Old Testament Illustrations by Gustave Doré

14 Oct

During a recent visit to Montevideo, at a wedding reception in a country house, I came across the first volume of a family Bible.

Your name here - family tree in family Bible

Your name here – family tree in family Bible

It had survived the transformation from family home to hospitality venue, albeit more as set dressing than as devotional book. The illustrations by Gustave Doré, printed as woodcuts, mostly by Héliodore Pisan, are rich in detail and drama.

God creates light

God creates light …

I found the urge to record and share these images irresistible.

 ... and Eve.

… and Eve.

Immaculately engraved by Pisan, foremost engraver of Doré’s illustrations, they repay close attention for his fluency of line, and for the skill with which he handles light. Zoom in to see more.

Adam and Eve banished from Paradise

Adam and Eve banished from Paradise

The compositions are as dramatic as we expect from Doré. They were a great success when first published in 1866 for the English text, and seem to have made their way to Uruguay as well, to accompany a Spanish version.

A scene from the Flood

A scene from the Flood

Influenced by and influencing artists in France, and in London from 1853 – where Fuseli was Keeper of the Royal Academy until 1825, Géricault had exhibited The Raft of the Medusa in 1820, Blake worked on Biblical illustrations until his death in 1827  – Doré’s eye for the dramatic fitted well with Old Testament stories.

Noah sends out a dove

Noah sends out a dove

Adept at depicting the historical times and the scenarios of Old Testament stories,

Mesopotamian lion

Mesopotamian lion

Doré combined easily a sense of dramatic lighting and composition with symbolism and allegory – the Christian cross outlined against the fallen Mesopotamian pillar, the snake-like writhing tail of one of Daniel’s lions.

The dream of Jacob

The dream of Jacob

Recurring devices – writhing figures, rays of light,

Jacob's prayer

Jacob’s prayer

cloudscapes –

Jacob - soon to  be named 'Israel', wrestling with God - and the angel

Jacob – soon to be named Israel, ‘wrestling with God’ – and the angel

are deployed with an unerring sense of the dramatic.

Joseph sold into slavery

Joseph sold into slavery

In architectural and in natural settings,

The interpretation of dreams

The interpretation of dreams

Doré places and lights his characters assuredly.

Saul and David

Saul and David

whether singly or in large groups.

Elijah taken into Heaven

Elijah taken into Heaven

Doré’s choice of passages for illustration may reflect his own times too – the reign of Queen Athaliah of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles has parallels with the reign of Napoleon III, who declared himself Emperor in 1852,

The execution of Queen  Athaliah

The execution of Queen Athaliah

and was eventually exiled to England after his reversals of fortune.

His three friends visit Job on his dunghill

His three friends counsel Job on his dunghill

Doré’s illustrations can be read as a warning to the rulers of Doré’s France.

The sack of Jerusalem and the First Temple

The sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple

Incursion by Prussia was a real threat to the Second Empire in France,

The Mesopotamian Great Bull of Heaven imagined by Doré

The Mesopotamian Great Bull of Heaven imagined by Doré

to be followed, after the defeats of the Franco-Prussian War, by the Third Empire.

Minor prophet and scribe to Jeremiah, Baruch believed in Jerusalem's resurgence

Minor prophet and scribe to Jeremiah, Baruch believed in Jerusalem’s resurgence

Perhaps Doré ascribes to artists the power of the Biblical prophets to see a brighter future,

Daniel, who refused to accept the culture of his Babylonian captors

Daniel, who refused to accept the culture of his Babylonian captors

even when their faith is sorely tested.

Daniel in the lions' den

Daniel in the lions’ den

The dramatic power of his vision and his invention is Doré’s own firm and lasting monument. It was thrilling to see how it has lasted over space and time.

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