Gospel Illumination for the 21st Century

You’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the medieval practice of manuscript illumination: the elaborate decoration of a handwritten text with illustrations, borders, and drop caps, all pressed or dusted with gold leaf.

Book of Kells

Book of Kells, fol. 292r, Ireland, ca. 800. Incipit to John: “In principio erat verbum” (“In the beginning was the Word”)

Book of Hours

Book of Hours, fols. 7v-8r, Bruges, Flanders, 1425

The term “illumination” refers to the literal “lighting up” of the book pages with bright flecks of silver and gold.  But the word has a more spiritual meaning, too, which is to interpret the given text, to elucidate it, to celebrate it; to shine a light on beauty and help to bring it out more strongly. In the Middle Ages, texts were illuminated using representational art—art that depicts recognizable forms. So an illumination of Luke 2, for example, would likely show the baby Jesus in a manger.

When the printing press was invented in the fifteenth century, though, it pretty much put a kabosh on manuscript illumination. Books could be made much faster and more cheaply now, so they ceased being an art form and became a commodity instead.

The Four Holy GospelsKudos to Crossway for reviving the long-forsaken process of manuscript illumination, for bringing art back into direct conversation with the Gospel texts through its Four Holy Gospels project.

In 2009, Crossway President Lane Dennis commissioned New York artist Makoto Fujimura to illuminate the four canonical Gospels in commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible. Over the course of just nine months, Mako created five major paintings, eighty-nine chapter-heading letters, and 140-plus pages of embellishments for the project. The Four Holy Gospels, as the finished volume is called, is the first illuminated manuscript to feature abstract contemporary art in lieu of traditional representational illustrations. It truly is the only one of its kind, but I hope there will be more to follow from other artists in the future. 

Mako says the hardest part of the project was creating a contemporary visual language of illuminations without having any examples to look to.

What I was interested in was the fusing of the contemporary, abstract images that take the influences of Rothko, Rouault, Pollock with the visual vocabulary of 16th-century Japanese paintings into a distinctive Twenty-First Century offering; I wanted to dare to create a new paradigm in visual language through this project. I also wanted the offering to be readable, accessible, and even useful in worship; every detail is a theological discourse as well as visual design.

The Four Holy Gospels

Marginalia by Makoto Fujimura, from The Four Holy Gospels (Luke 18:9-14), 2011

You won’t find a representational image of the Crucifixion anywhere in this Bible, but you will find subtle references to Christ’s saving work throughout. For example, in the marginal painting that accompanies the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Mako uses a series of straight lines to represent the letter of God’s old-covenant laws, which the Pharisees strove to uphold so rigidly. But at the bottom of these lines you see an explosion of color, which illustrates the effect of Christ’s death on the law—which was to reinterpret it in such a way that it burst open the lines and revealed, incarnationally, their true spirit. Mako describes it as “grace that flows out of the Laws of God—boundless, explosive, and playful.” A grace that confounds and overwhelms.

This grace that appears on every page of the Bible is a grace that was born of suffering and that is recharged by suffering still. (We suffer in our sin, and inflict suffering on others, and God’s response, again and again, is to extend his hand of grace. His grace looks like grace because we are so very incapable of embodying it ourselves and because our world is such a far cry from Paradise.) Thus Mako chose as a theme for The Four Holy Gospels “The Tears of Christ,” which is the subtitle of the Bible’s frontispiece, “Charis-Kairos” (literally “Grace Time”).


Makoto Fujimura, “Charis-Kairos” (The Tears of Christ), 2011. From The Four Holy Gospels.

Mako said that he wanted to capture the mystery and paradox of the tears of Christ, which are “ephemeral and yet enduring, compassionate yet prophetic.” He cried them at Bethany as he wept over his friend’s grave, and he is crying them still “for the atrocities of the past century and for our present darkness.” But his tears are generative, in that human beings who adore him seek to wipe them away by helping to build a better, more compassionate, more God-fearing world, through the power of his Spirit and grace. “I knew early on that this Bible would be the only illumined Bible in existence without an explicit image of Jesus on the cross,” Mako said. “But if the focus is on Jesus’ tears, then the crucifix will be, in a sense, everywhere on the pages. Not explicitly, but implicitly.”

Some of you might wonder why Mako chose to respond to the gospel story in an abstract way. After all, one of the original purposes of Gospel illumination was to make the text understandable. Abstract art, you think, just has the tendency to confuse. That may be because it doesn’t tell you what to think but, rather, expects you to meet it halfway with an interpretation all your own; in a way, it’s more personal because it’s subjective. The gospel story isn’t subjective, but it is abstract and experiential. The extended narrative that comprises it is only the outer shell; the truth that it encases, on the other hand, is beyond words, pictures, and explanation. The story of the Woman at the Well, for example, is about so much more than Jesus asking for a drink of water. And perhaps most obviously, the story of the Crucifixion is about more than a man being executed. Abstract artists play with line, color, and form to find new ways to express hard-to-define truths and concepts.

Water Flames by Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, “Water Flames” (detail), 2011. From The Four Holy Gospels. Mako: “The Son of Man walks into the flames of judgment reserved for us. Jesus turns the judgment flames into sanctifying flames, like the gold pigments used for this painting, as the heat takes out the dross.”

Often I am asked about the abstract nature of my works. People see abstraction as esoteric and/or evasive, considering “real” art to be works done in a realistic style.  My answer to their inquiries tends to be more experiential. I preface my comments by saying “actually we experience abstraction all the time. Fireworks, sunsets and music (especially Jazz and Classical) are all abstract.” And I add, “my works are not pure abstraction, but they are re-presentation of the mysteries of Reality.”

Mako works in the Nihonga tradition of Japan, which he studied in Tokyo as a National Scholar in the ’90s. This thousand-year-old form emphasizes the beauty of natural materials; minerals, shells, corals, and semiprecious stones are ground into powders of varied textures, then mixed with a hide glue solution to create pigments. Pigment layering and the absence of outlines are common techniques in Nihonga, ones which can be clearly seen in the opening plate of the Gospel of Matthew: “Consider the Lilies.”

Consider the Lilies by Makoto Fujimura

Makoto Fujimura, “Consider the Lilies,” 2011. From The Four Holy Gospels.

This painting contains over sixty layers of finely pulverized precious minerals (azurite and malachite) and oyster shell and is painted with sumi ink and gold and platinum powders on Kumohada (heavy Japanese rag) paper. The lily is an allusion to Christ’s resurrection—and our resurrection in him. God does more than simply provide for our physical needs; he clothes us in the beauty and righteousness of Christ! We need not worry but instead keep our hearts soft and contented. These gentle wisps of paint which loosely suggest a lily are a perfect complement to Matthew 6:25-34.

In the introduction to The Four Holy Gospels, Mako expresses his wish that Christian artists would return to the Bible as their primary source of creative inspiration:

From the Book of Kells (Irish, 9th century), to the Limbourg brothers (Duke of Berry’s Book of Hours, 15th century), to William Blake (18th-19th century), past centuries have produced magnificent illumined manuscripts based on the Bible. In contrast, the twentieth century saw a void in attempts to integrate the artistic gift with the text of the Bible. In taking on this project, it is my bold 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.

Bible illumination is a beautiful lost (but hopefully reviving!) art that can enhance our reading experience by providing us with visual meditations. To see  more artwork from The Four Holy Gospels, visit Mako’s website at makotofujimura.com.

The Four Holy Gospels, which went on sale at the beginning of the year, was produced using a six-color metallic printing process. It is available as either a cloth-bound ($129.99) or leather-bound ($349.99) edition at Crossway.org.

Much of the information from this post is derived from the ten-part series Makoto Fujimura wrote for John Piper’s blog, Desiring God. Follow the links below.

Part 1: Illuminated by the Illuminator
Part 2: Q&A on The Four Holy Gospels
Part 3: The Tears of Christ

Part 4: Consider the Lilies

Part 5: Water Flames

Part 6: The Prodigal God

Part 7: John—In the Beginning

Part 8: Imaginative Illumination

Part 9: The Four Holy Gospels

Conclusion: The Four Holy Gospels

This entry was posted in Non-Western Art, Theology, Western Art and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Gospel Illumination for the 21st Century

  1. Thanks for posting on this! Emily and I visited an illuminated manuscript exhibition this past winter at the Getty Museum, and it was amazing seeing all the old manuscripts and care and details that people put into the artwork. It was also interesting seeing the ways that artists interpreted and rendered Scripture. Paintings depicting Genesis 1 were especially fun, with God depicted as the Divine Architect, walking on earth and measuring out its dimensions with a God-sized compass. 😀 I’m glad to see that Scripture illumination is looking to make a come-back!

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