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In the Galleries: Robert De Niro’s King James Version-inspired tattoos in "Cape Fear"

The 1991 Martin Scorsese–directed thriller Cape Fear may seem an unlikely candidate for documenting the use and influence of the King James Bible, but its central character, Max Cady, as played by Robert De Niro, wielded biblical verses like weapons.

This aspect of Cady was absent in both the original 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and in The Executioners (1957), the novel by John D. MacDonald on which the film was based.

Cape Fear follows Cady, a convicted felon, as he seeks vengeance against his attorney, Sam Bowden. While in prison, Cady learned that Bowden suppressed information that might have resulted in a lighter sentence or acquittal. The biblical story of Job’s suffering looms large as a model for Cady’s punishment of Bowden.

The research materials from the Robert De Niro collection reveal the extent to which De Niro was involved in the development of the Pentecostal past of and biblical influence on Cady. To prepare for the role, De Niro consulted multiple Bibles, a concordance, Bible study guides, Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book of Job, and books and articles about Pentecostalism and Pentecostal worship.

Screenwriter Wesley Strick recalled, “Every scene of Bob’s, he would call me and say, ‘Can Max say something else here about vengeance, from the Bible?’” De Niro also worked closely with Scorcese and artist Ilona Herman to identify Bible verses and designs for Cady’s extensive tattoos.

Cape Fear did not offer viewers a traditional Bible story. Indeed, Cady’s use of the Bible was troubling for many audiences, and it contributed to the tension of the film. One critic observed, “The dissonance between the cultural expectations we associate with the Bible and our immediate perception of this character [as evil] contributes to the sustained horror of the film.”

Materials from Cape Fear and other films influenced by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

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In the Galleries: The Origins of WWJD

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In the 1890s, Kansas minister Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) turned to “sermon stories” to engage his congregation. In 1896, Sheldon began reading to the Central Church of Topeka a new series of stories called In His Steps. Like other Sheldon sermon stories, In His Steps ran as a serial in The Advance (Chicago) before being published as a book.

Sheldon and his publishers, who had failed to properly secure a copyright for In His Steps, were stunned at the novel’s success—and all of the pirated editions that emerged. In His Steps became a runaway bestseller in the United States and England.

Sheldon took his inspiration and title from I Peter 2:21 and used the newly revised King James Bible (1881/1885) as his source text: “For here unto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.”

The 12 central characters in the novel take a pledge to live their lives guided by the question, “What would Jesus do?” As Sheldon was part of the larger Social Gospel movement that sought to improve social problems throughout the world, much of the novel centers on how characters used the pledge to minister to the needs of the urban poor and to fight the destructive effects of alcohol. The popularity of the novel waned, but it was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, and the question “What would Jesus do?” again swept the country, with the four letters “WWJD” appearing on bracelets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.

Sheldon’s manuscript and pen holder, along with the works of other authors inspired by the King James Bible, are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

The original manuscript of Charles M. Sheldon's "In His Steps." Sheldon first delivered the book as a series of sermons in 1896.
The original manuscript of Charles M. Sheldon's "In His Steps." Sheldon first delivered the book as a series of sermons in 1896.

In the Galleries: John Bunyan’s "The Pilgrim's Progress"

"Plan of the Road from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City" from the 1833 edition of "The Pilgrim's Progress." Click on image to view enlarged version.
"Plan of the Road from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City" from the 1833 edition of "The Pilgrim's Progress." Click on image to view enlarged version.

Few writers have been as biblically obsessed as John Bunyan (1628–1688). In his spiritual autobiography, he writes of being literally accosted, struck, and pursued by Bible verses wherever he went. His life, like his writings, was a biblical allegory. One of his most famous works, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was the most popular book in English, apart from the Bible itself. Bunyan wrote the allegory during his imprisonment for preaching without the sanction of the Church of England. The novel follows the central character Christian on his journey “from this world to that which is to come,” and is evocative of such works as Dante’s Divine Comedy. The plan or map helps readers follow the protagonist’s journey and provides an effective plot summary as well, as it depicts major events of Christian’s voyage to the Celestial City. Both the style and language of The Pilgrim’s Progress demonstrate the profound influence the King James translation had on Bunyan.

Bunyan’s work and those of other authors inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

In the Galleries: Marc Chagall's "Let My People Go" from "The Story of Exodus"

"Let My People Go" by Marc Chagall, 1966. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris.
"Let My People Go" by Marc Chagall, 1966. © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris.

From the very beginning of printing, the Bible was regarded as the ultimate challenge. It presented printers and artists with the daunting task of creating an appropriate medium for communicating sacred text. They met this challenge with widely divergent methods. Some favored sharp, clean typography and traditional artistic approaches, placing as little as possible between the reader and the word. Others celebrated the text with elaborate typographical or artistic interpretations of biblical passages.

One such example of the latter is this large publication in which the text of Exodus is paired with 24 color lithographs by artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985). The prints show Chagall’s expert use of color and are representative of the lyrical, dream-like scenes for which the artist is known. The Story of Exodus represents a major focus of Chagall’s work, namely Judaic spirituality and Hasidism. One of the great lithographers of modern art, Chagall produced more than 1,000 original lithographs over the course of his career.

Fifteen of the 24 prints from The Story of Exodus are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

In the Galleries: The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley.
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753–1784) was born in Africa and sold into slavery. At the age of seven or eight she was purchased by a Boston tailor, John Wheatley, for his wife. While in the Wheatley household, Wheatley learned to read and write. Within 16 months of her arrival, Wheatley said she could read “the most difficult part of the sacred writings.” She also read extensively from the poetry of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Thomas Gray, as well as classics from Ovid, Horace, and Virgil.

Wheatley began writing her own poetry, and in September 1773, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London. As the title suggests, Wheatley’s collected poems explored a variety of topics, from the well-known “On Being Brought from Africa to America” to elegies on the deaths of loved ones to a poem simply titled “On Imagination.” Two of these poems, “Goliath of Gath” and “Isaiah lxiii. 1-8,” incorporate the language of the King James Bible. This excerpt from “Isaiah” reveals the influence of the King James Version on Wheatley:

“Mine was the act,” th’ Almighty Saviour said,

And shook the dazzling glories of his head,

“When all forsook I trod the press alone,

“And conquer’d by omnipotence my own;

“For man’s release sustain’d the pond’rous load,

“For man the wrath of an immortal God:

“To execute th’ Eternal’s dread command

“My soul I sacrific’d with willing hand;

“Sinless I stood before the avenging frown,

“Atoning thus for vices not my own.”

Like Milton, Wheatley incorporated elements of classical literature into her poetry. Her retelling of the story of Goliath not only reproduced the language of the King James Bible but also followed the conventions of classical epic poetry. Wheatley’s poetry was largely forgotten after her death until abolitionists rediscovered and popularized her work in the 1830s.

Some of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral and those of other poets inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, through July 29.

In the galleries: Jacob Lawrence’s "Eight Studies for The Book of Genesis"

"Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis, No. 4" by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. © 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
"Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis, No. 4" by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. © 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) received his early education as an artist in Harlem. By the time he was in his twenties, he had received national recognition for his work, notably “The Migration Series,” about the African-American migration from the South to the North following World War I. Lawrence spent most of the rest of his life in the Pacific Northwest, and at the time of his death, he was generally recognized as one of the most important African-American artists.

All eight of Lawrence’s large silkscreen prints for the Book of Genesis are on display in sequence in The King James Bible: Its History and Influence exhibition. They show the artist’s strongly colorful and mildly abstract style at its best. The words of the preacher invoke the simplicity and force of the King James Version.

Lawrence’s works and those of other artists who were inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.