Through the Eye to the Heart: Bible Symbols (1908 edition)

Frank Beard (1842–1905) led many lives before designing hieroglyphic bibles. A successful political cartoonist by the age of seventeen, he drew one of the most widely reproduced Civil War satires, and was hailed as “the father of the American cartoon” by the Los Angeles Times in 1895. Deaf since childhood, he became a sought-after raconteur, famous for delivering “chalk talks”, lectures illustrated by rapidly drawn visuals. Touring the nation, his “sparkling, genial discourse about the mysteries of picture-making” — as a contemporary brochure described the act — entranced audiences almost as much as his lightning-quick pen. As he aged, politics gave way to an interest in religious education, and his belief in the transparency of visual communication led him to illustrate bibles in a pictographic idiom.

Beard’s first foray into this artform was Picture Puzzles, or, How to Read the Bible by Symbols (1899), followed by the more traditionally illustrated One Hundred Sermon Pictures (1902), and several editions of the volume on display above, Bible Symbols (first published in 1904). He did not invent the hieroglyphic bible — rather, Bible Symbols numbers among the last of this type of book to achieve widespread popularity. According to Benjamin Lindquist, who has written the definitive article on Beard’s life, the earliest known specimen dates to 1687, produced in Augsburg, Germany. As Egyptomania increasingly preoccupied the American mind in the nineteenth century, hieroglyphic bibles became one of the most popular forms of religious literature. The texts and images in Bible Symbols work like a rebus, mixing icons and scripture to provide multimedia access to the word of God. There is an impulse toward the universal here — in a corrupt and fallen world, a new visual language might help recover what was lost when Babel crumbled — and a pedagogic aspect, too. Employed in this way, images become mnemonics, and slow down the eye to inspire deeper contemplation, richer access. Despite questing after timeless truths, Beard was also a fallible man of his era. A hieroglyph of Native Americans stands in for “barbarous people”; a tableau that seemingly connotes “belief” shows people of color crouching before a white missionary. Pictures, just like words, bear a trace of their creator.

For another use of the rebus technique in a different religious context, see our post on Buddhist sutras for the illiterate.