Ellis Library adds $10,000 treasure to its collection with 1996 Bible

Thursday, October 3, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:17 a.m. CDT, Friday, October 4, 2013
A rare Pennyroyal Caxton Bible has been donated to MU's Special Collections and Rare Books department.

COLUMBIA — A fusion of 24-karat gold, exotic German paper and parchment lies locked in a vault on Ellis Library's fourth floor. This exotic object is one of the library's newest treasures, a 1996 Bible, that has a history as rich as its trappings.

It isn't just any collection of scriptures, however; it is a Pennyroyal Caxton Bible, one of 400 created by illustrator and designer Barry Moser of Hatfield, Mass.

Alla Barabtarlo, head of Special Collections and Rare Books department at Ellis Library, holds the vault's key.

Barabtarlo said she was awestruck when the book, donated by New York City businessman Bruce Kovner, arrived at the library in August.

"The Bible came, and it was astonishing — just so beautiful," she said. "You will see it's an amazing pictorial effort. It’s the epitome of taste."

Barabtarlo praised Moser's treatment of the illustrations and his sensitivity to the theology they represented.

"You will see the work of this engraver, the artist, Mr. Moser, and you will see how he interprets many biblical subjects, especially the difficult theological points," Barabtarlo said.

Moser's treatment of the text abounds with significance, Barabtarlo said. The books' words are all rendered in black, save three words — "God," "Christ" and the text's last word, "amen" — which are printed in red ink.

"It's like a symphony sounding throughout the entire book," she said.

Moser said in an email that though the project lacked religious motivation, it didn't lack challenge.

"When I first began designing and printing books, I discovered that, as a friend once put it, the history of printing can be walked on the spines of Bibles," Moser said. "Thus I set my sights on this project around 1970 and spent the next 25 years getting ready to take it on."

The five-year project encapsulated a myriad of techniques and challenges he wanted to conquer, Moser said.

Quoting Michael Jordan, Moser said: "'Until you've played basketball in Madison Square Garden, you've still got something to prove.' For a book designer, printer and illustrator, that holds true for producing a Bible. There were no religious motives involved."

Scenes from the garden of Eden are overdone and trite, he said. Instead of focusing on passages that lent themselves to illustration, such as Genesis, Moser instead chose texts that are seldom illustrated, such as Ecclesiastes and Job, and focused on them.

"There were certain images that I simply wanted to do, like the Crucifixion, and others that I did not want to do, like Adam and Eve in the garden," Moser said. "The latter is a tired and hackneyed image, and I really wanted to avoid that sort of thing as much as I could."

Uniquely crafted

Each element of the book was crafted with purpose and accomplished sometimes through ancient techniques, Barabtarlo said.

"The binding is handmade of parchment, real parchment," she said. "There's no glue or modern technique. It was all made like it was done in the Middle Ages."

The paper, too, was unique and commissioned from a paper mill in Zerkall, a village of about 200 tucked away in Germany's Eifel Hills.

"The paper, mainly handmade, too — they took the trouble to research paper mills and they found the right one in Germany, in a small place called Zerkall and they ordered paper from there," Barabtarlo said. "It is amazing paper."

Barabtarlo said the paper used was absorbent enough so that the ink didn't bleed and resulted in crisp, rich tones. She said the book's use of precious metals didn't distract from its content.

"Where they used gold, it's very subdued. It’s reserved only for the title on the binding, and it was 24-karat gold," Barabtarlo said. "They paid an immense attention to detail, to the way it is crafted."

The book's unique craftsmanship and exotic materials, as well as its limited edition, contribute to its $10,000 price tag.

Historically significant

Beyond its exotic materials and craftsmanship, the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible draws its significance from Moser's renderings, as he is the first artist since Gustave Dore in 1865 to illustrate both the Old and New Testaments.

"This work essentially is notable for its illustrations and printing," David Lachman of Wyncote, Pa., said. Lachman is an antiquarian bookseller who has specialized in Bibles for 35 years and holds a doctorate in ecclesiastical history.

Lachman said the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible is "a jewel in a collection of finely printed and illustrated books."

The text, drawn from the King James version, also adds significance, for Barabtaro.

"They used the King James version without any modern interpretations or changes," Barabtarlo said. "It's 'Thy will be done,' rather than 'Your.'"

The craftsmanship speaks volumes about its message, Barabtarlo said.

"The more important the book was to people, the more effort they put into it," she said. "They didn’t take any fakes. In our time of fakes, where everything stands for something else — you think it is silk but it is polyester; you think it is wood, but it is plastic pretending to be wood — here, we have real things. This is, in part, why I’m so grateful that such a Bible came here because it's a real thing; nothing counterfeit about it."

Soon exhibited

Right now, the text rests in a 60-degree room with no more than 40 percent humidity, but it won't remain there indefinitely. It will likely make its way downstairs by Christmas for a new exhibit, "Verba Sacra," or sacred words in Latin, the library is planning.

Barabtarlo wasn't sure why Kovner donated the Bible to MU. "The donation was a great gesture of generosity, and we especially treasure the fact that they chose us as one of the few academic recipients," she said. Princeton University was another recipient.

The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible is one of many scriptures that will be presented in the library's exhibit, which aims to detail the history of the scriptures through the ages.

"As soon as we catalog it, it will be available for public view," Barabtarlo said. "Even now, if somebody shows up, we will show it. Even if it's not cataloged, we will show it. Our position is that people should see it."

Barabtarlo stressed that the department's collections aren't available only to the campus community but to the larger regional and national ones as well.

"People from Columbia, the community, we want them to know what treasures they have," she said.

The Special Collections and Rare Books department is on the fourth floor west of Ellis Library, 1020 Lowry St.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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