- Aug 7, 2002
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Tome is first handmade Bible in 500 years
By L. KENT WOLGAMOTT / Lincoln Journal Star
Before the printing press, books were crafted by hand. That was particularly true for Bibles, which were lavishly scripted and illustrated by monks. Then Johannes Gutenberg printed his Bible in 1452 and handcrafted illuminated Bibles became a thing of the past. Now, for the first time in 500 years, a new handmade Bible is being created.
Commissioned by Saint John’s University and Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., the partially completed Saint John’s Bible -- created by a team of calligraphers and artists in Wales -- has already received lavish praise. It’s been called “America’s Book of Kells” by Newsweek and “one of the extraordinary undertakings of our time” by Smithsonian magazine.
Judging from the nearly 100 pages of the Bible on view through Easter at the Joslyn Art Museum in an exhibition entitled “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible,” that praise might be an understatement. Handwritten on oversized vellum (scraped calfskin) pages, the Bible, when opened, will measure 3 feet wide by 2 feet high. Crafted in the traditional manner using quill pens, natural handmade inks, pigments ground from precious minerals and stones and copper, silver, gold and platinum life gild, the pages are breathtaking to view.
But the Saint John’s Bible is not a copy of an ancient text. It’s a fully modern document. Its pages were laid out by computer. It contains digital voice prints and utilizes computer image manipulation in some of its handdrawn illuminations. Many of those images reflect our times rather than reaching to the past, such as the picture of Jesus in blue jeans that illuminates “The Parable of the Sower and the Seed: Mark 4: 3-9.”
It also uses a modern English translation for its text. The New Revised Standard Version was selected because it has been officially authorized for use by most major Christian churches. The Saint John’s Bible began about 10 years ago when Donald Jackson, one of the world’s foremost calligraphers, proposed the project to the university. Jackson had developed a relationship with Saint John’s because of the internationally acclaimed collection of more than 100,000 manuscripts in the school’s Hill Monastic Manuscript Library and its commitment to the art of calligraphy and of the book.
An illuminated Bible is, for the calligrapher, the equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. “It is the big one,” Jackson said. “It (the proposal) wasn’t because I was religious. But I found myself drawn to sacred subject matter, subject matter that was a perfect merger with my craft, my art.” Commissioning the project, for which Jackson and his team will be paid $4.5 million, wasn’t an easy decision for the small Benedictine school and abbey.
“We weren’t sure how it was going to go,” said Father Columba Stewart, who heads the Hill Library. “We weren’t sure if it was going to be a flop or if it would work, and we weren’t sure if Donald would rise to the occasion. But it is magnificent.”
In 1998, Jackson and his team of six scribes and illuminators gathered in his scriptorium in Monmouth, Wales, to begin the labor-intensive process of creating the seven-volume, 1,150-page Bible. Depending on the scribe, writing each of the two-columned pages of 108 lines of text took between 7.5 and 11 hours. Creating the illuminations was another matter. A Committee on Text and Illumination at St. John’s selected the passages for illumination and often sent Jackson some ideas for those images via e-mail — “Which isn’t to say that Donald does everything they tell him,” Stewart said. “Such is the nature of the artist and the patron.”
There are some notable differences between the contemporary approach and the illuminations in the medieval Bibles. In the ancient Bibles, nearly all the supernatural stories, such as Jonah and the whale, were lavishly recreated on the pages, providing the largely illiterate population a glimpse at what they’d heard about when the Bible was read to them. There are few such illuminations in the Saint John’s Bible. In creating the illuminations, Jackson often interpreted the passages for the message rather than literally depicting what is in the text. So the parable of the loaves and fishes gets a treatment that emphasizes not the literal miracle but the fact that it was an act of giving, sharing and love and those qualities multiply as they are passed from person to person.
“There’s a story under the story,” Jackson said. “It’s a way of looking into myself and discovering. It’s a very interesting process.”
The most obviously contemporary elements of the illuminations are the voice prints that are used throughout the Psalms, which Jackson called yearnings for connection with God.
So he had a technician create computerized voice prints of the St. John’s monks chanting, along with voice prints of Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist songs and chants. Those images were then photographed and are utilized in the illuminations of the Psalms, which are modeled to reflect the Hebrew Torah.
Similarly, the Menorah turns up in many illuminations, including a dramatic frontispiece for the book of Matthew that incorporates English, Hebrew and the double helix of DNA into “The Genealogy of Christ.” Today’s world also turns up in illuminations in other ways. In “The Life of Paul: Acts 15: 1-36,” a figure of Paul, body drawn by Jackson, face by the team’s icon painter, is stepping away from an ancient boat near his feet. Behind him is a modern cityscape, putting the apostle in the world in which the Bible was made in much the same manner as the medieval monks treated similar subjects.
There are also strikingly detailed illuminations of Minnesota flora and fauna in the Bible, a direct reference to Saint John’s. To further the American connection, Native imagery can also be found on some of the pages. Joslyn is just the second museum to show “Illuminating the Word,” which opened at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts last summer. The Joslyn exhibition, timed to coincide with the Lenten season, is expected to draw large crowds to the museum, perhaps rivaling the numbers who, 35 years ago, came to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, the most viewed exhibition in Joslyn’s history.
“I’m not saying this is the Dead Sea Scrolls, but it has the same kind of allure and mystery,” said Joslyn director J. Brooks Joyner. “I think it’s going to be one of the most exciting and popular exhibitions ever at Joslyn.”
“Illuminating the Word” contains pages drawn from the first three volumes of the Saint John’s Bible: “Gospels and Acts,” “Pentateuch” and “Psalms.” An exhibition featuring the fourth volume, “The Prophets,” opens next week at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The fifth volume, “Wisdom,” is largely complete. All the writing is finished for the final two volumes: “Historical Books” and “Letters and Revelation.”
The project’s timetable says the Bible will be done in the summer of 2007. But, given the nature of the undertaking, “I’ll be happy to get it by Christmas,” Stewart said. Even after the work on the Bible is completed, it will continue its museum tour, allowing people around the world to see some of the original pages. Stewart said he doesn’t expect the entire Bible to be at Saint John’s until 2010 or 2011.