Stories from the Bible illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger

As longtime readers know, I am fascinated by fairy tales, folktales, myths and classic stories.  Combine these with great illustrations and quality packaging and I can’t resist.

Award winning illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger’s career seemingly lies at this very intersection.  So I am always on lookout for her books when I browse used bookstores or library sales. And I have been able to find some amazing books for just a few dollars.

My first children’s book illustrated by Zwerger was The Selfish Giant which I loved.  Since stumbling on that volume I have become more fascinated and enamored with this artist and her work adding more of her books to my collection. Over the next few days I will be sharing my thoughts on these great books

The first book I came across after Selfish Giant was Stories from the Bible a beautiful combination of excerpts from the King James Bible and Zwerger’s illustrations.  But as the School Library Journal notes, this is not really a book likely to appeal to children:

These excerpts, taken verbatim from the King James Version of the Bible, are divided into six groups. The Old Testament sections include stories of the Beginning, the Fathers and Mothers of Israel, the Deliverance out of Egypt, King David, Psalms, and the words of the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The New Testament sections are the birth of Jesus and the beginning of His works, Jesus’s words about His mission, experiences with Jesus, the message of Jesus, the Passion and Resurrection, and “Unto the Ends of the World” (Acts and Revelations). Coverage of Genesis, Exodus, and Jesus’s life and teachings is passable, although there are substantial gaps. The other selections are very limited. The work is imaginatively illustrated with occasional full-page paintings, usually but not always associated with the accompanying text, and a number of decorative vignettes. Often they have an almost surreal quality. In the scene of Moses in the bulrushes, Pharaoh’s daughter watches from a distant riverbank and is accompanied by jackal- and falcon-headed Egyptian gods. The principals may be dressed in modern clothing or carrying suitcases. Colors are muted and the artistic styles vary from meticulously detailed to abstract. The perspectives are sometimes dramatically skewed. With its use of the elevated King James language, its very selective choice of material, and its sophisticated paintings (some illustrations are not readily comprehensible), this title is more a coffee-table art book than a collection of Bible stories for youngsters. There are many anthologies available with friendlier language and more accessible pictures for children.

I agree that the book is more coffee table art book than children’s Bible, but that within that framework it is a beautiful book.  And this doesn’t mean you can’t read it with you children.

Publisher’s Weekly reflects this perspective:

Best shared between adults and children, this stimulating presentation of major stories from the Bible will startle readers into fresh insights and appreciations. Internationally renowned for her elegant, somewhat intellectual style, Zwerger here offers subtle visual accompaniment for extracts from the King James Bible. Where most Bibles offer heavy ornamentation, this airy oversize version points up the virtues of understatement. A single vignette conveys Pharaoh’s decadence: as he mocks Aaron and Moses for wanting to let the Israelites “rest from their burdens,” Zwerger shows him posing idly, holding a pet leopard by a leash. The artist lets individual images suggest defining moments: an elaborate trumpet stands in for the giving of the Ten Commandments; a wine bottle and 13 glasses evoke the Last Supper. In her full-page compositions, Zwerger sometimes summons tradition (e.g., a Sistine Chapel-like hand of God conjures the beasts of Creation), but more often her approach is personal. The Wise Men, dressed in clerical garb, kneel before a modern-dress Mary as she holds her baby; she stands in a bare room, a cherub hovering over her head, a few suitcases in the foreground, a white sheep nestled against a white wall. Tthe New Jerusalem is an open window in the sky. Rather than illustrating sacred episodes, these immaculately executed works prompt readers inward, to achieve their own visions.

I agree. Zwerger prompts imagination and reflection. These are no mere illustrations – just the events of the text in visual form – but more evocative art inspired by the text.

One of the effective things about the way this book is laid out and illustrated is the amount of white space and the font size. This makes the scripture passages the focus and the text easy to read.  The Bible can be intimidating both because of its language and because of the often dense text in some versions.

But here the text is presented as literature – thus the classic King James Version – but that formality is lessened by the large text, the generous white space, and the beautiful but not over-powering illustrations.  The stories become more accessible and digestible. You can approach them with imagination rather than just intellect.

It all comes together to be a inspirational and thought provoking book. Whether you want to approach the texts as scripture or as a classic piece of Western Literature and culture this beautifully illustrated volume is a wonderful book to enjoy. And you can read it straight through, flip through its pages taking in the small illustrations and full page art, use it for story time, or a combination of all three.

It is a classic sure to never go out of style.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.