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Old Testament Illustrations Cut from Dutch Taferelen

Twenty-five Old Testament illustrations in this section are two inches square. Each has been cut out from a famous three-volume Biblical commentary published Pieter de Hondt in the Netherlands in 1728: Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament (Scenes from the Principal Histories of the Old and New Testaments). The subtitle indicates that the images had been “drawn by the renowned artists Hoet, Houbraken, and Picart, and engraved in copper by the best masters” (fig. 1).

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Figure 1. Title page of Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament, 1728.

Each of Melville's cut-out engravings depicts the capital letter of the first word that had introduced the commentary on a particular text or Biblical tableau (Tafereel). Each capital letter is itself embedded within an illustration of the Biblical event that is the subject of the commentary (fig. 2).

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Figure 2. Capital Letter A introducing the First Tableau.

All twenty-five of Melville's cut-out engravings illustrate scenes found in the Old Testament or its Apocrypha, published primarily in volumes 1 and 2 of the Taferelen; none is from the New Testament sources published in volume 3. I have no direct evidence as to whether Melville knew of the source of these engravings in the Taferelen (also known as the Pieter de Hondt Bible).

These cut-out images are of considerable interest apart from their 1728 Dutch-language source. In each case, Melville could hold in the palm of his hand the engraved image of the capital letter and its Biblical scene (often cited by chapter and verse). On the verso of each image he could see tantalizing extracts from a Dutch Biblical commentary. This visual and verbal information alone relates to both his life and writing, and will be the main focus of the commentary I have room for here. When I quote the chapter and verse to which specific engravings refer, I will take my text directly from the King James version as it appears in Melville’s own Bible. This edition was published in Philadelphia in 1846, acquired by Melville in 1850, and annotated in his own hand (Sealts no. 62; Cowen, 3: 77-435). This Bible, with large print and extensive footnotes, remained in the family long after Melville’s death in 1891; it is probably the text he would have consulted in relation to the Old Testament and Apocryphal scenes depicted in these engravings.

Although these Old Testament engravings were interesting enough before I knew the source from which they have been cut out, they became more so after Lynn de Graaf, a scholar in the Netherlands, identified their source as the 1728 Taferelen. This identification allows us to know that these Biblical illustrations were drawn by one or more of three artists: Gerard Hoet II (1698-1760), Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719), and Bernard Picart (1673-1733).[1] Each of these capital-letter illustrations is accompanied in the Taferelen not only by the text of the commentary whose first word it introduces but by other illustrations—in most cases a full-page illustration by Hoet on a page near the commentary along with a headpiece or tailpiece by Picart immediately before and/or after the commentary. These additional illustrations reveal a great deal about the verbal, pictorial, and theological context in which Melville’s engravings were published (see the headpiece in figure 2 above and the full-page illustration in figure 3 below).

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Figure 3. Hoet's full-page illustration for the First Tableau.

The commentaries in the Taferelen were written by Father Jacques Saurin (1677-1730), a French preacher who settled in The Hague, Netherlands, in 1705. His Calvinist sermons were so widely respected that the 3-volume Dutch-language Taferelen published in The Hague in 1728 was followed by a 6-volume French-language expansion of the same project, beginning with the same illustrations by Hoet, Houbraken, and Picart used in the Dutch volume but moving far beyond them in both text and illustrations (see Saurin, Discours historiques below, 1728-39).  I am grateful to Lynn de Graaf not only for identifying the 1728 Taferelen as the source of the engravings that Melville collected, but also for having translated each of the twenty-five commentaries whose first-letter illustration he owned. All of my English-language quotations from the Taferelen are from translations de Graaf has provided specifically for my use here. While making those translations, she noted, in an email dated 12 February 2003, that “the style” of these commentaries “is the style of Father Mapple” in “The Sermon” in Moby-Dick.

As yet we have no way of knowing whether Melville acquired these engravings after they had been cut from volumes 1 and 2 of the 1728 publication or whether he may have cut them out himself. Oral tradition still alive among his descendents indicates that he did on occasion cut an image out of a book. Although we have no evidence that he knew the source of these images in the 1728 Taferelen, a collector of his sophistication may well have known the original source of this intriguing handful of images, so that possibility must be kept open too. In “Under the Rose,” one of the manuscripts left unpublished at the time of his death, Melville compared the relievos engraved on the side of a Persian vase to “certain pictures in the great Dutch Bible in a library at Oxen setting forth the enigmas of the Song of the Wise Man, to wit, King Solomon” (NN BBO 236). This passage shows his interest not only in the kind of Dutch Biblical publication from which his capital letters were cut but also in the subject of his engravings from the Song of Solomon to be reproduced in the next section of this catalog.

I have not yet identified the source of the twenty-sixth Biblical cut-out with a capital letter in the center of the image (CAT 49). It is not from the Taferelen but it does have a capital letter N in the same style. It is rectangular rather than square, but its height is only slightly larger than its two-inch width. It gives no chapter and verse along with the illustration (as is also the case with a few of the Taferelen images), but its text on the verso is also in Dutch. I am therefore including it in this section with the twenty-five images that are from the Taferelen

I could discern no apparent order in the way these engravings were preserved in Melville’s envelope from Snedecor’s, so I have cataloged them here in the sequence in which they appear in the Taferelen. To aid the reader in estimating the imaginative value each image might have had for Melville—as well as in evaluating the skill with which the artist has illustrated the Biblical source—I have supplemented each engraving with pertinent verses from Melville’s personal copy of the King James version of the Bible (Sealts no. 62). As the capital letter illustrations are unsigned, I have not yet been able to attribute any particular image to Hoet, Houbraken, or Picart (nor are any such attributions made by either Horn or Poortman, below, when discussing the contracts for this publication that were entered into in 1710, when the project was already well under way).

Each of these images belongs very much to the tradition of German and Dutch engravings by which the Bible began to be illustrated in the wake of the Gutenberg revolution and the Lutheran reformation. (Holbein’s Illustrations of the Old Testament, for example, include narrative illustrations surrounding capital letters such as are found in this section—as well as slightly larger, rectangular Biblical narratives such as the Song of Solomon engravings in Melville’s collection, CAT 50-62.) As for the Dutch text on the verso of Melville’s Biblical engravings, it is from the same period as the one Dutch Bible that Melville’s family is known to have owned: an edition of Nieuwe Testament published in Amsterdam in 1715 (Sealts no. 63). The only illustrations in that edition, however, appear on the title page and in the musical notation accompanying the Psalms.

Many of Melville’s engraved images from the Taferelen achieve what Duplessis praised in Lützelburger’s engravings after Holbein: the ability to “interpret [a] master’s designs . . . in a very little space” (Duplessis 147). Many of these compact engravings admirably express the geographical or imaginative expanse of the Biblical passage for which they have been designed. One can imagine Melville, as a collector and a writer, responding to them in both visual and imaginative terms. Wright points out that “the Biblical incidents to which Melville repeatedly referred” in his writing “fall into two groups: events of violence and destruction, and events of vision and revelation” (Wright 25). Those two groups of incidents are well represented in these engravings. So is one other—the erotic. 

In closing this headnote, I must give special thanks to several individuals and institutions that have provided access to information and sources essential for my research. Anne Jaap van den Berg of the Dutch Bible Society in Haarlem, the Netherlands, facilitated Lynn de Graaf’s identification and translation of the Taferelen. Once this source had been identified, librarians in the rare book divisions of the Cincinnati Public Library, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the New York Public Library, and the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago provided access to pertinent volumes of the Dutch Taferelen. Clifford Ross provided access to Melville’s personal Bible.

[1] I follow Horn’s identification of the three artists, though some earlier sources have identified the first two artists as the father of the one (Gerard Hoet I, 1648-1733) and the son of the other (Jacob Houbraken, 1698-1780). It is possible that each father-and-son pair collaborated to some degree.

  • Works Cited in this section
  • Bible. N. T.  Dutch. 1715. Het Nieuwe Testament. Amsterdam: van Reyschoote, 1715 (Sealts no. 63).
  • Horn, Hendrick J.  The Golden Age Revisited: Arnold Houbraken’s Great Theatre of Netherlandish Painters and Paintresses. Doornspijk, The Netherlands: Davaco, 2000. 2 vol.
  • Poortman, Wilco C. “The Prints of the Illustrated Bible of Bernard Picart and Pieter de Hondt.” In Boekzaal van de Nederlandse Prentbijbels. Gravenhage, The Netherlands: Boekencentrum, 1968). Part 2a, 143-5.
  • Saurin, Jacques. Discours historiques, critiques, théologiques, et moraux, sur les événemens les plus mémorables du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament, avec des figures gravées sur les desseins de Mrs. Hoet, Houbraken & Picart. Le Haye: P. de Hondt, 1728-1739. 6 vol.
  • Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament, en andere boeken, bij de Heilige Schrift gevoegt, door de vermaarde kunstenaars Hoet, Houbraken, en Picart getekent, en van de beste meesters in koper gesneden, en met beschrijvingen uitgebreid (Graavenhaage: Pieter de Hondt, 1728). 3 vol.  Online from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute at
Old Testament Illustrations Cut from Dutch Taferelen