Religious Types

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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[A version of this appears in my “Evolution” feature in Print February 2012]

The Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20-23), along with a miscellaneous set of laws conventionally called the “book of the covenant,” also referred to as “stone tablets,” which God had inscribed. And so it was written, and so it begat Judeo-Christian typographic design, which continues in various forms to this day.

Granted, this is a rather condensed and simplified account, but hey, we have limited space to chart the design evolution of religious messages – and little was written in the Good Book about graphic design.

For hundreds of years scribes laboriously penned biblical tracts and elaborately illuminated many of them (think Book of Kells). In the mid-1450s Gutenberg issued the first “42-line Bible,” the first Western book to be printed with a moveable type press, triggering the greatest communications revolution for hundreds of years to follow (until St. Steve Jobs). Gutenberg’s Mainz Bible looked similar to a hand-scribed manuscript but soon text types would take precedence and then religious missives reached millions.

By the 19th century countless bibles, psalters, hymnals, pamphlets and other spiritual messages from, by and about the Lord were published the world over. Late 19th century examples, like the English variety shown here, were typographically and illustratively conservative, using existing typefaces and engraved illustrations. There were, however, a number of ecclesiastical typefaces and letter forms, Gothic in look and feel, that signify the Christian aesthetic. And these letter forms, depending on where they are found suggest either the spiritual or hell-fire-damnation qualities of religious messaging.

Yet some designers, hearing the call, and not content to leave well-enough alone even in religious precincts, have taken it as their mission to redesign – and perhaps modernize – the bible and ancillary materials. Who said The Word had to be somber or dark?

In 1973 Bradbury Thompson, an alumni of Washburn College, designed the Washburn College Bible, “the most thorough typographic reassessment of the Bible since Gutenberg.” Thompson increased legibility by using Jan Tschichold’s Sabon 14 pt. He also arranged the text in phrases and separated them where the reader would naturally stop. Illustrated with 66 old masters paintings, Joseph Albers also contributed art. It took over a decade to produce.

Many years later Angus Hyland designed covers for The Pocket Canons, a series of small books featuring the text of individual Books of the Bible drawn from the King James Version. Conceived by Matthew Darby, the series has sold over a million copies.

In 2007 the British design firm Crush produced a bible cover that shows the light and dark sides of Biblical narrative through contemporary, appealing art. They say it is for non “card-carying Christians” and suggests a carnivalesque view of the Garden of Eden.

The evolution of religious documents have taken many a pilgrim’s path from that famous Garden to the present.