides a miracle.
My second example is one that, for me, is frighteningly dramatic, the most dramatic in the Hexham Abbey Bible [ill. 2] — and very likely the model for Rembrandt’s painting Storm on the Sea of Galilee. What do we see here, even granting that we have read or heard the story beforehand? Does Ritschel want us to anticipate another miracle in which Jesus calms the sea, along with the fears of his disciples?
This is the story, originally from the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus and his disciples are on the Sea of Galilee, on their way to the other side. A storm churns and blows mightily, and threatens the lives of everyone. So Jesus, in the text, “rebukes” the storm, and all is well again. But if we look only at the picture, which comes before the text, what do we see? Quite naturally, the scene immediately grabs our attention, and we empathize with the disciples who are beside themselves with fright. The only thing out of place in this scene, that would be puzzling if we didn’t know the story, is that Jesus is asleep at the rear of the boat, oblivious to the danger surrounding them.
Is it enough, for Ritschel, that we are captivated by this vivid and dramatic scene (that Dr. De Mambro Santos eloquently described in his essay)? Is it enough, for Ritschel, that we are drawn to wonder why in the world Jesus is asleep, when the rest of us are scared to death? Maybe so. Maybe it is enough that we are led, by this picture, to read or reread the New Testament text and to discover, perhaps, some deeper meaning. But that deeper meaning is not shown to us in the engraving! At most – staying with the picture here – we are beset with the jarring contrast between the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ calm. For me, despite all the special effects, it is this contrast alone that makes the engraving a worthy conveyor of the Gospel story. But more on that later.
My third example is one that is quite complex, yet shockingly direct. It’s an engraving by Hans Collaert, and it appears twice in the Hexham Abbey Bible, one toward the end of Matthew, and the other toward the end of Luke. [ill. 3]
(The one in Matthew – this one — is a second state printing, dated to 1585. And the one at the end of Luke is a third state printing, dated to 1643. A first state printing, dated to 1563, is among those in the Exhibit that represent different developments in Northern Renaissance art during the second half of the 1500s. So together, all three states of this complex engraving are represented in the Exhibit.)
Here we have, very dramatically, a scene of the crucifixion of Jesus, and we must ask ourselves, once more, What does Ritschel intend for us to see, or get out of seeing, in this picture — even presuming that we know something already of the story?
Again, I’m not an art historian, but neither were those who were reasonably expected to use the Hexham Abbey Bible. At this point, I’m simply being casual in my observations rather than theological. What was the user expected to see? There are three men being tortured to death, by being affixed to crosses, in different ways. In the center is Jesus. We know that this one is Jesus in spite of the fact that he is not the foremost one in the picture — that would be the one to our left. If we know the story, Jesus is recognized by the nails, by the crown of thorns, and by the title on the cross, INRI (an acronym which in Latin stands for “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”), providing the reason, or at least the charge, for which Jesus was crucified.
We see, then, a crucifixion, or rather three crucifixions. We notice that none of the three have yet died, that the one in the foreground is looking back towards Jesus, and that – in a small grotto in the background, a man is kneeling in a prayerful position. We see that Jesus is being crucified (without noticeable blood), the sky is darkened, the wind is blowing, and death is near. What is there to understand from this picture, other than death? If there is any Good News here, it was certainly not evident on that day.
The only hint that something strange is happening, is the man praying in the grotto. We simply don’t have, in this picture, enough information to know what is going on here, or why, or what impact this event might have on our lives. Even those who know the story behind this picture, and the story yet to come, cannot discover that in this picture.
I suspect that those who see this picture in the Hexham Abbey Bible, are being asked, by Ritschel, to contemplate, like the man in the grotto, the meaning of this event. I can only imagine what a child could be thinking about such a scene! Confusion, no doubt. By Ritschel’s own standard, that pictures are to assist in one’s understanding of the subject matter, then this picture – like our other two examples – does not help us in understanding the biblical text.
But perhaps I’m being too hard on Ritschel. No one, not even Jesus’ closest disciples, understood what was happening right in front of them. The jars of water looked like jars of water, even if they were filled with wine. The storm on the sea of Galilee was really a storm, and all storms blow themselves out. And the crucifixion of Jesus, like countless other crucifixions, ended in death. At least that is what the disciples saw, and what the pictures depict. The question is, therefore, if it is even possible for pictures to tell us anything more than what appears in the immediate present?
Am I asking too much of these pictures? Does Ritschel ask too much of them – when, like individual frames in a movie, they can only tell us what is evident to our eyes at the moment, disconnected from the frames that might follow? Realistically – and Ritschel the teacher was all about realism — Is it even possible to understand a story before it has reached its end? I don’t think so. The story of Jesus, like any other story, achieves its meaning only from the perspective of its ending.
Because I’m a theologian, I’d like now to offer a theological perspective on the Hexham Abbey Bible – it is, after all, a Bible! How might a theologian assess the project that George Ritschel intended, but was cut short by the new Book of Common Prayer? (He might have considered another try, with the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, a different Bible, and a different set of engravings, but as far as we know he never again worked on a similar project.)
I think that what Ritschel did with the Hexham Abbey Bible, as we now have it, was entirely in line with the cultural trends (his Zeitgeist) around him. As pertains to the Bible, one could even say that he was a trend-setter, even though his work never saw the light of day. As we have seen in Comenius’ ground-breaking work, the technology was there and the time was ripe, for appreciating the combination of pictures and words. The era of pictures was leaping from canvas to paper to printed books. The question posed by the Hexham Abbey Bible was, and still is: Could – or should – the same be done for the Bible?
Keep in mind that, apart from England, the world – whether Protestant or Catholic — had no problem at all with paring pictures with the Biblical text. Martin Luther’s Bible of 1534, for example, is filled with picture-woodcuts, in blazing color. Adding small to medium woodcuts to Bibles was simply following the pattern of many illuminated manuscripts in the pre-Gutenberg era, with elaborate miniatures and historiated initials. From the outset, we should remember, Protestants were about protesting more important matters than adding pictures in a book. And Anglicans, though also protestants, were not so much protesting Roman Catholic theology as they were the power of the Pope to tell their monarch what to do. Graven images, on paper or otherwise, were not a problem! Puritans, however, protested religious images of every sort (per the Second Command-ment against “graven” images), fearing that they might become idols unto themselves. When Ritschel inserted full-sized engravings into a Bible, alongside a Book of Common Prayer, he was making a bold theological statement of solidarity with the Anglicans and against the Puritans.
As we saw in our thought experiment, human communication is always wanting to be conveyed both verbally and non-verbally, to the fullest extent possible – and that, by extension, everything we do or make is naturally a combination of form and function, of usefulness and artfulness. Comenius, reflecting the Zeitgeist of his time, formed an entire educational theory on this fact, and Ritschel eagerly jumped on the bandwagon.
The Hexham Abbey Bible, in this context, was a natural attempt to put theory into practice, that is, to make the biblical text come alive through a series of vivid and captivating engravings – a process not so far removed in their impact from the visual world of today. The open question, then as now, is whether the combination of pictures and text is appropriate to the Bible.
(Our world — everywhere we look – is filled with images in conjunction with texts, not only in books and in advertisements, but especially in film. The combination is so captivating, so beguiling, that we almost immediately get lost in the stories they tell, and we forget, for the moment or the hour, that we are in a world other than our own.)
Because we today are so completely immersed in a symbiotic world of text and pictures, it is hard to imagine any other. But Comenius and Ritschel were not in our world. As Dr. De Mambro Santos said in his essay, Comenius believed that his educational method was valid for any subject, including religion and faith. The Hexham Abbey Bible confirms that Ritschel thought the same. But if Ritschel believed that pictures could be added to Bibles, he held back on doing anything (so far as we know) until it was politically right to do so. Although the Hexham Abbey Bible never saw the light of day, other trailblazers were in the batter’s box, so to speak, behind Ritschel, to either prove Comenius correct or to prove him wrong – that is, in regard to the Bible.
I am a child of the Enlightenment, and because of that, I’m naturally inclined to the notion that the Bible can be, and should be, approached and interpreted like any other book, without presuming any special status for it.
The Bible may, of course, have a special status — because of what it says and how I appropriate that into my life — but that has nothing to do with the proposal that it could be enhanced by pictures or drawings that depict Biblical scenes. Every book, whether of history, or of fishing, or of science, or of religion, must be judged according to whether the pictures it contains, add or detract to the information or impact of the book itself.
But, not anything goes! Different pictures have different effects. So at a minimum, we need to be careful which pictures, among many, might be used to enhance the Bible’s impact upon a reader, but especially a young reader. Since the biblical writers did not produce the engravings that are now side-by-side the text, we need to pay attention to how they function in regard to the texts themselves.
I, and obviously Ritschel before me, have no objection, in principle, to putting an artful touch to the biblical text. Christians have been doing that forever. It is hard not to do it! When a Bible is being written, or published, there is invariably an artful component to it. It can be in color, or in many colors. It can be capitalized or not. It can be adorned with fancy initials, or with historiated initials, or very lavishly illuminated with detailed scenes in brilliant silver and gold. It can be formed in neat columns or in justified columns. But invariably, it will be artful to some extent. So let’s be clear: being artful is, in itself, no impediment to a well-functioning Bible.
When Ritschel added his engravings to a New Testament, he was following Comenius’ method to enhance readers’ comprehension. The subject matter to be learned, let me emphasize, was primarily in the text, not in the engravings, though there was of course a symbiotic back-and-forth between them. For Comenius, as also for Ritschel, pictures served to enhance the text, not the other way around. So, ironically, I’m going to put Ritschel’s experiment to the test, to see how his engravings – the three that I already picked out – function in regard to their respective New Testament texts or stories.
Now, I need to alert you — so that you are clear about what I am up to – that we are now entering the realm of theological interpretation, or hermeneutics, as scholars say. There are many ways to interpret a biblical text: some good, some very good, and a great many others, very bad. I’d like to keep things simple, as much as possible, so I’ll be as direct as I can and as uncomplicated as I can.
As almost any biblical scholar will attest, it is surely true in any interpretation: that it is not so much what you read, or what you see, but how you read it, and how you see it, that gives shape and substance to an interpretation. In general, one’s religious frame of reference – or one’s confessional identity — provides the interpretative lens through which one reads or sees. In other words, there is a prior “horizon of meaning” — from which no one can escape — that skews everything we apprehend and everything we comprehend. So the clearer we are about our own horizons, or frames of reference, the more manageable and respectful we can be, not only about the interpretations of others, but also about our own.
A peculiar feature of the Gospel stories is that they were all written, without exception, after Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead. These are not stories, then, about “days in the life of Jesus.” Rather, they are stories being told in order to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the King of the Jews; and that, through him, God is fulfilling his promises to Israel. Jesus’ ministry was therefore understood, retrospectively, after Easter, as God’s way of kick-starting the kingdom of God.
In any interpretation of a biblical text, there is one question that must, eventually, be asked. A lot can be gleaned from a text without asking this question, but without it, everything else just doesn’t matter. So, after reading the text, and after gleaning some sense of the context of the text, we need to ask: “What is God doing here?” Remember, this is now a theological investigation. I’m not asking about the moral of the story, or how the story came to be known. Nor am I asking everyone what their “opinion” of the story is, as if a consensus opinion must be the correct one. Rather, the God-question I’m asking cuts through the fanfare of a lot of secondary questions, and brings us face-to-face with the reality of God among us, or at least what the writer intended that to be.
We noted earlier that Ritschel placed his pictures before the biblical text. This means that the reader will look upon the engraving, and ponder its significance, and gather information from it, before getting to the text itself. Which means that the picture now serves – functionally – as the first interpreter of the text. (Now consider the reverse, that the picture is placed after the text, or between the text. In this instance, the reader may have a chance to read the text, or at least part of the text, before the picture is looked at. Now the text either interprets the picture, or there is a give-and-take between the picture and the text.) The mere placement of the engraving, then, in relation to the text, makes a great deal of difference – but especially if the story, the whole story, is as yet unknown.
Now let’s take another look at my first example, from the Hexham Abbey Bible. We want to see how the picture functions in relation to the biblical text, how it informs our interpretation of the text, and whether it adds or detracts from the text.
In the New Testament story, from the Gospel according to John, chapter 2, Jesus and his disciples, and his mother, Mary, are invited to a wedding. And during the festivities, Mary notices that the wine has run out, so she tells Jesus to do something about it. Jesus initially demurs, then tells a servant to fill some very large jars with water (used for ritual purifications), and then take a cup of it to the chief steward. Miraculously, but unknown to anyone except the servant, the water has turned to wine, leaving everyone to marvel about how delicious the wine is, and how super-abundant it is. The text concludes by stating that this was a “sign” by which Jesus revealed his “glory”.
The engraving doesn’t show it, but the text begins with the phrase, “On the third day, there was a wedding . . .” (2:1). The alert reader is immediately reminded that Jesus was raised from the dead “on the third day” – so perhaps this wedding is more than an occasion for Jesus to do a miracle. Or perhaps “on the third day” is merely a Hebrew idiom for saying “after a few days.” But since short stories, like engravings, say nothing extraneous, we would be wise to remain alert. Should we be on the lookout for a mere miracle, or for something far richer and mind-blowing?
As noted earlier, the engraving offers few clues for us to notice anything other than that Jesus was at a party, and joining in the festivities by directing a servant to pour out some water. (It is entirely possible, from the picture alone, that Jesus preferred water over wine, and that we should draw a moral conclusion on that basis.) At any rate, the engraving does not offer an answer to the God-question, “What is God doing here?”
But if we had read the prior chapter (there’s no time to unpack that here), we might have caught on that Jesus is somehow the place where the God of Israel has come to “dwell” (1:14) among his people. If that can be the starting place (or textual context) from which to understand what Jesus was up to, we might be open to see what the wedding guests failed to see. Was it intentional, moreover, that when Jesus turned the water into wine, he did not tell anyone what he had done? So perhaps the engraving got it right after all, that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on, at least that anyone noticed.
But if, going by the story in the text, we were to entertain the astonishing idea that the God of Israel was up to something outrageously new, what might that be? Anyone familiar with the expectations and symbolic traditions of Israel, through her scriptures, would know that God is often spoken of as the Husband of Israel (Is. 54:5-8) – and that Jesus, by extension, is the Bridegroom of the Church (Jn. 3:29). From that perspective, Jesus is manifesting his “glory” (a God-term) by showing that the wedding party — rather than Jesus and his disciples — are the real guests at a wedding feast at which he is their host, providing a “better” and more “abundant” wine by which to live; and therefore they are invited, by the God of Israel, to witness the beginning of their redemption!
I don’t think that one can honestly look at the engraving and see all that. But if one had read the story first — through the lens of the history of Israel, together with the crucifixion and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah-king — and then looked at the engraving, and saw that no one was in the least concerned about Jesus, one might find oneself saddened by the realization that the Kingdom of God was arriving, and no one noticed.
Now to my second example, the one I have dubbed, frighteningly dramatic. (The engraving is titled “Miracle of Christ in the Sea” and cites Matthew, Ch. 4 — but the story in Matthew is not until Ch. 8. But the story is also told in Mark, Ch. 4, which I take as the correct citation). Jesus had spent the day, along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, preaching to the crowds about the kingdom of God. And in the evening, he instructed his disciples to accompany him, in a boat, to the other side. A great storm arose, which started to fill the boat with water. Jesus was asleep, so the disciples, being afraid, woke him up. Jesus then “rebuked” the wind and the sea. The wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And the disciples were filled with awe, and wondered who this was, that even the wind and the sea obey him.
As a theologian, the most interesting thing about the engraving is the contrast between the fear of the sailors, fighting for their lives, and the calm of Jesus, asleep in the stern. But it is hard not to be beguiled by the sheer magnificence and fury of the storm, which might lead one to imagine that Jesus’ miracle of stilling the storm is the whole point of the story (as its title says). A closer look at the text, however, offers hints and allusions to something much more magnificent than the stilling of a storm.
The story in Mark begins, as tellingly as the wedding story did, with the phrase “On that day.” Mark could have begun with the next phrase, “When evening had come” – but he makes a point of saying “On that day.” Which day is that? Again, as in John, a reader in tune with the Hebrew prophets would pick up on the phrase as a way of referring to “the Day of YHWH” or “the Day of the Lord.” It is a signal to the reader that God has finally come to his people, either to rescue them or to destroy them. It’s a foreboding phrase!
Apart from the obvious contrast between Jesus and his disciples, the text says that Jesus “rebuked” the wind and the storm. That word “rebuked” is telling us something, not so much about a miracle, but about Jesus himself. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, the word is most often used by God to “rebuke” the wind or the sea (Is 50:2; Zech 3:2; Ps 104:7), as well as powerful persons. To an alert reader, the allusion attached to the word “rebuked” will be picked up, and provide an answer to the disciples’ question, “Who, then, is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” And just in case the allusion is not picked up, just a few verses later, a man about to be healed screams at Jesus: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the God Most High?” (Mk 5:7). In other words, when Jesus is present, God himself is present — which for a Jew was very good news!
In Harmen Muller’s engraving, the storm is every bit as worrisome as the text says, and Jesus is asleep in the stern. That’s it. That’s all we get! Well, almost. Jesus does have that nimbus around his head. If we were being generous, we might say that the picture was merely setting the stage, as it were, enticing us to read on. But if that function was not in Comenius’ playbook, was it in Comenius’? Perhaps what we have is a nuance to Comenius’ method, from merely fostering information to enticing further reading. I can live with that! Still, the most important part of the story is left out.
In my last example, Jesus is crucified among two others. There is no nimbus this time, just a crown of thorns, and a title (titulus) above his head identifying him as King of the Jews. The contrast between this scene and every other scene, to this point, could not be greater. Before, Jesus was in total control. Now, as it appears to all the world, he is under the thumb of the ruling authorities, and death is closing in. He is finished.
Crucifixion then, by itself, does not tell us what, if anything, God is doing there. It is only that small figure in the grotto that gives us pause. You can hardly make it out, but we can see that it is Peter, the first among the disciples. You can tell by the extra-large key in front of him, which is a symbol for the Church — and for the papacy. This makes the grotto scene a projection of the Church’s faith, rather than depicting anything realistic at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. That complicates things considerably, and gets in the way of the original incongruity, or paradox, of a crucified Messiah-king.
If the engraving of Jesus’ crucifixion is to be understood in biblical terms, it will be in relation to the history Israel’s kings. Israel had always known, as we can read in her coronation Psalms, that even when she insisted on having a king like all other kings (see 1 Sam 8), YHWH her God is, and always was, her true and rightful king. From this point of view, God was present in Jesus’ crucifixion, precisely as Israel’s king.
I will not explore this last example any further, except to note that the story of Jesus’ passion, or rather the one story told in different ways among four different Gospels, would not have been told at all were it not for the story or stories of Jesus’ resurrection. That is the one story that gives substance and meaning to every other story, including Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet it is just that story, the Easter story, that must be read, or heard, prior to a full appreciation of any picture, or a full interpretation of any text, in the Hexham Abbey Bible. Because of this, every engraving in the Hexham Abbey Bible is limited in its power to interpret itself according to the Gospel.
I’ll end this essay with a few concluding remarks:
It has taken 350 years for George Ritschel’s experiment in religious education, the Hexham Abbey Bible, to see the light of day. Although it might have been created in order to smooth the way for his continued employment at Hexham Abbey, the Bible as we now have it stands on its own, even if no longer on its own terms.
True – a more complete investigation into the Hexham Abbey Bible would analyze what Ritschel’s selection of images tells us about his own theological leanings, or rather the persuasions he wished to assert. It would analyze not only the engravings Ritschel includes, but the ones he likely chose to leave out, such as engraving #21, at the end of John, which depicts Christ in Limbo (#20 and #22 are present, side by side), or the magnificent Raphael-like engraving of Jesus’ transfiguration that is included in Gerard de Jode’s monumental Thesaurus Novi Testamenti (1585) of which only nine complete copies remain — a sumptuous picture-book of the Bible, without any biblical text, from which many of the Hexham Abbey Bible engravings originate. And why, because of this, doesn’t the Hexham Abbey Bible include any post-resurrection appearances, or the Ascension, or Last Judgment? Are we to suspect that Ritschel considered these scenes to be non-historical?
Nor ought we to have ignored the more peculiar engravings, like the one that includes the Greek gods Bacchus and Venus among the partiers at a great feast; or the one that hails the “Spirit of Science” (Spiritus Scientiae) as one of the “Seven Gifts of the Spirit”.
A more complete investigation would have taken into account the religious and moral sensibilities embedded in the engravings themselves, as these are set alongside, or against, the biblical text – either to educate or to correct the reader.
These reservations notwithstanding, the Hexham Abbey Bible proves Ritschel’s patron and mentor wrong, in that pictures or other visual aids are appropriate educational aids to add alongside texts, regardless of subject matter. As we have seen – in the limited scope of just three examples – pictures that are presented before a biblical text tend to dominate and limit the interpretation of the text. The text, then, becomes secondary to the picture.
Furthermore, as pictures become more and more a permanent fixture in a Bible, any Bible, they have the unforeseen function of freezing, for all time, the interpretation that is already embedded in the picture — impoverished though it may be — against any other interpretation that may result from reading the text in the context of Israel’s history, and in view of ongoing scholarly investigations.
This result is only slightly mitigated if Ritschel had instead placed the engravings after their respective texts instead of before them. In that case, it would be obvious that the pictures have left out of “their story” the very things that make their New Testament counterparts “Good News.” To be generous to Ritschel, one might say that insofar as one sees the engravings with the eyes of faith, one is enticed to read more of the text; but insofar as one sees the engravings without the eyes of faith (or fails to read at all), one sees only what one expects to see, that is, nothing out of the ordinary. From this perspective, Ritschel’s placement of the engravings certainly entice (or seduce) the reader to continue reading, if for no other reason than to be delighted (or beguiled) by each successive engraving.
To Ritschel’s credit, he created 350 years ago what would have been, and was, mass produced just a few decades later – a process that has not abated, to this day. In this regard, he was among the vanguard of a creative impulse that, from the beginnings of human society, combined non-verbal communications with verbal or textual ones. As technology advances, so does our ability to enhance communication, or to subvert it.
So then, is the Hexham Abbey Bible a work of “Holy Beauty” or an “Unholy Marriage”? I say: Viewer beware!
On a personal note, I am humbled that such a gift as the Hexham Abbey Bible has fallen into my hands, and that there have been so many people willing to give of their time and considerable skills to present it to the world, in style. Special thanks is due to the tireless efforts of Dr. Ricardo De Mambro Santos. As these engravings, and others like them, are his “friends,” I can now count him as my “friend.”
The Hexham Abbey Bible is, as far as I know, unique among all English Bibles. What will become of it? It needs a suitable home, hopefully a public one – one that will offer the Hexham Abbey Bible to scholars for continued study, and to the general public for the admiration it surely deserves.
Soli Deo Gloria