Medieval Techniques and Modern Imagery Glorify God’s Word in The Saint John’s Bible

Illuminating the Word poster, Canton Museum of ArtA manuscript written in a fine hand, illuminated with lush, vibrant colors and embellished with 24-karat gold leaf is a striking sight. Go to the Canton Museum of Art through March 2 and you’ll see what I mean. 

Since December 5, 2013, the museum has hosted Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible. This exhibition shows how calligraphic artist Donald Jackson and his team rose to a supreme challenge, undertook a daunting task, and created an extraordinary thing — the first handwritten, hand-illustrated and decorated Bible to be commissioned in more than 500 years. 

In 1995, Saint John’s University and Benedictine Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota set its sights on commissioning a project that would inspire the imagination, glorify the word of God, foster the arts and revive tradition. Scribes would use medieval techniques and materials to write the words of the Bible by hand, supplementing the text with unique illustrations and decorative elements. In 1998, Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office, was chosen for the project. During the following 11 years, a team of scribes, artists, theologians and scholars worked on what would become the Saint John’s Bible. 

The first words of the Saint John’s Bible were penned on Ash Wednesday in 2000. On May 9, 2011, Jackson wrote the final “Amen.” All 73 books of the Old and New Testaments have been produced in seven volumes containing 1,127 pages and 160 illuminations. Measuring nearly two feet tall and three feet wide, the Bible’s folios remain unbound, so that selected ones can be exhibited until it is determined when and how to bind the volumes. By admiring 68 original pages displayed in 34 cases, visitors to the exhibit encounter the Scriptures in a new form, and are invited to reflect on them in the classic Benedictine tradition of lectio divina, or the slow, meditative method of reading the Bible. 

Scribes working at Jackson’s scriptorium in Wales sat down to vellum pages prepared from calfskin and used lamp black ink from 19th century Chinese ink sticks to write on them in “Jacksonian” script especially designed for the project. Red vermilion ink cakes from the 1870s were used to prepare paragraph-marking bullets and footnotes throughout the Bible. Other paints were made from hand-ground lapis lazuli and malachite, then mixed with egg yolk, which binds the colors together and gives them luminosity. 

Copies of Saint John's Bible volumes for sale, Canton Museum of Art

They also incorporated some striking visual motifs into the work. Borders of some pages were decorated with stamp patterns based on an astronomical chart from an ancient Islamic work and a piece of Indian cloth embroidered and appliqued with mirrors. Another motif was created by dipping pieces of lace in paint and powdered gold ink. 

While the technique used to create the Bible is a throwback to Medieval times, the imagery is modern. Loose brushstrokes create expressionistic images, some of which are based on photos from the Hubble Space Telescope. The iconographic painting style of the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (Mark 4:3-9) portrays Jesus wearing ordinary Western work clothes of jeans and a sweatshirt. In the parable of the Lost Son, an image of the Twin Towers is a reminder of how challenging, but necessary, it is to forgive. Jackson’s image of Esther in Historical Books recalls Gustav Klimt’s painting, Judith I. 

To emphasize the role Minnesota played in the creation of this work, nature illustrator Chris Tomlin adorned some pages with plants, black flies, butterflies, chameleons and other insects native to the region. References to the Saint John’s campus include motifs recalling the checkered flags that fly on campus on special occasions, the honeycomb-patterned terra cotta tiles on the university’s church, and the cross on the bell banner of the Abbey church that was designed by Modernist architect Marcel Breuer in the late 1950s. 

When modern-day scribes make mistakes, they employ clever ways to correct them. For example, one page includes a drawing of a bird in the margin. Its beak indicates the placement of a line the calligrapher missed in copying, while its talons hold a long cord which is attached to the missing line at the bottom of the page. 

To help visitors understand Jackson’s method of creating the Saint John’s Bible, preliminary and final sketches from the process are on view. Overlays, masking tape and marks from fluorescent highlighters accent the placement of sketches and blocks of computer-generated text on drawing paper. 

A video on writing and illuminating a manuscript helps visitors appreciate the painstaking effort behind the book’s creation. A recreation of Jackson’s work desk and some of the scribes’ tools are also on display. These include drawing implements, a correction knife used to scrape off mistakes, and a bamboo tube and a burnishing tool used to bond gold leaf to the surface of the page. Seeing a quill pen leads to greater appreciation of how a simple sequence of knife cuts made by hand transforms the cured feathers of turkeys, swans and geese into supple writing implements through which ink flows freely, creating a fine line at the end of each stroke. Rare volumes like a Book of Hours from the 16th century and early editions of the King James Bible provide a historical context for the progression from illuminated manuscripts to printed books. 

Visitors can try their hand at penning calligraphic capitals and lower-case letters. They can also watch a portion of “The Illuminator and a Bible for the 21st Century,” a 2003 television production written and directed by Jeremy Bennett for BBC Wales, in association with Saint John’s University. 

Several public programs accompanied the exhibition. Workshops were offered on basic techniques in bookmaking and calligraphy, creating an illuminated page, crafting a medieval stained glass oil lamp, and selecting a favorite Scripture passage to write by hand and display as a piece of art. Other events included a bus tour to Stark County’s most beautiful and architecturally significant places of worship, a lecture on ancient texts and music, theological discussions and a “Great Stories of the Bible” film series. 

Saint John's Bible book for sale at the Canton Museum of ArtFor more about the Saint John’s Bible, read Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John’s Bible, by Christopher Calderhead; Praying the Word: Illuminated Prayers and Wisdom from the Saint John’s Bible, by Donald Jackson; and Word and Image: The Hermeneutics of the Saint John’s Bible, by Michael Patella, OSB. Susan Sink has written several reader’s guides to the art of the Saint John’s Bible, including The Art of the Saint John’s Bible: A Reader’s Guide to Historical Books, Letters and Revelation; The Art of the Saint John’s Bible: A Reader’s Guide to Wisdom Books and Prophets; and The Art of the Saint John’s Bible: A Reader’s Guide to Pentateuch, Psalms, Gospels and Acts. 

To discover the next stops of the Saint John’s Bible touring exhibition, purchase items associated with the project, learn more about the process of its creation, and keep up with news about it, visit the project’s website at http://www.saintjohnsbible.org.

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