Makoto Fujimori (photographer, Brad Guise)

Four hundred years ago King James had this great idea: Lock 54 of the most brilliant, British scholars in a room, hand them partially-translated versions of the Bible and see what happens. He hoped to gain a definitive, majestic volume that might also end the religious wars tearing Europe to ribbons.

The King James Bible accomplished two of those goals, but the third took a little longer.

After four centuries, this book is possibly the best selling of all time, with something like 1 billion sold and no end in sight. In Britain, America and other English speaking nations, the Fourth Centennial parties are just getting started with new printings, programs and of course, art.

In the KJV’s honor, Crossway Publishing released a new version of the Gospels this year, with decidedly different art by renowned artist and writer Makoto Fujimura.

With this commission, 400 years of etchings, line drawings and classical paintings gave way to very modern and abstract art for the first time. This edition (English Standard) pulls out all the bells and whistles with a box and leather bindings. It uses a printed, six-color metallic process, a modern version of an illuminated manuscript but with Asian influence.

Comparison of illuminated 15th century book with Fujimura’s Gospel

The “illumination” in ancient books came from ground, semiprecious stones such as Lapis, azurite, and gold and silver leaf. Some of Fujimura’s original works incorporate these same materials and other exotic ones as well. In the Bibles, high-tech printing processes approximate this glow with metallic inks, which reflect back to the viewer.

Fujimura painted five large works: one frontispiece, four Gospels and smaller paintings for each chapter. True to the older form, he also embellished lettering and ornamented other pages.

“I painted the five large-scale images that illuminate this volume, ‘The Four Holy Gospels,’ using water-based, Nihonga materials [Japanese style painting], with my focus on the tears of Christ [from John 11] – tears shed for the atrocities of the past century and for our present darkness,” Fujimura explains.

“CharisKairos – Tears of Christ,” by Fujimura

Abstraction has generally been used for secular purposes, but Fujimura described how it freed him for this project, and he gives an interesting rationale for abstract art:

People see abstraction as esoteric or evasive, considering “real” art to be works done in a realistic style. But … fireworks, sunsets and music are all abstract. My works are re-presentations of the mysteries of Reality. Because all human experience has abstract elements – touch, thought, smell – it cannot always be reduced into a commodity. Such utilitarianism dilutes the gospel into something we can “purchase” by our good deeds, and something that we can “understand” by simply taking in a set of information, or by following a set of principles.

Makoto Fujimura is aware of the honor that has been given him, explaining, “Whether I like it or not, this is what I will be remembered by.”

Valerie Dillon of Dillon Gallery agrees: “I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that it is a commission of the decade, if not more.”

Fujimura is well-known in the U.S. and Japan in both secular and religious circles. He is founder of the International Arts Movement and has served on the National Council for the Arts. His art is in collections at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, as well as a number of art museums in the U.S. He is also a writer and cultural commentator.

You can view Fujmura’s original “Illuminated Gospel” paintings at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York, from July 8 – Oct. 16, 2011. This is part of a larger exhibit, “On Eagles’ Wings,” which celebrates and investigates the history and art of the King James Bible.

I hope to be seeing this beautiful new Bible gracing pulpits and coffee tables soon.

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