A scribe bends intently over a worktable in his scriptorium in Monmouth, Wales. The page before him is vellumcalfskin sanded to a velvety smoothness. His goose quill pen has been hardened in hot sand and cut with a knife to hold ink and to create a precise line. He dips the end into vermilion pigment mixed with egg yolk for luminosity and begins to shape the first capital letter of a new chapter of the Bible he is copying.
Finishing this page will take a day. If he makes a mistake, he will have to scrape the vellum and write the word or line over again. The pressure is greater because the other side has already been illuminatedbiblical themes spun into a visual tapestry of brilliant colors, evocative imagery, and radiant gold.
But the scribe's hand is guided by long experience and a clear idea of the words' pattern on the page. The line length has already been worked out by computer to ensure a perfect fit. The accompanying illustrations are the result of months of e-mail messages between the scribe and those who have commissioned him, discussing theological interpretation and symbolism. Medieval artistry with a modern twist: That's the achievement and the challenge of the Saint John's Bible, the first handwritten, illuminated Bible in 500 years.
"We had no idea what we were getting into in 1998," jokes Father Columba Stewart about the decision of Saint John's Abbey and University to celebrate the new millennium in this countercultural and artistically massive way. The forward-looking community of 200 Benedictine monks in Collegeville, Minnesota (known as the locale of Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk and unfortunately as the scene of a recent abuse scandal) commissioned Welsh calligrapher Donald ...1