Behold Gustave Doré’s Dramatic Illustrations of the Bible (1866)

One occa­sion­al­ly hears it said that, thanks to the inter­net, all the books tru­ly worth read­ing are free: Shake­speare, Don Quixote, the sto­ries of Edgar Allan Poe, the Divine Com­e­dy, the Bible. Can it be a coin­ci­dence that all of these works inspired illus­tra­tions by Gus­tave Doré? When he was active in mid-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry France, he worked in a vari­ety of forms, includ­ing paint­ing, sculp­ture, and even comics and car­i­ca­tures. But he lives on through noth­ing so much as his wood­block-print illus­tra­tions of what we now con­sid­er clas­sics of West­ern lit­er­a­ture — and, in the case of La Grande Bible de Tours, a text we could describe as “super-canon­i­cal.”

Doré took on the task of design­ing 241 engrav­ings for a lux­u­ri­ous new French-lan­guage edi­tion of the Vul­gate Bible in the mid-eigh­teen-six­ties. The project “offered him an almost end­less series of intense­ly dra­mat­ic events,” writes biog­ra­ph­er Joan­na Richard­son: “the loom­ing tow­er of Babel, the plague of dark­ness in Egypt, the death of Sam­son, Isa­iah’s vision of the destruc­tion of Baby­lon.”

All pro­vid­ed prac­ti­cal­ly ide­al show­cas­es for the ele­ments of Doré’s intense­ly Roman­tic style: “the moun­tain scenes, the lurid skies, the com­pli­cat­ed bat­tles, the almost unremit­ting bru­tal­ism.” But along with the Old Tes­ta­ment “mas­sacres and mur­ders, decap­i­ta­tions and aveng­ing angels” come Vic­to­ri­an angels, Vic­to­ri­an women, and Vic­to­ri­an chil­dren, “sen­ti­men­tal or wise beyond their years.”

Those choic­es may have been moti­vat­ed by the simul­ta­ne­ous pub­li­ca­tion of La Grande Bible de Tours in both France and the Unit­ed King­dom. In any event, the edi­tion proved suc­cess­ful enough on both sides of the Chan­nel that a major exhi­bi­tion of Doré’s work opened in Lon­don the very next year.

Though vis­i­bly root­ed in their time and place — as well as in the artist’s per­son­al sen­si­bil­i­ties and the aes­thet­ic cur­rents in which he was caught up — Doré’s visions of the Bible still make an impact with their rich and imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able chiaroscuro por­tray­als of scenes that have long res­onat­ed through the whole of West­ern cul­ture. You can see the whole series on Wikipedia, or as col­lect­ed in The Doré Gallery of Bible Illus­tra­tions at Project Guten­berg — all, of course, for no charge.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Dra­mat­ic Illus­tra­tions of Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy

Gus­tave Doré’s Exquis­ite Engrav­ings of Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote

Gus­tave Doré’s Macabre Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

Behold Gus­tave Doré’s Illus­tra­tions for Rabelais’ Grotesque Satir­i­cal Mas­ter­piece Gar­gan­tua and Pan­ta­gru­el

The Adven­tures of Famed Illus­tra­tor Gus­tave Doré Pre­sent­ed in a Fantasic(al) Cutout Ani­ma­tion

Sal­vador Dalí’s Illus­tra­tions for the Bible (1963)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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