Illuminating the Word: The St. John's Bible

Today I saw portions of the first handwritten illuminated Bible in more than 500 years, and the first Bible handwritten in English. It was amazing. The St. John's Bible, named for the St. John's Abbey (one of the largest monasteries in the world) and University in Collegeville Minnesota that commissioned the project, began with its first word in 2000 and is scheduled for completion in 2007. The first public exhibit of completed portions is at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the curator for the exhibit. The exhibit is called "Illuminating the Word."

I wish you all could have been there! Here's some of what I learned and saw today.

The project is led by renowned calligrapher and illuminator Donald Jackson and is being produced at his scriptorium in Wales. Five to six scribes are working on the project using an alphabet that Johnson designed specifically for the Bible. The significance of calligraphy is that it is a way to convey that you mean what you say. Calligraphy gives authority and emotion to the written word. An example would be that when a person is awarded a certificate of accomplishment, it is usually written with calligraphy, not typed out in a standard type font.

A number of artists are working on the many (I think they said 900+) illuminations contained within the Bible. The easy synonym for illuminations would be illustrations but this word doesn't begin to do justice to the extraordinary artwork. lllumination means "the play of light on gold." And gold there was. On almost every page, gold was present. Both the text and artwork used generous amounts of stunning gold leaf to indicate the divine presence of God. The role of the visual illuminations are significant because they open "another pathway into the text." A committee of theologians and Biblical scholars decided which texts would be illuminated and what theological concepts the illuminations should convey.

With the exception of computer assistance in planning the page lay-out, all tools and techniques are those that date back to medieval times. The "paper" for the Bible is vellum, which is calf skin. One side of the vellum is smooth and one side is hairy. The pages are assembled so that a smooth side faces a smooth side and a hairy side faces a hairy side--otherwise the text would rub off. The writing is done with hand-prepared turkey and goose quills. All inks are from natural dyes and were made in the 1800s. Egg yolks and egg whites are used to enhance the dyes when appropriate.

Because the Bible is handmade, there is allowance for error. For example, a line of calligraphy in which an error occurs may be scraped off and the vellum resanded. The line can then be rewritten without rewriting the entire page. In one case, it was discovered that an entire line was omitted by the scribe. By then, however, the artwork on the page was already completed. Rather than redoing the entire page, text plus art, a bird was drawn into the margin with his beak pointing to a line of text that led down to the place at which it should have been placed.

The Psalms were done a bit differently because of their poetic nature and the ancient practice of chanting, rather than reading, them. The first difference between this portion of the Bible and the rest of the Bible is that each scribe could use a unique calligraphy style for his or her assigned chapters rather than the standard alphabet designed by Jackson. The second difference is that the musical delivery is represented along with the words. Recordings were made of the St. John monks chanting all of the Psalms, which they do every week. These recordings were then analyzed on the computer by scintography. Artists worked from the printout of each psalm's scintograph to paint this in gold leaf along with the corresponding psalm. Embedded in these gold scintographs are tiny gold batons indicating the use of a baton by the song leader.

One of my favorite verses was illuminated, Deuteronomy 30: 19: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life..." The illumination was done by the artist Suzannah Moore (I think I got that name right). It takes up most of one page. (Each page is 24.5 inches tall and nearly 16 inches wide). Along the left margin the words "choose life" are written in gold leaf. Behind the bulk of the illumination those same words, "choose life," are written in 50+ languages. To indicate the struggle to make the choice Moses posed to the people, these words are written in dark shades. In the center of the illumination "Choose Life" appears again, centered in bold red and gold to show the decision that must be made. Gorgeous!

Another illumination was made entirely of black and gold leaf in an abstract serpentine form that moved from the lower left-hand side of the page and then up. This represented the story in which Moses holds up the serpent wrapped on a pole. Anyone who looked up to the serpent would be saved from the current plague that was killing Israelites. This action prefigures Christ lifted up on the cross to save those who look to him and believe. The artist also pointed to Christ through the use of gold in the art.

The 1150-page Bible will be hand bound in five volumes. The covers of the volumes will be taken from a 180-year-old Welsh oak that fell down. It was important that the wood come from a tree that grew straight as opposed to one that grew on the side of a hill.

An interesting story that came from the movie that showed as part of the exhibit is that when Donald Jackson brought the completed Gospels and the book of Acts to St. John's, the Bible flew in first class while he flew coach.

While I was watching the movie I overheard an exchange between two women sitting behind me.

Woman 1: "Do you think you'll buy a copy of this Bible when it becomes available?"

Woman 2: "Yes, if it ever comes out in paperback and for half price."

Ugh! I don't think "woman 2" had any sense of awe about what we were seeing.

After the exhibit leaves Minneapolis it will travel to museums in other cities throughout the United States, and then to London in 2006. The completed Bible will be housed at St. John's and will be used for worship and for study.

In conclusion, one of the posters in the exhibit was a writing by Donald Jackson in which he addresses the question, "What better reason can there be for starting a journey?" The concluding paragraph summarizes why he is involved in this massive project at this time in his life (he is in his mid-60s).

Jackson writes,

"So the pursuit of closeness to God,

a lifetime dream commission,

a fearful challenge.

What better reason can there be

for starting a journey?"

I can't think of a better reason for any journey.

For more information, visit the website for The Minneapolis Institute of Arts or for The Saint John's Bible Project.