They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but I do it all the time. My hands reach for the prettiest books—the ones with elegant fonts and pleasing color schemes—and I crave volumes that look like they’ve passed through time, the books that not only contain a story but also have their own story hidden in the binding.
The ESV Illuminated Bible fulfills both of my initial cravings when it comes to books: beauty and history.
Amplifying the Beauty of the Bible’s Story
The design is stunning. It makes you want to run your fingers over it and flip through to see more. Bound in cloth imprinted with a golden floral pattern, this Bible feels like it’s been in print for centuries. The modern arrangement of the design pulls you into today, but not without leaving behind a hint of nostalgia.
The visual appeal of this Bible doesn’t stop at the cover. Illustrator Dana Tanamachi created a custom, hand-drawn introductory page and letter initial to crown each book of the Bible. While some might see these pages as mere section markers, Tanamachi put incredible thought and detail into each illustration. In the appendix, she explains the meaning behind each of her illuminations, often grounded in profound symbolism or the overall message of the book.
In addition, the ESV team selected significant verses from the biblical story to feature throughout and Tanamachi oversaw a team of designers that brought each verse to life. Their mini illuminations pepper the margins and fill full-page spreads. The ESV team explains in the introduction the purpose of these added ornamentations, calling them “Ebenezers,” or “landmarks of God’s faithfulness to creation, reminders of his salvific plan, and signposts to his abiding commitment to display his glory in all the earth.”
The beauty of the ESV Illuminated Bible speaks to its intended purpose. In the introduction to the text, the creators explain their hope that the illustrations will “draw the reader’s eyes to the beauty of God’s word itself, stirring up affection for the Creator and inviting deep reflection on the narrative and truths of Scripture.” Every design carries the intention of drawing readers closer to God in order to deepen their relationship with him.
Engaging in the History of Bible Reading
In an age where Christians battle biblical illiteracy, it’s no surprise Crossway chose to build on the tradition of illuminated texts. Illuminated Bibles of the past, like the Book of Kells from the ninth century, told the story of scripture through elegant drawings in a time when few could read or had access to the written word. In other words, these early presentations of the Bible attempted to make scripture accessible to everyone. The ESV Illuminated Bible attempts to do the same and succeeds. Its beauty draws you in and asks you to engage with the text in a way many Christians have never done before.
During my time in college, I took a class on spiritual formation. The professor asked us to practice certain spiritual disciplines throughout the course of the semester. When it came to meditating on scripture, I struggled to keep my mind focused. We were tasked with spending an hour in complete solitude free of distractions with the goal of meditating on scripture and praying. Without anything to look at other than the black ink on a white page, my thoughts drifted to my dinner plans and questioned whether or not I locked my car door that morning.
The ESV Illuminated Bible offers a solution to the wandering mind. The illustrations give your eyes something to focus on while you meditate on scripture. For those who are visual learners—and even for those who aren’t—the illuminations offer a whole new dimension to the Bible reading experience. Though some might call the illustrated scriptures distractions, I found them offering a unique opportunity to practice meditating on God’s word, a core discipline in Christianity.
Beauty can beckon us to the Bible.
My only criticism is that this Bible is almost too pretty. While part of its intent is to invite readers to draw and write in the margins, I cannot imagine putting a pen to these pages. I’d ruin it. I use a journaling ESV Bible daily and often scratch out mistakes or misspell words. Without the lines printed in the margins, my notes would slide down the page like a skier on a slope. The idea of filling the pristine margins of this Bible with my imperfect handwriting sends a chill down my spine. I want to preserve its elegance.
The Physical Beauty of the Bible
That said, this Bible accomplishes its intended purpose of getting readers to engage with the biblical text. Some might not have a problem writing in the margins or adding art of their own, thus engaging the text in their own way. Even if you choose, like me, to keep the margins bare, you will still be challenged to consider the depth and beauty of God’s inspired word.
In a world starved for the truth, the ESV Illuminated Bible invites us to reach for, open, and engage with scripture. The pleasing cover created a longing in me to flip through the pages and soak up the biblical story. It caused me to reflect on the incredible gift of God’s word, and for that I am grateful.
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