"And the Word became flesh"

Image from Frans Masereel, My Book of Hours

Frans Masereel, My Book of Hours

Wordless novels abound with Christian imagery, which artists used as a point of reference to ground their critiques of modern society. Frans Masereel, though raised Catholic, was agnostic as an adult, even saying that the God “we are taught about in the catechism… doesn’t interest me at all.” Nevertheless, Christian teachings about nonviolence, equality, the dignity of all human life, and caring for the poor and oppressed strongly resonated with him. His first book, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion (1918), draws a parallel between Jesus’s persecution and the life of a factory worker who is executed for leading a workers’ revolt.

In 1919, Masereel published his second wordless novel, My Book of Hours. The title alludes to a popular type of medieval prayerbook which was often illustrated. One of the most famous books of hours, known today as the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, contains scenes of peasants toiling in the fields. In a similar way, Masereel depicts moments—some happy, some sad—in the life of a worker in a modern city.

After traveling around the world and gaining a sense of universal brotherhood, the story’s main character returns to the city and, like Jesus, scorns its corrupt figures of authority, including a priest. Run out of town, the man roams the countryside. Soon we see him kneeling at the foot of a cross. The scene marks the beginning of an enigmatic final sequence of ten images which may symbolize man’s yearning to be free. The last image shows the hero’s skeleton or spirit sauntering happily through the most silent landscape of all: space. Like medieval “dance of death” woodcuts, it is a reminder of the vanity of worldly concerns and power. Death, the great leveler, whom no words can persuade, comes for all.

Another element of Christianity that plays out in wordless novels is the radical morality of the Sermon on the Mount, which inspired the Social Gospel movement. Organized at the turn of the twentieth century in response to problems of industrial life such as economic inequality, child labor, poor working conditions, slums, alcoholism, and war, the movement’s followers believed that for all of Christianity’s promises about the life to come, its core message is about achieving peace and justice in this life. Though no wordless novels focus entirely on the Social Gospel, many of them were influenced by its progressive ideals.

Lynd Ward’s father, Harry Ward, was a Methodist minister and prominent Christian socialist. Not surprisingly, Lynd himself was conscious of Christianity and pondered its place in modern society. His short wordless novel Prelude to a Million Years (1933) opens with a striking image of a cross on the trash heap of history. In the pictures that follow, the central character, an artist, obsesses over carving a sculpture of a woman with enormous breasts. Leaving his studio, he witnesses scenes of domestic violence, labor unrest, militaristic nationalism, and drunkenness—and walks past in silence. In the end, we find him despairing over his lifeless idol, which, unlike the Christian God, offers no words of guidance or support or anything to suggest it cares about humankind. Artists, Ward may be saying, should use their talents to call attention to social injustice and not close themselves off from the world.