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"Holy Bible—illuminated: Harpers' edition"

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Holy Bible—illuminated: Harpers' edition.

The taste for pictorials is one of those developements of the imaginative quality—one which resides in quite every man—which is fed in childhood, and in a great degree is common alike to all classes.—Artificial straining may sometimes lead certain persons to disdain gratifying that taste except in the way of what are specially called 'works of art,'—paintings in oil, &c. But the real artist eye will recognize beauty in all spirited transcripts of God's works—whether in the style of etching, engraving, or what not—so long as they evince a true idea in the mind of the sketcher, and are done with merit. For, if we go to the bottom of the matter, the excellence of a work of art consists principally in its capability of provoking thought and pleasure in the mind; and though this remark may be considered common–place enough, the fact is, many people substitute as their test of excellence, a far more artificial standard—the unison of the work judged, with something less general than the proper standard. . . . . . We have just been engaged, (as before, times manifold,) in looking over the pages of Harpers' Illustrated Bible. It is almost useless to say that no intelligent man can touch the Book of Books with an irreverent hand: and it is somewhat curious that this is specially the case in respect to a heavy quarto edition. A man cannot treat that hastily, as it lies on the table before him. The ponderous pages rebuke all flippancy. They seem to demand grave slowness of deliberation, and a calm devout regard. The Illustrated edition of the Bible published by the Harpers, is one of those really great productions, which are entitled not only to our 'special wonder,' but to admiration and respect. The design itself is a vast one; to take the entire Volume, and embellish not only every chapter but every page with pictorials appropriate to it—and moreover in this to satisfy the high requirement of an appropriateness to such a work as the Bible—is indeed a bold and vast design.1 But it seems to have been wrought out with means as comprehensive as the idea itself. For several years before the first No. was issued, artists, designers, engravers, &c., many of them of the very highest rank in their departments, were, we understand, at work upon it. All the light hitherto thrown on the scenes, peculiarities, customs, observances, and so on, involved directly or indirectly in the text of Sacred Writ, were collected together, compared and digested;—and the result is seen in this masterpiece of its kind—we hardly fear to say, unequalled by the publishing of any other printers in this country or in Europe.2

To begin at the first leaves—(and we presume it it​ is hardly necessary to inform the intelligent reader that our scope does not authorise us in going beyond the form in which the Great House of Cliff street have presented this edition of Sacred Writ, to the people of the New World,)—to begin at the first leaves, we doubt whether the beautiful art of wood–engraving has produced a more superb item of its own developement than the 'Meeting of Jacob and Joseph,' which forms the frontispiece. The long–bearded weird–looking figure of the old patriarch, in his oriental robes—the earnest–stepping son, long mourned for as dead, while he was laying the base of his elevation to a seat as near the throne of Egypt as he could be, without sitting on the throne—the brilliant retinue of Joseph—and the fearing and doubting brethren in the back ground—all are depicted with the cunningest art, and with the fineness of steel or copperplate, but far more smoothness and spirit than is thrown into representations by that process. A colored title–page follows: in a broad edging of delicate crimson are thrown figures of winged seraphin, and upward soaring angels,—offset with inner miniature scenes from the Divine Record—Adam and Eve in Paradise—the dreadful fratricide of the First Brother—the youthful Psalmist of Israel with the harp whose immortal harmony was tuned for the ear of Ages,—and a centre piece of Abraham's Child Sacrifice, as it was foregone—all richly ornamented. This is followed by the usual title page, printed in blue and black,—and the names of the Books, in red. The initial letter in the text of Genesis is a landscape of Paradise—in itself a study for many a minute. On a gentle elevation by the banks of the river flowing through the garden, stands the Human Father, with folded arms, and gazes on the innocence, joy, and prolific vitality around him. Sitting at his feet, reclines Eve. Tall palm trees stretch up in the distance, and all the gorgeousness of the vegetable creation is seen there. The antlered stag appears in the midst, unscared by the nearness of man. The wild horse frolics there—and the browsing kine and sheep, and the meek-eyed camel–leopard, take no alarm from a thousand different companions. In the foreground is a beautiful cascade, on the banks near which thick flowering shrubs cluster in profusion. The whole scene is full of richness, of peace, of primal security and love and happiness!

But we should find it an almost endless task to give a deserved description of even one–tenth the illustrations of this edition of the Bible. Besides hundreds of side pictures, with the text running on by them, there appear immense numbers of singularly faithful transcripts on a larger scale from those famous paintings of Scripture scenes and events, which are among the proud achievements of the European masters—among the priceless treasures of Italy and Germany. On page 473, for instance, (we take it at random) is an engraving of Jeremiah mourning the death of Josiah'—a vividly drawn and highly perfected picture;—on 503 one of 'Mordicai and Haman at the King's gate'—in which malignant Haughtiness on the one hand, and quiet Determination on the other, are personified; on 538 and 9 the page is presented at once with thirteen pictorial embellishments—and the same number, we observe, occur in that way on two pages in many places. Indeed scattered with a prodigial hand—all unexceptionable, and some of them remarkable for beauty which wood–engraving was previously supposed incapable of—are to be seen not by dozens and scores, but by hundreds, these most truthful while richly immaginative embellishments. They form a theme for many a pleasant and edified hour—a theme in which the heart, as well as the judgment, can revel—in which the devotional feeling, with the love of the Ideal, can participate.

Passing over the bulk of the more Ancient Volume, we come to the pages inserted for a 'Family Record.' The first, for Marriages, has a rich pictorial bordering, of pale blue, with appropriate scenes from Scripture. The second is for Births—and the third, for Deaths, is printed in deep red and black, and is one of the finest pieces in the book. There are four pictures, one in each corner, connected by the red line; the first representing the gloomy flight from Paradise, at the pronouncing of the curse, which involved Death—the second, the departure of Joseph by night—the third, the placing of a corpse in a sepulchre, with a train of weeping friends—the fourth, the ascension of the disembodied Christ into heaven. . . . . . But, the master picture of all, is, in our opinion, the front plate for the New Testament, 'Christ healing Bartimeus.' Here the artist has nobly come up to his subject—and has produced a thoroughly perfect engraving. The blind Bartimeus is the most attractive figure, and the face is wonderful—so fully does it possess that blank vacuity, that peculiar groping appearance, of the sightless ones. The ample–robed figure of the Heir of Heaven, too, is singularly unexceptionable—and the most fastidious eye may dwell upon it with pleasure. The raised hand—the confident yet meek attitude—the divine face, with its speaking eloquence of love and purity—how they are stamped in that picture! Then the earnest beseechness of the maiden who has Bartimeus' hand, and who with the other appear to have led him to the Healer—the incredulous, yet startled, gaze of the spectator whose eyes are turned on the sightless one's face—and the stolid apathy of the others—unite to form a rare union of merit, in this most superior engraving. . . . . . The embellishments of the New Testament evince throughout more or less of the same high standard of taste.

And that nothing might fail, in completing so proud a specimen of what American enterprise can do, the binding of Harpers' edition of the Bible finishes up the splendor of it.3 From elaborately prepared designs—(some of them the result of costly prises offered and paid by this generous firm for the finest specimens,) gorgeous red, black, or other colored leather bindings have been put upon them, of the most massive and lasting character, and inlaid with gilding, in a profusion of rich but chaste adornments—some of them copied from the illuminated missals of the church—others with scenic and ornamental devices approved by clergymen of all denominations, &c.


1. Harpers' Illuminated Bible represented one of the most significant American publishing ventures of the nineteenth century. The volume had its origins in 1843 when Joseph Alexander Adams (1803–1880), a local printer and engraver, proposed that Harper brothers, one of the largest publishing houses in the country, publish an illustrated bible with a very large number of high–quality images. In the end, the volume had more than 1600 images, a massive number for the time, some full page, but others integrated with the text on the same page. To assure the high–quality of both text and image across a large print run Adams introduced the new printing process of electroplating which involved coating stereotyped, woodblock or intaglio plates with a thin layer of copper. The Illuminated Bible was the first book to utilize this new technology. In addition, some of the pages were printed in an unusual two–color format. The book was printed in 54 installments with an initial press run of 50,000 per installment. After the first print run sold out, new printings were issued in 1859 and 1866. Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777–1880 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 70–1. The majority of the images were drawn by John Gadsby Chapman (1808–1889), an artist known for his historical paintings and illustrations. [back]

2. Whitman's years in the printing trade made him particularly perceptive regarding the book's many design and printing innovations. [back]

3. Harpers offered multiple binding options for the book, many of which were intended to appeal to middle–class audiences who would seek to display the book prominently in their homes. See Gutjahr, An American Bible, 71. [back]

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