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Old Testament Illustrations from Holbein and Dutch Taferelen

Among the ancient cultures and thought systems of the Near East, the Judeo-Christian tradition that pivoted on the crucifixion of Christ was of lifelong concern to Melville as a thinker and writer. His journal in 1857 showed how disillusioned he was with the stony waste of the Judean landscape. His depiction of the Sepulcher of the Kings in Clarel showed how appalled he could be by the history of the Judean kings. Immediately after the Arnoldian contrast between “Hellenic cheer” and “Hebraic grief” is his image of “The homicide Herods . . . / Inurned beneath that wreathage” (NN C 1.28.35-36). Yet despite all the cruelty of the Judean—and Christian—heritage in Melville’s work, there is the potential, always, for the in-breaking of the spirit, whether in the mysterious allure of the spirit-spout in Moby-Dick, the sunrise transfiguration of the crucified sailor in Billy Budd, or the concluding phrase of Clarel itself: “death but routs life into victory” (NN C 4.35.34).

The prints in this section depict narrative situations or specific passages from what Christians call the Holy Bible (nearly all of which are from the pre-Christian Judean Old Testament). Herman Melville grew up in the Dutch Reformed tradition of Christianity. Merton Sealts documented a variety of Bibles, New Testament as well as Old, in Dutch as well as English, that Melville and his immediate family owned—some with marks and annotations in Melville’s own hand (Sealts nos. 60-65; MMO 65). Nathalia Wright in 1949 published the classic account of Melville’s literary use of the Bible, with separate chapters on “Imagery,” “Character and Types,” “Themes and Plots,” and “Style.” She was the first to count his 250 Biblical allusions in Moby-Dick, followed by 600 in Clarel and 200 in Billy-Budd. She observed interpretive patterns that can also be extended to the prints he collected. Thematically, she found the “religious significance of the Bible” for Melville to be more “mythological” than theological, centering in “its allegorical representation of metaphysical truth.” Aesthetically, she found his literary “sensibility” in responding to the Bible to be decidedly “visual,” with special attention to such qualities as “movement,” “mass and line,” and “light” (Wright, 16, 27).

Wright explored many similarities between the Biblical allusions in Melville’s writing and the passages he marked in the Bibles he owned. She did not mention the Biblical illustrations in his print collection as a possible source for images or inspiration—because the existence of these images was not openly documented until the inventory of the collection at the Berkshire Athenaeum was published decades later (Wallace 1986). Only recently have these images systematically been studied in relation to Melville’s writing (see Wallace 2013a).

I have divided the Biblical prints cataloged in this chapter into three groups. The print of Holbein’s Sacrifice of Abraham is larger in size but similar in subject to the much smaller narrative engravings that follow. Twenty-six of the latter depict a capital letter surrounded by an Old Testament scene; all are approximately two inches square and have been cut out of Dutch-language publications whose textual fragments are visible on the verso side. Thirteen additional engravings, slightly larger in size and rectangular in shape, illustrate the Song of Solomon; these have been cut out of German-language publications whose textual fragments are visible on the versos. Five more miscellaneous engravings are cataloged here with the others because all forty-four had have been preserved at the Berkshire Athenaeum in an envelope in which Melville appears to have stored them. 

The above envelope is imprinted with the name and address of Snedecor’s, a fine arts supply store at 768 Broadway in New York. Snedecor’s was at the Broadway address in 1855, when Melville was still writing short stories for Harper’s and Putnam’s (Barratt 74).  By 1882, when Melville was actively building his print collection, Snedecor’s had moved to Fifth Avenue as “one of the foremost galleries in America” (Weitzenhoffer 31).    

Readers interested in Melville’s use of the Bible will want to consult, in addition to Wright, Melville’s Allusions to Religion (Gail Coffler, 2004), Melville’s Bible (Ilana Pardes, 2008), and Melville’s Marginalia (Cowen 3: 71-435; Sealts nos. 60-65, MMO 65).

  • Works Cited in this section
  • Barratt, Carrie Rebora. “Mapping the Venues: New York City Art Exhibitions.” In Art and the Empire City, 46-81.
  • Bible. English, 1846. Authorized. The Holy Bible . . . Together with the Apocrypha. Philadelphia: Butler, 1846. 2v. in 1. ‘Herman Melville March 23d 1850. New York.’ Annotated (Sealts no. 62).
  • Bible. O. T. Psalms. English. 1796. The Psalms of David, with Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Albany: Charles R. and George Webster, 1796 (Sealts no. 62a).
  • Bible. N. T. English. 1844. Authorized. The New Testament . . . The Book of Psalms. New York: American Bible Society, 1844. 2 v. in 1 (Sealts no. 65, MMO 65).
  • Coffler, Gail. Melville’s Allusions to Religion: A Comprehensive Index and Glossary. Westport CT:  Praeger, 2004.
  • Duplessis, Georges. The Wonders of Engraving . . . Illustrated with Ten Reproductions in Autotype and Thirty-Four Wood Engravings, by P. Sellier. London: Low and Marston, 1871  (Sealts, no. 195).
  • Pardes, Ilana. “Melville’s Song of Songs: Clarel as Aesthetic Pilgrimage.” In Melville and Aesthetics, ed. Samuel Otter and Geoffrey Sanborn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 213-33.
  • Weitzenhoffer, Frances. The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1986.
  • Wright, Nathalia. Melville’s Use of the Bible. New York: Octagon Books, 1969: rpt. Duke University Press, 1949.
Old Testament Illustrations from Holbein and Dutch Taferelen