The Word Embodied: Scripture as Creative Inspiration in Twentieth-Century Book Arts

Originally exhibited March 1–June 15, 2019
The Elizabeth Perkins Prothro Galleries


The transmission of culturally significant texts, especially Scripture, has always been a serious task. In the manuscript era, scribes paid strict attention to the precise copying of the Bible so as not to corrupt its sacred message. Scripture was thoughtfully laid out in columns and surrounded by generous margins. Vivid features including initial letters, rubrication, and decorative flourishes both aided the reader and sought to embellish and glorify the Word of God. Illustrations sometimes further magnified written works with narrative depictions of biblical stories. Away from the written page, artists portrayed people and events of Scripture in drawings, paintings, and sculptures.

Twentieth-century printers and artists developed aesthetic principles that articulated the power of the book to influence the reader’s experience of a text. They endeavored not simply to copy or illustrate Scripture but to embody it in a meaningful form. Whether austere or exuberant in design, these books were conceived to give countenance to the spirit within. Consideration of what constitutes the book arts in the twentieth century and today inevitably confronts a variety of terms, including fine press, private press, livre d’artistes, artists’ books, and others. Such terms are often misunderstood and conflated, and they may in fact overlap. The purpose of this exhibition is not to define the boundaries of these categories nor to assert an orthodoxy, which itself would merely be subjective. Rather, here we explore the book as a creative expression and the wide array of inspirations, methodologies, and realizations experienced and expressed throughout the period.


Bridwell Library Special Collections