Power and glory

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Dinah Starkey marvels at illustrated books that bring religion to life

In the Middle Ages, a church was conceived as a living picture book. Every nook and cranny was decorated with frescoes and paintings, statues and carvings, telling stories of the Bible and of saints and martyrs. Few churchgoers could read, but all responded to powerful imagery.

The same powerful imagery is obvious in this collection of Bible stories and RE books. Their creators are following an honourable tradition and, like craftsmen of old, their work is picture-led.

Fiona French has produced a string of beautiful picture books over the years. Her colours are ravishing and she has an extraordinary ability to draw on a range of artistic traditions. Paradise (Frances Lincoln, pound;10.99) is inspired by the organic lines of Art Nouveau and Tiffany stained glass. It tells the story of the creation and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The text, taken from the King James Bible, makes few concessions to the beginner reader, but it speaks for itself through its power and beauty. Words are used sparingly - just two or three sentences on each page - enabling teachers to paraphrase the unfamiliar language while children admire the glorious illustrations.

For Easter (Frances Lincoln pound;10.99), Fiona French draws her inspiration from the stained-glass windows of Ely, Lincoln, Canterbury and York, together with images from that greatest of all illuminated manuscripts, Les Tr s Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The result is breathtaking, and the grave, stylised images, together with the archaic language of the King James Bible, help to distance this most difficult of stories, lending it an archaic, ritual feel. Both books are published by Frances Lincoln.

In Easter, the Everlasting Story (Lion Children's Books, pound;4.99), Lois Rock takes a different approach. She begins with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and ends with Ascension and Pentecost, in a reworking of the story that is clearly aimed at primary aged children. She tells it in direct simple prose and the result is much more immediate and shocking than the version by Fiona French. There is a strong sense that this is about real people and real suffering, enhanced by Christine Balit's evocative illustrations, sandy browns and golds, sparked with sage and ultramarine. The men and women who populate her landscapes could have stepped out of an El Greco. The feel is dark and powerfully Middle Eastern.

e-mail: Jesus@anytime by Hilary Robinson and Anthony Lewis (Hodder Children's Books, pound;4.99) brings the story up to date with a look at the way in which the media would portray the life of Jesus today.

The opening spread sets the scene as Jesus and his apostles, dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, gather in front of a skyline of looming tower blocks. The news of His coming breaks in the local paper and the scrum is on as television and internet journalists report on His miracles. There are peace marches and a gospel tour before the news coverage begins to turn sour and hackers attack his website. It is a thought-provoking book that has uses beyond RE lessons, raising issues about trial by media and the role of Christianity today.

God and His Creations comprises 11 of the most popular stories retold and illustrated by Marcia Williams (Walker Books, pound;10.99). Every page is crowded with her trademark comic-strip illustrations and the borders are framed with a subversive snake and clusters of angels, who comment on the action as it unfolds. It's a witty, lively retelling which will be relished by young children. Every page is crammed with amusing details, so allow plenty of time for them to enjoy it in ones or twos.

Sheila Moxley's charming primitive illustrations add a special warmth to Rebecca's Passover (Frances Lincoln, pound;5.99), by Ad le Geras. Rebecca and her younger brother are helping their grandmother to get ready for the festival and, as they carry out the traditional tasks, they remember the first Passover, when the Israelites escaped from Egypt.

Each ritual triggers a new memory until the whole story is told. This happy, accessible book is a great starting point for work on Judaism.

The Most Magnificent Mosque (Frances Lincoln, pound;10.99) tells the true story of La Mesquita, the great Mosque of Cordoba, which became the site of a Catholic cathedral. Ann Jungman has woven the historical facts into a story of three naughty boys, one Christian, one Jewish and one Muslim, who work together to save the building and its gardens for all three communities. The glowing illustrations by Shelley Vowles, precise and delicate as a Persian miniature, give the simple text a whole new dimension. But then, as medieval artists knew so well, that's what pictures are for.

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