A Legacy of Illuminating Religious Texts

When you think of illuminated religious texts, the lavish Book of Kells may come to mind, with its exotic inks, intricate decorations, and ornate treatment of the Gospel texts. Since the time of the early Church, believers have expressed their great respect for Scripture by developing such extravagant works of art.

The Four Holy Gospels, illuminated by Makoto Fujimura and published this month by Crossway, carries on this sacred tradition. Crossway President Lane Dennis explains in the book's Forward:

This volume, titled The Four Holy Gospels, carries forward the legacy of the illuminated Gospel Book extending back nearly fifteen centuries. The oldest surviving Latin illuminated Gospel Book is the St. Augustine Gospels (also known as the Canterbury Gospels), which dates to the late sixth century. Exquisitely illuminated with portraits of each evangelist, miniature drawings, initial letters, and embellishments throughout, the St. Augustine Gospels was, according to reliable tradition, created in Italy and brought to England by St. Augustine in AD 597.

During the next one thousand years, the creation of illuminated Gospel Books was typically the highest form of art undertaken during this period. Richly illuminated Gospel Books, often embellished with gold leaf and brushed with gold specks, were created to glorify of God and were carried in procession, for the reading of the Gospel, during church worship services in both the East and the West.

In the later Middle Ages, however, the creation of Gospel Books gave way to richly illuminated devotional Books of Hours, exquisitely exemplified by the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry illuminated by the Limburg Brothers in the early fifteenth century. With the advent of printing and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455, the art of illumination declined rapidly. One of the last few Gospel Books created is the extravagantly decorated Peresopnystsia Gospels completed by a single scribe in a Ukrainian monastery in 1561.

Undertaking such a project is a humbling thing, something contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura explains:

I can do nothing to enhance the Word of God. I can only tremble at the expanse of vision that the Word of God led me to during my work on this project. This vision is a luminal space that, in recent times, imagination has rarely approached. We are invited by our Creator to enter that space, an invitation which is extended to anyone desiring to journey there. My hope then is that this project will be merely the beginning of creative imagination -- of being drawn to God’s expansive generative Reality....

In taking on this project, it is my simple and ambitious prayer that this new century will see a revisitation of the illuminated legacy, with the Bible as a source of creative inspiration and artistic expression, in both the East and the West.

May this illumination of the four Gospels draw us nearer to the Word of God, and inspire us to engage the Creator . . . creatively.

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