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 Jackson to create a "Bible for the 21st century." It is made with medieval techniques, but uses the NRSV translation (including the Apocrypha) and incorporates contemporary allusions in the art and modern technology in the planning.
By the time the Bible is finished (scheduled for 2009), the 1,150 handwritten pages will represent a decade of conversations and labor by artists, theologians, and scholars on two continents. Eventually, the pages will be bound between boards of Welsh oak into seven volumes and displayed in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library on Saint John's campus.
Smithsonian magazine says that the Bible, expected to cost $4 million in donations, is "one of the extraordinary undertakings of our times." According to Saint John's, the endeavor is "a bold and dignified witness to the enduring importance of the Word of God."
Saint John's has taken the unfinished Bible on a national tour called "Illuminating the Word." Its 2005 debut at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts drew 60,000 people. Since then it has traveled to various parts of the U.S. and is scheduled to hit Arizona, Canada, Washington, and Alabama in 2008. (See saintjohnsbible.org/exhibitions for the schedule.)
Visitors peruse artists' sketches, calligraphers' tools and pigments, and around 100 pages from the Gospels and Acts, the Pentateuch, and the Psalms. In large exhibit cases propped at an angle for easy viewing, two-feet-tall by three-feet-wide spreads are arranged to make you feel as if you were gazing at an open book. The magnetic combination of ancient Scripture and contemporary art draws Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and atheists. People lean in and read.
Artistic director Donald Jackson, a renowned calligrapher and senior scribe to the Crown Office of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, calls himself a "spiritual" person but "not an affiliated religious person"not a regular churchgoer. Yet his dream has been to write the Bible. "It's the sacred text of the Western world," he explains. "It is the pinnacle of a person's life to be working with God's words. There couldn't be a better, higher use for one's skills." The Saint John's Bible, he says, is his "Sistine Chapel."
Jackson created a new script for the Bible that could clearly and beautifully express the unique rhythms of the English language. Each large capital letter at the beginning of chapters is uniquehe designed more than 70 versions of the letter T for the Pentateuch alone. He and his team of calligraphers copy text on handmade vellum using hand-cut quills and hand-ground paints. It takes seven-and-a-half to ten hours to write 108 lines in two columnsa single page. "You can't keep it up, physically," he says. "It's like playing the violin for ten hours at a stretch. It takes absolute concentration."
The entire process flies in the face of modernity's worship of speed and efficiency. This is no longer the Middle Ages. We have the printing press. We have computers. What does the handwritten word have that the mass-printed word doesn't? The Saint John's team hopes more Americans will ask that question.
Jackson explains that calligraphy honors the words and the person receiving those words: "Every tiny mark contains the beat of the heart of the person who made it." The "Illuminating the Word" exhibit notes that the other two "peoples of the Book"Jews and Muslimshonor scribes as those who handle the very words of God. The Torah read in a synagogue must be handwritten on a parchment scroll. In Islam, calligraphy is considered the highest art form. Eastern religions also esteem it. Christians, by contrast, have almost exclusively embraced the printing press for their sacred text.
We do so for good historical reasons. The advent of printing enabled the Reformation, produced a flood of Bibles throughout Europe and in mission fields around the world, and made Scripture truly a Word for all people. But one wonders whether the abundance of mass-produced Bibles has encouraged modern Christians to treat the book with a casualness that would have shocked those in previous centuries.
Timothy Botts, senior art director at Tyndale House Publishers and a professional calligrapher known for his artistic renderings of biblical passages, hopes that the superb artistry of the Saint John's Bible will raise Christian awareness of calligraphy. "In Christianity, there has been such a zeal for getting the Word into as many hands as possible," he says. "The printing press was seen as a tremendous boost to the Great Commission. So we just became so practical. It's almost inconceivable to me that ever since the Reformation we have lost the sense that the Word is worthy of celebrationnot that the Bible should become an object of worship, but that it could stand for the very precious message that it holds."
Making Pictures with Words
A good reader of the Sunday Scripture passage will not read it in monotone. She will alter her tone, facial expressions, and even body language to bring out the verses' emotion and significance. Calligraphy does all that in ink.
Calligrapher Diana von Arx, one of three Americans on the Saint John's artistic team, describes her task as "trying to make a picture with words." Certain verses that are particularly important for Jews and Christiansfor example, the Shema ("Hear, O Israel") and the Lord's Prayerget an extra dose of creative attention. The Ten Commandments arise from a chaos of letters into the orderliness of God's laws. The Beatitudes nestle against a beautiful stained-glass-window collage of "Blesseds." Psalm 150's joyful litany of praises, written entirely in gold, nearly dances off the page with reflected light. Elsewhere, pictures are woven together with key phrases from the textand sometimes cross-referenced to other biblical passages. They are not literal illustrations but evocative visual interpretations.
"Illumination" refers to the act of "lighting up" the text with artistic embellishments, often with gold leaf. From the beginning, Jackson and his Saint John's advisors faced a crucial question: How do you picture God, or even the face of Christ, in a modern Bible? They decided to suggest or symbolize the divine presence with gold. In the illumination of Creation, a band of gold shatters the darkness. On the frontispiece to the Gospel of John, a Christ who is pure gold steps out of the cosmos that was created through him.
The artists are, in a way, creating a visual vocabulary for the 21st century by their choice of modern imagery. What is our era's symbol of evil so heinous that to forgive it would take nothing less than a radical act of love? 9/11. So there is a faint outline of the Twin Towers in the midst of the prodigal son story. Where Christ says that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church, the darkness of Hades includes strands of the AIDS virus.
Indeed, this Bible is emphatically a book for today. The DNA double helix winds through a menorah-shaped genealogy of Christ in Matthew. The Valley of Dry Bones illustration is based on photos of bones and debris piled up at Auschwitz, Iraq, and Rwanda. The crowd at Pentecost is based on spectators at a Saint John's football game. The sower in Jesus' parable, though painted like an Eastern Orthodox icon, wears jeans and a sweatshirt. Paul stands before skyscrapers and Fifth Avenue tenements. The Great Commission is etched across our solar system.
Making reference to the latest anthropological theories of human origins, Jackson based his portrayals of Adam and Eve on Ethiopian tribal people. At an exhibition in Omaha, a museum docent noticed an African American woman staring at this particular page. When the docent commented on her intense interest, the visitor turned to her with tears in her eyes: "This is the first time I have ever seen an Adam and Eve that looked like me."
Jackson is quick to acknowledge that more than a dozen calligraphers and artists are involved in this projecta fact beautifully visible in the diverse artistic styles, from Aidan Hart's homage to Eastern Orthodox icons to Chris Tomlin's botanical illustrations to Jackson's more abstract flair. Sometimes several artists have collaborated on a single illumination. Not all are Christians, yet all have been drawn together by a common passion for the project.
In the Middle Ages, artists often worked together in workshops or scriptoria on commissioned projects. Art was made for a community, and artists were accountable to the community. "This process is so hard for modern people who are so tied up with art being an expression of individuality," Jackson admits. Those working on the Saint John's Bible, nevertheless, have become a "community of purpose." He likens them to a jazz band: Each musician has his or her moment of solo performance, but the individual melodies are woven together into one piece of music.
Jackson works under the supervision of Saint John's committee on illumination and text. This group of theologians, biblical scholars, medievalists, artists, and art historians chooses which biblical passages to highlight and sends Jackson a detailed theological brief with an exegesis of the passage, cross-references, instructions on things to avoid, and other ideas. Jackson chooses "the punchline" (as he calls it) of the committee's suggestions and does his own research before sending digital images of his sketches back to the States. A single page can take two to three months of delicate transatlantic communication.
The Saint John's Bible has depended on the enthusiastic support of a much wider communityan astonishing number of people who have helped finance the monumental project: $1,000 for a page of script, $10,000 for an illumination, all the way up to $250,000 for a volume. One Boy Scout troop donated $5.52 from a charity auction to sponsor a single verse.
The project aims to give people a visual pathway into the biblical text. "Images can function like Scripture commentary," says William Cahoy, dean of Saint John's School of Theology. "Art can ignite imagination and take you back into the words with a fresh eye."
Tim Ternes, the Hill Museum's director of programming and exhibitions, has noticed that Catholics and Protestants respond differently to the Saint John's Bible. Protestants typically know the Bible stories and quickly spot cross-references and interpretations. Catholics don't know as much about the text. But after seeing the artwork, many exclaim, "Now I understand this verse so much better!" Could an illuminated Bible give visually sensitive Catholics and textually savvy Protestants a common place to meet? In an interview posted on Saint John's website, university president Dietrich Reinhart said: "I hope that the Saint John's Bible can be part of rejuvenating within the Roman Catholic Church an awareness of how important it is to study Scripture, to venerate it, and to be open to its unexpected influence."
As Father Columba Stewart says, there is no such thing as generic Christian art: The Saint John's Bible comes out of a particular community and a distinctively Benedictine interpretive tradition. That perspective is literally stamped throughout the Bibletiny black crosses in the margins signal verses that are quoted in the Rule of Benedict. The locus of the endeavor, a Benedictine community, is appropriate. The medieval Benedictines developed a rich tradition of manuscript illumination. The exhibit includes several manuscripts from the Hill Museum's vast archives.
Yet the Saint John's Bible also reflects a deliberate openness to those from other traditions, even other faiths. The complex imagery and often-abstract style invite viewers to consider many interpretations. Saint John's public statements make it clear that this Bible is meant to "welcome," not convert.
This desire to find common ground comes across most explicitly in the Psalms. Running horizontally across the pages are voiceprints of Saint John's monks chanting the Psalms in their daily worship, while God's presence (represented by gold "batons") accompanies and directs. Running vertically across the same pages are voiceprints of Jewish, Muslim, Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Native American worshipers. But many viewers will rightly wonder what message this is sending about the relationship between Christianity and other religions, and between Scripture and other sacred texts.
Study Bible in Pictures
The Saint John's Bible is a self-acknowledged commentary in visual forma kind of study Bible in picturesso it is fair game for theological critique. Liturgical Press's facsimile reproductions of the illuminated volumes will also provide fodder for debates about the relationship between words and images. Do the illuminations shed light on Scripture, or do they obscure or distort it? How can imagination be limited by our cultural assumptions and idolatriesand how can it transport us beyond them? These questions have plagued Christians throughout history, and Protestants in particular have been critical of images as conduits of truth. This project provides an ideal opportunity to revisit these important issues.
But the Saint John's Bible is more than a study Bible in pictures. The pages of painstakingly handwritten text vastly outnumber the illustrations. The least controversial elements of the project are the many examples of pure calligraphywords themselves taking center stage, expressed with all the precision and beauty that a goose quill pen and hand-ground ink can produce. What remains to be seen is whether the Saint John's Bible can spark a revival of a classic Christian art form that is both aesthetically rich and ultimately subservient to the words of Scripture.
Jennifer Trafton is managing editor of Christian History & Biography.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See the slideshow that accompanies this article for images of the St. John's Bible.
Liturgical Press published reproductions of sections of the St. John's Bible. Wisdom Books, The Prophets, The Psalms, The Pentateuch, The Gospels and Acts, The Book of Gospels, Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John's Bible, and The Art of the Saint John's Bible: A Reader's Guide to Pentateuch, are available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
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