No, it's because they didn't want to see His little baby Pee-pee," interrupts Barry Moser with his signature twinkle and drawl. Entertaining a visitor in the kitchen of his West Hatfield home one recent morning, the designer-illustrator of the lavishly praised Pennyroyal Caxton Holy Bible has been describing some negative reactions to that landmark work. For instance, to "my Baby Jesus; my uncircumcised Baby Jesus."
We'd been wondering confusedly if the pre-bris state of the model were what caused one correspondent to see it as "a slap in the face of God." No, says Moser; the issue wasn't whether Jesus should have been circumcised at this juncture in the Gospel of Matthew, but whether we should be able to tell. What troubles some devout people about these vividly imagined engravings is their realism. Yet it was precisely Moser's goal to bring the ancient Middle-Eastern characters of the Bible "very much down to earth." As an illustrator, he says, his allegiance is to the text, and the scribes and subjects of these ancient stories were not people with indoor plumbing, modern dentistry, and exactly our mores about the human body.
In his mildly profane way, Barry Moser is devout himself. The affable and rotund transplanted Tennessean has mentioned to other interviewers his youthful experience of being grazed by a fellow-hunter's bullet that would have killed him if he hadn't slightly shifted his position an instant earlier. He felt not fortunate but spared.
An engraver and bookman of national and international repute, Moser spent the 1970-'71 academic year as a graduate student at UMass. He had something to prove to himself at that point, says the artist. His earlier academic career had been rocky: "After six years of military school, I was kind of like 'Free At Last!'" He had cracked few books and "consumed copious amounts of whiskey," and wound up being rejected by several graduate programs. But upon coming to the Valley to teach at the Williston-Northampton School, he was recommended by world-renowned artist Leonard Baskin for admission to UMass. "I carried a full load and got a 4.0 average," Moser says proudly of that year studying with Jack Coughlin, Hui-Ming Wang, and Fred Becker, to whom he dedicated this Bible.
Moser recalls Coughlin's injunction that "It's better to shine a little light than no light at all." This translates, he says, into not worrying about fame, just doing your work. Having illustrated and designed over two hundred books by now and enjoyed a good deal of acclaimno less a critic than John Updike has said that Moser "moves from strength to strength," and poet John Ashberry calls his work "dazzling"he is able to exhibit and teach as he chooses. Creating limited-edition books through his own Pennyroyal Press and releasing trade editions through commercial publishers, he's able to make both exquisite objects and a degree of impact. His Bible, for instance, is published not only in "primary" and "deluxe" editions costing $10,000 or $30,000, respectively, but in a Viking trade edition costing $60.
The work of three-and-a-half years, this Bible with its 232 original engravings is a magnificent and important object: the only major project of its kind in the twentieth century. And it has a sweet subtext for UMass readers: Several UMass people, including Kathy Smiarowski '90S and her infant son, were among the models. Together with an iconic Moses represented by Valley hero Leonard Baskin, and a Moser self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, it is these images that we reproduce here and on the back cover, courtesy of the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton.