The 16th century gave rise to a series of illustrated publications which can be named Picture Bibles (Figures de la Bible, Bilderbibeln, Prentenbijbels). These picture books represent an attempt to translate the most important Biblical stories into images. They are accompanied by a fairly short text, anywhere from a simple moral maxim or historical couplet to a more elaborate commentary. Clearly separate from illustrated Bibles, this bibliographic genre was first exploited by Protestants, and they established its defining characteristics, principally the literalness of its Biblical representations, the function of which is mainly didactic (for example, Luther’s Passional, 1529).

However, beginning at the end of the 1530s, printers from Lyon such as Trechsel, Frellon, De Tournes and Rouillé, aiming at a more educated public, gave it a more literary and artistic bent. This aesthetic turn reappears in the picture books printed in Antwerp during the second half of the 16th-century (for instance, the Thesaurus veteris et novi Testamenti published by Gerard de Jode in 1585). The pleasure which these pictures procure was becoming an end in itself and was no longer a means of putting the reader in contact with divine works, and beyond to the love of God. Religious instruction, so present in the earlier publications, was replaced by a pure historical illustration of the Biblical scenes, thus reducing them to simple, entertaining sketches. This gradual backsliding has led Max Engammare* to conclude that

“like a worm in a piece of fruit, the Picture Bibles were an out growth of the Biblical material on which they were based, vitiating the Logos that gave birth to them. By concentrating on historical exactitude and on aesthetically pleasing poems and images, the Picture Bibles ended up by eliminating the Word of God, and his well laid out plans for man’s salvation. The Bible had become a story book.’

Such a conclusion is not, however, appropriate for the Imagines et Figurae Bibliorum of Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt, even though it externally appears to belong to the Picture Bible genre. The oblong volume contains 98 illustrations, all of which are signed by Pieter van der Borcht: 60 for the Old Testament and 38 for the New Testament. Only the former are accompanied by commentary in three languages (Latin, French and Dutch) on the opposite page. Begun by Plantin in the early 1580s, the definitive edition of the Imagines was probably only finished in the early 1590s, at which time Plantin’s son-in-law, François Raphelengien, decided to publish them with a false date (1580) and no indication of place under the pseudonyms of Jacobus Villanus (author) and Renatus Christianus (publisher). Such prudence is easy to understand, since the author was none other than Hendrik Jansen van Barrefelt, alias Hiël, second founder of the Familia Charitatis, or Family of Love.

This book give a fairly good résumé of the principal ideas of this “family” of spiritualist savants who were connected in one way or another with the Officina plantiniana: faith in the salvation of the spirit through an “inner dialogue” with God; disdain for all external forms of piety and religious practice; a firm belief that, beneath their different symbols and liturgies, all religions are the expression of the same credo; a desire to simplify the basic tenets of belief, in which charity should be primary. The Imagines of Barrefelt especially emphasized that it was necessary to return to the essence of the Biblical message in order to overcome whatever led to conflict between men and particular Churches, and in this way to attain universal concord under the sign of Christ. This concordia mundi, which the humanists of the period had so wished for, would lead necessarily to a renewal of life in Christ, the one and only way that leads to what Hiël called the “uniformity of God in our soul”, that is, to the true comprehension, according to the essence and the spirit, of divine works.

At exactly the same time, an even more ambitious editorial project was devoted to illustrating and commenting on the Biblical narratives: the Evangelicae Historiae Imagines. This sumptuous in-folio of 153 illustrations was initially undertaken by Plantin, but was finally published in 1593 by the Antwerp Jesuits themselves. It was completed two years later with the annotations and meditations of the Jesuit Father, Hieronymus Natalis (Jerome Nadal), a close spiritual descendant of Ignatius of Loyola who was behind this editorial initiative. So, this book came out at almost the same time as the Imagines et Figurae Bibliorum. Yet the two works appear to be so different: while the Barrefelt volume was stamped as heterodox, if not heretical, and rapidly ended up on the Index, Nadal’s work became an shining expression of renewed orthodoxy, even becoming a major point of reference for Counter- Reformation iconography and exegesis of the Gospels. As a hypothesis, I would like to suggest that this stems in large part from the learned apparatus added by Nadal and consisting in a detailed set of annotations on specific points in the illustration, indicated by letters. Although Nadal’s meditations are quite similar to Barrefelt’s, they differ considerably to the extent that they are based on a detailed analysis of each Biblical scene. In this way, the historical truth is much better established before the spiritual meaning is discussed. In addition, this system of annotation referring constantly back to the text facilitates a controlled “reading” of the illustration, which can no longer be reduced to its simple contemplation.

What conclusions can be drawn from this comparison of the works of Barrefelt and Nadal? In contrast to the Picture Bibles which had tended to lose their original religious intent in favour of historical knowledge and aesthetic pleasure, both Barrefelt and Nadal wanted to confer once again on this genre the exalted mission of transmitting the Word of God. Beyond the simple moral lesson, these two authors were aiming for a thorough inner regeneration of the reader. However, their means of meeting this goal, as well as their underlying spiritual being, were different. Barrefelt’s Imagines reflect the spiritualist atmosphere that existed in the Officina plantiniana, whereas Nadal’s Imagines are a sign of the dynamic penetration of Counter-Reformation ideals into areas North of the Alps, involving a clear attempt at reinforcing orthodoxy in opposition to the gamut of heresies. In particular, this tendency lead to a (re)normalizing of the relations between image and text, which henceforth were seen to be intimately connected, interacting in such a way as to serve the propagation of the faith. As a result, our Biblical imagination was greatly enriched but at the same time became strictly controlled.

*Max Engammare, Les Figures de la Bible. Le destin oublié d’un genre littéraire en image XVIe-XVIIe siècles, Mélanges de ’Ecole francaise de Rome, 106, 1994, p. 591.

Ralph Dekoninck is a director of research at the Catholic University of Louvain. His fields of research are Jesuit theology and theories of the image, and illustrated books and religious engravings of the 16th and 17th centuries. His forthcoming publication is entitled ‘Statuts et fonctions de l’image dans la littérature spirituelle jésuite éditée à Anvers entre 1585 et 1640’ in Travaux du Grand Siècle, Genève Librairie Droz 2003.

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