The Four Holy Gospels project comprises five major works alongside hundreds of illuminated pages and smaller drop-cap paintings. The original art and books will be on display as an inaugural exhibition at the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, which opened to the public on November 17, 2017.
In 2009 Lane Dennis, president of Crossway publishing, inquired about a commission celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. When he initially proposed The Four Holy Gospels, I was surprised by the project’s depth and ambition. Until recently, it’s usually the artist, not the publisher, proposing such a project, only to see it scaled back. If the project originates with the publisher, the artist thinks of everything that can go wrong.
Subsequently, I’ve learned to distrust commitments publishers make to a project’s aesthetic standards. No matter what they promise in the beginning, inevitably the project gets diluted by pragmatism. Usually the aesthetic decisions are made by people whose job commoditizes the art and writing. Artists rarely have the last word.
“You will have complete artistic freedom,” Lane told me. He assured me of his commitment to the highest standard of excellence, using the best paper and six color printing process. He had been following my work for a while, and I was impressed with his understanding about contemporary art.
I thought I was speaking with a publisher; it became clear that I was speaking to a visionary and artist himself. This was Lane’s dream: merging contemporary art with the Bible.
I later discovered that Lane was a direct student of Francis Schaeffer, who integrated his theology with cultural engagement, enabling young creatives to live out their calling in the arts. While still a graduate student, Lane co-wrote Schaeffer’s last book. Since then, Lane has been carrying forth cultural engagement as a Christian scholar, developing his own synthesis. This project became a culmination of a lifetime of commitment to the pursuit of excellence in the scholarship of Scripture translation.
As I further considered The Four Holy Gospels, it dawned on me how truly ambitious (crazy?) it was. I had only nine months to complete five major paintings, over 80 chapter-heading letters, and 140-plus pages of embellishments.
I discovered that my knowledge was so limited that I could not begin the project without first examining the medieval illumined traditions. The Morgan Library and Museum (five blocks from my studio) became my touchpoint for many illuminated manuscripts. No illumination of the four Gospels has been done by a single artist for over 400 years. During the last century, artists avoided the text in general, let alone the Biblical text. Therefore, there is no visual language in recent times to follow and learn from. How was I to do justice to this enormous commission, and complete it in time?
“Jesus Wept,” the shortest verse in the Bible, became a center point for The Four Gospels. For the past two Lent seasons I’ve been meditating on John 11 and the passages afterward. When this project became my main focus, I created a workable boundary around my creative effort so that my limited time (a year and a half) to complete it would be most wisely used.
I tell young artists that limitations are glorious. True creativity can thrive within healthy boundaries and limitations. The grander the project and the higher the ambition, the clearer the boundaries need to be. Perhaps I felt so daunted by the project’s scope and ambition that I instinctively chose the shortest verse in the Bible to focus on!
By focusing on this singular verse, I began developing a theological dialogue with a whole, perhaps formulating a systematic visual theology. I knew early on that this Bible would be the only illumined Bible in existence without an explicit image of Jesus on the cross. If the focus is on Jesus’ tears, then the crucifix will be, in a sense, everywhere on the pages. Not explicitly, but implicitly.
I started with the largest painting, titled “Charis-Kairos” (the Tears of Christ). This work, which I call my “Genesis” painting, uses the same technique of Nihonga adapted for use of Belgian linen.
When I began creating The Four Holy Gospels, I had just finished a series of works influenced by the modernist master Georges Rouault. Rouault often illumined the dark chaos of Paris in the early 20th century by depicting faces of ordinary human beings illumined in the darkness in their sufferings and oppression. I wanted to create a series of large paintings hung side by side with Rouault’s paintings. This “Soliloquies” exhibit, at Dillon Gallery (winter 2009) was historic, as the Rouault estate had never allowed such a collaboration with a living artist. As I pondered on how to creatively depict “Jesus’ tears,” the technique I developed for the Rouault exhibit became an initial impetus.
“[H]aving Mako’s art, which is non-representational, next to the words of scripture invites the reader to take the words of scripture and sort of see what they see in the art and how that connects with the words that they’re reading, because the words are transcendent. And the art, in a lot of ways, reflects that transcendence.”
– Alissa Wilkinson
“I’m so grateful for a new illuminated bible… According to Christian theology, the Illuminator is the Holy Spirit, and therefore I believe from what I can see that the Illuminator has illumined the illuminator of the illuminated bible, and will continue to illuminate through both the images and the words.”
– Tim Keller