Illuminating the Bible

With a palette reflecting the Land of Israel – sun-soaked earth tones, rich ochers, blues and greens of the Mediterranean – Avner Moriah keeps the page surface lively.

The flood in Parshat ‘Noah.’ (photo credit: AVNER MORIAH)
The flood in Parshat ‘Noah.’
(photo credit: AVNER MORIAH)
Society is defined by art, and art is defined by society. Through constant introspection, creative minds establish new fields of understanding in any contemporary free-thinking culture.
The artist inspects, absorbs, senses and constantly evaluates, and then he or she blings, bashes or otherwise produces his or her work. Sometimes it is trite, sometimes subtle, but sometimes it shatters facades and blasts in reality. Art matters.
Take on the Torah, again. The Bible is rife with imagery, particularly the first two books. Rich stories, colorful characters, crazy twists and plots that beckon for commentary and interpretation have been fodder for visual interpretation for as long as they have existed in some form, written or told and probably witnessed (another story, not to be debated here).
Avner Moriah, an established Israeli painter, has teamed up with Dr. Shulamit Laderman, an art history academic specializing in Jewish and Christian influence in biblical illustration and lecturer in Jewish art, in The Illuminated Torah – Paintings and Essays on the Weekly Portions.
Together, with Moriah taking the lead, they examine chosen specifics from the weekly Torah portion.
Although referred to as paintings, they seem more aptly called illustrations or illuminations, considering the subject matter.
The artist uses a variety of materials, including what appears to be pencil, colored pencils, pastels, inks, various paints and possibly some gold leaf. He daubs, crosshatches, scratches, resists, layers, draws and paints, employing techniques that keep the surface lively, even in a medium format book.
His palette reflects the Land of Israel; sun-soaked earth tones, rich ochers, blues and greens of the Mediterranean.
Moriah’s line is highly stylized but not rigorous. It has a subtle, emotive quality that reveals an affection for masters who preceded him.
In the book’s preface, he cites his “visual inspiration” as “figurines and art from the Mediterranean Basin in the ancient world, Mesopotamia, and the culture of the Egyptian Nile.” We have seen these Assyrian faces before, and it is good to see them again, particularly considering the tragic destruction of so many ancient images in recent months.
Some pages are more playful, some more somber, many are absolutely charming.
Parshat Shmini contains the tragic story of the death of two of Aaron’s sons, who prepared a sacrifice with “strange fire.” Though described as a painting in the accompanying text, this appears to be ink line drawings, almost in chart fashion, showing all the forbidden “unclean” animals. It is charming, whimsical and engaging.
Each Torah portion has two pages. The left page is text, the right holds the image.
There is a box with an excerpt from the parasha, in Hebrew and in English, that pertains to the image. Above the box with the excerpt is explanation from Laderman.
Torah interpretation is a big deal. Despite all the commentary and explanation, there is still plenty to understand and much misunderstanding. The artist homes in on and interprets some fine points that the reader/viewer may not be familiar with or could easily miss.
Laderman provides the directives for understanding Moriah’s perspective. She does this effectively in that she does direct, but her direction is quite stiff. A strict formula is followed: a description of the text that is illustrated; a question about the parasha; a description of the illustration that begins by referencing the artist by his full name. The formula quickly becomes monotonous, which is a shame because there is some interesting content.
Terminology is another foible in the writing. Once a term is used, it seems to get used exclusively, which dulls the body of the text. The pictures and stories are colorful; shouldn’t the reading experience be less constricted? There are also editorial slips with inconsistent spellings and styles that unfortunately degrade the written material.
Finally, a book based on art should be beautiful even on pages that don’t have art on them. Those pages ought to be complementing the art in every way. They do not! Pages are cramped and stuffy. The typography is terrible. Letters on the pages are too large, the spacing is irregular and, frankly, it is an eye strain. These optical injustices do no favors to the text or the visuals.
Despite the minuses, this book is a refreshing and interesting approach to a very old and treasured book.