"IN AN AGE when we can send an electronic
version of the Bible into the universe
in a matter of seconds,” says Father
Eric Hollas, O.S.B., of Saint John’s Abbey,
“there’s something profound about writing
out the Bible word by word. It suggests
that each word of the Bible has
value. And it suggests that God still
prefers to use frail human
beings rather than machines
to do his work in the world.”
Before its first reproduction volume,
Gospels and Acts, was published
by Liturgical Press in 2005,
The Saint John’s Bible was already
recognized as a masterpiece that
combines 21st-century technology
and scholarship with the
ancient art of copying books by hand. The Psalms and Pentateuch volumes were published earlier
Almost 30 years before the monks at Saint John’s
Abbey and University commissioned him for this
project, chief calligrapher Donald Jackson had
promised himself that someday he would produce
a handwritten, illuminated copy of the Bible.
He has described this project as
his “Sistine Chapel,” and few
would dispute that description.
Newsweek hailed The Saint
John’s Bible as “America’s Book of
Kells” (March 2000), and the
December 2000 cover story in
Smithsonian magazine called it
“one of the extraordinary undertakings
of our time.”
All of this work is undertaken not to draw
attention to the project’s calligraphers, artists,
organizers and donors but to honor the beauty
and power of God’s word.
According to Linda Orzechowski, a public
service and operations assistant at the university’s
Hill Museum and Manuscript Library
(HMML), this project aims to:
• ignite the spiritual imagination of believers,
• glorify God’s word and affirm our God-given
• affirm the monastic tradition of preserving
knowledge and culture,
• explore the process of manuscript copying,
• foster the arts both inside and outside the
Saint John’s community, and
• give voice to the marginalized.
Early feedback suggests that The Saint John’s
Bible is meeting all these goals.
In 1995, Father Hollas, then director of HMML,
asked Brother Dietrich Reinhart, O.S.B., the
president of Saint John’s University, if the
abbey and university should commission a
handwritten and illuminated Bible with calligraphy.
After three years of discussion, refinement
and fund-raising of more than $4,000,000
from individuals, groups and corporations, the
copying and illuminating began.
Jackson, a senior illuminator for “Her
Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the
House of Lords,” was named artistic director
and illuminator for this project. The monks at
Saint John’s Abbey already knew him well
because of his calligraphy seminars at Saint
Jackson heads a team of 14 calligraphers and
artists who work at or near his scriptorium in
Montmouth, Wales. With precision and devotion,
they transfer the text of the Catholic Edition
of the New Revised Standard Version onto
calfskin vellum sheets that measure 15-7/8 by
24-1/2 inches. The trade-edition volumes are
about 60 percent that size.
Using goose, turkey and swan quills, the calligraphers
and artists work with carbon-based
Chinese stick ink, ground up and mixed with
water. The Saint John’s Bible will eventually have
160 major illuminations, fashioned from handmade
inks, hand-ground pigments, plus gold
and silver leaf gild. Jackson has created unique
scripts for this Bible, with five scripts for the
Book of Psalms.
The passages to be illuminated were selected
by the eight-member Committee on Illumination
and Text, which includes artists, biblical scholars, medievalists and art historians.
They meet with Jackson twice a year.
Father Michael Patella, O.S.B., head
of this committee, explains that the
biblical passages chosen for illumination
reflect the project’s six values summarized
by Orzechowski above.
The illumination includes scenes
unknown to medieval scribes (for example,
a view of Earth from outer space),
plus several instances of Minnesota
vegetation and wildlife. One Benedictine
feature is a marginal note identifying
every biblical passage cited in the
Rule of St. Benedict.
Father Patella says that his involvement
in this project “has fostered
within me a deeper appreciation for
the theology in art and the art in theology.
Somewhere along the line, these
two entities became separated, and I
believe the Church must bring them
back together. They are two halves to
the same reality.”
Jackson told St. Anthony Messenger: “I
believe the Bible is a living, moving
thing. It is not cast in stone. We are constantly
finding many new things and
what we find enriches our understanding
of it. It does not destroy what we
thought we knew but, in fact, enriches
Speaking very personally, he explains: “By having to illustrate it, you
open your mind to study, to allowing
yourself to answer the questions and, at
some point, you get the privilege you
may have just figured it out. That is
also what this Bible is about. Within
these illustrations, there is an open
invitation to find your own answers.”
Men, women and children who ponder
and pray over The Saint John’s Bible may find themselves recalling what the
author of the Letter to the Hebrews
wrote almost 2,000 years ago: “Indeed,
the word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and
spirit, joints and marrow, and able to
discern reflections and thoughts of the
Schedule: The volumes entitled Gospels and Acts, Psalms and Pentateuch are available. The Prophets and Wisdom Literature volumes will
be published in February 2007 and September 2007 respectively;
Historical Books should follow in spring 2008. Letters and Revelation,
the final volume, is scheduled for publication in 2009.
Publisher: Liturgical Press
(www.litpress.org or 1-800-858-5450). It has also published “Illuminating the Word:
The Making of The Saint John’s
Bible” (240 pages).
Formats: trade edition (three
volumes now available); limited
edition, full-sized facsimiles
(not yet available) and
prints (information available
on the Web site). A CD-ROM
version is under consideration.
Home for the original text: Hill Museum and Manuscript
Library (HMML) at Saint John’s
University in Collegeville,
Minnesota. Visitors to this library can take a self-guided tour through
the gallery; HMML (www.hmml.org) will publish the facsimile
Exhibitions: “Illuminating the Word,” October 6, 2006—December
23, 2006, at the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.). Dates for
upcoming exhibitions at the Naples Art Museum (Naples, Florida), the
Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix) and the Mobile Museum of Art
(Mobile, Alabama) are posted at www.saintjohnsbible.org.
“Gilded Legacies: The Saint John’s Bible in Context” at the Museum
of Biblical Art in New York City (September 7—November 26, 2006)
uses folios from the Prophets, plus embellished books and individual
leaves from the collections of the American Bible Society and the
Jewish Theological Seminary.
Selections from the Prophets volume will be featured with the “Dead Sea Scrolls” exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum
(June 29—December 31, 2007).
The “Illuminating the Word” exhibition debuted at The Minneapolis
Institute of Arts in April 2005. The Victoria and Albert
Museum in London hosted a related exhibit earlier this year.
Movie/TV: “The Illuminator and a Bible for the 21st Century,” a 49-minute television program created by the BBC in 2003, is available
through the HMML Online Gift Shop or from Liturgical Press.
“The Word Made Flesh,” a film produced by Jean Scoon of Saint
John’s University, won a CINE Golden Eagle Award in 2005.
THIS WAS FOUNDED 80 miles north of
Minneapolis in 1856 by Benedictine
monks from Saint Vincent Abbey (now
Archabbey) in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. A
school began the following year, expanding
eventually into a preparatory school,
a university, a school of theology and
seminary, plus several academic and cultural
The Minnesota abbey of approximately
165 monks has established monastic
foundations in Canada, Japan, Mexico,
Puerto Rico, plus two in the United States.
Saint John’s Abbey owns Liturgical Press,
an important resource for liturgical and
ecumenical renewal. See www.sja.osb.org for more details about the abbey.
In June 2002, Pat McCloskey, O.F.M., became editor
of this publication. Father Pat has written five books,
coauthored one about the Order of Friars Minor in
China and edited several others.