Fore-Edge Paintings

Ever heard of fore-edge painting? I hadn’t until I stumbled onto the Alcuin Scholarly and Rare Books store when I was in Scottsdale, AZ, in February. My friend Bruce and I spent three hours browsing through some really old books, including an 1885 Huckleberry Finn ($15,000) and a Greek New Testament printed in 1533, the same year Martin Luther published A Mighty Fortress is Our God. In addition, there were several 18th and 19th century books with fore-edge paintings. A fore-edge painting is a scene painted on the edges of the pages of a book. When the pages are fanned, a painting appears (check out this 30 second YouTube video).

My grandma created her own version of fore-edge painting. About 25 years ago, when she was approaching 100 years of age and living in a nursing home, I picked up her thick, large-print Bible. The edges were white except for a dirty-looking thin band around the middle of her Bible. It looked like someone had marked her Bible with a grey Sharpie. When I fanned the pages, I discovered the band coincided with the location of the Book of Psalms, evidence that’s where she spent a majority of her time reading – an indicator of her confidence in God in the waning years of her life. We are living in a time when we could use some confidence in the midst of uncertainty.

For the past 25 or so years, I have been in the habit of reading a psalm a week. There are 150 psalms in the Bible, so simple math tells me I have read the Book of Psalms 8-9 times over that span (markups and highlights as clear evidence). As I’ve continued in the Psalms, they have provided a wonderful glimpse of who God is and who we are in relation to him. The Psalms are full of praise and lament, gratitude and sorrow. The psalmists wrote songs that expressed their raw feelings and thoughts as they navigated life that often felt pandemic-like.

One of my favorite scripture readings during this disrupted time in our lives is Psalm 121. Psalms 120 through 134 are known as Songs of Ascent. These are songs the people of Israel sang as they traveled together on foot up into Jerusalem to celebrate the various festivals, like the Passover. That means Jesus would have sang these same songs as he journeyed to Jerusalem with his family, friends, and early followers. It means that he likely sang some of these songs as he headed to Jerusalem on what we just celebrated – Palm Sunday. Psalm 121 (ESV)…

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
    From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time forth and forevermore.

I think it would be fair to say this song refers to God as our keeper. The Hebrew term for keeper requires a number of English words to do it justice. It suggests God as a guardian who looks after us and takes responsibility for us. It implies that as he watches over us he is very aware of the things that give us reason to lament. It speaks of God as our protector and defender; as preserver. Bottom line: God has our back. He has our best interests in mind. He is worthy of our praise. And of our lament. As our keeper, he certainly wants to hear both. Of this we can be confident. I suspect my grandma knew God as her keeper.

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24-25)

Published by

Curt Hinkle

I am a practical theologian. A theology that doesn't play out in one's everyday life is impractical, or of no real use. A simple definition of theology is the attempt to understand God and what he is up to, allowing us to join him in his work.

5 thoughts on “Fore-Edge Paintings”

  1. Curt, I loved your suggestion of God being a guardian. It really struck me, yes God is my Guardian, who looks after me and takes responsibility of me! What better time to hear these words, than Holy Week. Happy Easter! He is Risen!


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