Renowned artist Avner Moriah will present the pope with his illustrated version of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, at the Vatican this Wednesday.

The work, which juxtaposes the Hebrew text of the Bible with the artist’s interpretative drawings, took Moriah two years to complete, and is the first stage of his larger project to illustrate the entire Torah – the Five Books of Moses – with his unique form of visual commentary.

The Illuminated Book of Genesis, to give the work its full title, was brought to the attention of the Vatican through Rabbi Jack Bemporad, professor of interreligious studies at the Vatican’s Angelicum University. He showed the work to Mordechay Lewy, Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, who in turn brought it to the attention of a senior official inside the Vatican Library. The book will be included in the Vatican Library’s distinguished holdings section.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Moriah said that he conceived of the project while his wife was suffering from a bout of cancer, from which she subsequently recovered.

“I wanted to give something back to mankind,” said Moriah. “The Vatican has works of art which have inspired man throughout the ages and I wanted to be able to contribute to that, so it is a tremendous honor to be able to present my work to the pope.”

Moriah used an interpretive eye to sketch the illustrations of the various stories of the Book of Genesis, describing his drawings as a visual commentary that work with the text in a different manner from the traditional written commentaries.

“The text is incredible in its depiction of life and humanity,” Moriah said, “But when you read it, the use of descriptive scene-setting is right down to the bare minimum. So this means that there is great freedom to imagine the physical setting, the time of year, the scenery, and everything that is not set down in writing. We’re free to imagine whatever we want it.”

Moriah does not come from a religious background, which he said enabled him to look at the Book of Genesis with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective and come up with original ideas about the themes of the book and the messages of the stories within it.

When studying the story of the binding of Isaac, he explained, he saw numerous parallels with the story of the sale of Joseph into slavery by his brothers.

“In both stories the subject of the events, Isaac and Joseph, use the word ‘hineini’ [I am here], there were outside witnesses to the incidents, and an animal was slaughtered in place of both men, and all this alludes to a common theme within the two events.”

Moriah therefore set illustrations of the two stories side by side.

“The whole idea of text is too keep studying it, to keep reinterpreting it, and an illustrative commentary has never really been done before in Jewish history.

“The beauty of text is that it doesn’t belong to any one stream, it belongs to all of us and everyone can study and review its interpretation.”

For advice and guidance for the work, Moriah turned to Prof. Yair Zakovitch, a lecturer in Bible studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who gave feedback on the artist’s various ideas for representing the narrative of the book.

The Hebrew text was transcribed by calligrapher Izzy Pludwinski.

Shalom Sabar, a professor of art history and Jewish folklore also at the Hebrew University, described Moriah’s work as a “modern visual Midrash,” referring to the homiletic, textual Bible commentaries of Talmudic and other Jewish sages.

“The heroes of the past and the stormy events in their lives are given a special and personal look by Moriah, which will surely attract many a viewer to understand their meaning and significance,” Sabar said of the work.

Celebrated as a landscape artist, Moriah, who received a Masters of Fine Arts from Yale in 1983, has been concentrating on illuminating Jewish texts for the past 10 years.

Many of his works appear in prestigious libraries, museums, and private collections, including the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the universities of Harvard and Yale, which already have acquired copies of the Illuminated Book of Genesis.

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