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The Saint John's Bible: Glorifying God's Word Anew
By Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.
The Benedictine monks of Collegeville, Minnesota, have commissioned a handwritten and illuminated Bible, the first project of this scope in over 500 years.

Q U I C K S C A N

An Intriguing 'What If?'
At a Glance
Saint John's Abbey


"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 this year.

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 dignity,

• 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.

An Intriguing 'What If?'

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 John’s University.

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 it.”

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 heart” (4:12).

SPONSORED LINKS

 

At A Glance

Internet: www.saintjohnsbible.org

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 edition.

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.

 

Saint John's Abbey

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 institutions.

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.


 


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