In with the Old, in with the New

illustrations and Bible stories

Posted on April 12, 2016

Illustrating bible stories has been going on since the beginning. There is something about the ancient stories which not only capture the imagination, but also provides a link to the deep-seated emotions of humanity... and make for really cool pictures!

In with the Old

I would not consider myself informed when it comes to the art world. The artists and illustrators that I know of are either known by most people, or they have come to my awareness by total chance and surprise. But for what it's worth: here are my two favourite artists:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder


Hans Memling

I like Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) because of his use of colour and also his intentional anachronism. There are several works of Breugel where he transplants Biblical stories into specific contemporary places. One painting may look like a typical scene of a bustling Dutch town, but subtly placed in the middle is a pregnant Mary with her husband Joseph, unable to find a room to stay in. Or the example above, of Christ's Crucifixion, which enigmatically has a Dutch windmill looking down on the procession to Calvary. I just love it!

And Hans Memling (1430-1494) had such a wonderful grasp of scope and skewed perspectives. In his panoramas of Jesus' passion (above) and Mary's life, he fits the whole story into one landscape, but also gives space to the distant mountains and rivers and lakes. And he never chooses to go for an authentic perspective, choosing instead to make objects in the distance not quite as small as they should be. This gives, what I would ignorantly call, a childish innocent quality to the pieces. It makes it all seem fantastical, like those medieval maps that draw in mountain ranges and put dragons in the seas.

In with the New

In recent years, we have stopped turning to wall sized oil paintings for our Bible illustrations, and started looking at books. But most bible illustrations this side of the Victorian era have way too much soft-focus and gentleness, and they all seem to conform to the same homogeneous impression of 'bible-times'. Which is largely tea towels on heads and lots of smiling disciples with big bushy beards.Which is why it was such a joy for me to discover the 'Old and New project'. It is the brain-child of JimLePage and Troy DeShano, but involves a whole heap of collaborators. In their words it is: 

"A platform for contemporary graphic artists to exhibit works themed on Biblical stories and passages. It also aims to introduce a new on-line audience to Biblical art, attempting to replace popular, yet sometimes low-quality, contemporary Biblical artwork with the kind of accessible and honourable work that has historically been associated with the Bible."

Ward Jenkins - Den of Thieves