Renowned artist Avner Moriah will present the pope with his illustrated version
of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, at the Vatican this
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.
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
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
“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.”
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
“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.”
therefore set illustrations of the two stories side by side.
idea of text is too keep studying it, to keep reinterpreting it, and an
illustrative commentary has never really been done before in Jewish
“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
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
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.