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Monday, June 02, 2008

In Friday's UB: Vatican Splendors and St. John's Bible

I'm a bit behind in my postings, but here are links and copies of two of my stories from Friday's Catholic Universe Bulletin.

By Wendy A. Hoke

In the first century of the Common Era, during the time of Christ, there’s a legend that says King Abgar of Edessa in modern day Turkey had an incurable sickness. Hearing of the miracles of Jesus, he wrote to him asking for his help.

Jesus wrote back saying he could not come to Edessa, located in the Euphrates River basin in the cradle of civilization known as Mesopotamia. But he promised that when he ascended to heaven, he would send a disciple to heal Abgar. Before he died Jesus pressed his face into a rectangular piece of cloth and after he died, did indeed send one of his disciples to Abgar with the cloth.

“The Mandylion of Edessa” as the cloth is known today, is believed to be the earliest image of Christ and is one of the historic and spiritual treasures that await visitors to “Vatican Splendors,” an exhibition opening May 31 at the Western Reserve Historical Society and presented locally by the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums of Ohio, Inc.

The tour commemorates the 500th anniversary of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the founding of the Vatican Museums, Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel, and the establishment of the Papal Swiss Guard.

“Visitors will have access to objects that have never before been seen in public and many that have never been outside of Rome,” says Mark Greenberg, president of Evergreen Exhibitions, which is producing the exhibition. Even if you go to Rome, you probably won’t get to see these items because many are not on public display.

Cleveland is the middle of only three stops on the tour that also includes St. Petersburg, Fla., and St. Paul, Minn. “Cleveland has such a strong Catholic community,” explains Greenberg. “We needed a venue with the experience to handle the size, security, handling and environmental controls of such an exhibition.”

Evergreen, the Vatican Office of Liturgical Celebrations and the curator of the Vatican Museums were convinced of the Western Reserve Historical Society’s capabilities following the success of the Princess Diana exhibition.

“Vatican Splendors” is designed to move visitors through galleries that illustrate the early church through to the election of Pope Benedict XVI.

Along with the Edessa image, the reliquary containing the venerated bones of St. Peter and architectural drawings of the original St. Peter Basilica built by the Roman Emperor Constantine represent the early church. The exhibition moves through time all the way to the ballot boxes and white-smoke canisters from the most recent papal election, giving visitors—both Catholic and non-Catholic—a glimpse of the church’s 2,000-year-old history.

While we don’t worship objects, many are sacramental, explains Father David Novak, pastor of St. Stanislaus and Holy Trinity parishes in Lorain and chairman of the board of the Museum of the Diocese of Cleveland. “We don’t worship water and yet we revere it as holy because it’s used as a way to communicate God’s grace and His love of the world,” he says.

The same can be said of the objects and art on exhibition here—objects that celebrate the great mysteries of life, death and resurrection.

“These objects say something about who we are and reflect our story as member of the Catholic church,” says Novak.

The art here reflects more craft than science and nowhere is that more evident than in the simple instrument of Michelangelo’s genius—a compass. The crude-looking instrument, says Greenberg, allowed for the construction of amazing buildings that reflect symmetry sometimes referred to as the sacred geometry.

With the televised death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, the exhibition will feature actual items from that process, including Swiss Guard uniforms and weaponry, and the ballot boxes and white-smoke canisters from the actual election.

The stories of the popes’ travels in the world are reflected through ancient maps of North America, China and Africa, and the gifts of a Thanka by the Dalai Lama and a wooden Tree of Life sculpture from Africa.

Church history is filled with stories of and the events that changed history and rearranged countries, such as the tiara given by Napoleon Bonaparte to Pope Pius VII, which was made from jewels stolen from the Vatican and featuring one of the world’s largest emeralds. Although it is spectacular in its detail, it also was made too small to wear, which was considered a veiled insult to the pope.

Aside from representing the church’s longstanding history in the world, “Vatican Splendors” also reminds us of the influence of the Vatican’s patronage on art and culture.

And it gives Catholics a way to remember and celebrate the alternating magistry and simplicity of a faith shaped by world history.

“Vatican Splendors” will be open through September 7, 2008 and on Monday-Wednesday, 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. Last admission is at 7 p.m.; Thursday-Sunday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. Last admission is at 5 p.m. The Western Reserve Historical Society is located at 10825 East Boulevard, (in University Circle). The Western Reserve Historical Society parking lot is located off of Magnolia Drive. Visit, or call 216-721-5722. For advance group discount information and reservations, contact sales@ or call 800-840-1157.

St. John's Bible illuminates the word of God for our time

By Wendy A. Hoke

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS—St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., is essentially a train stop, a modern campus that marks time by the rhythm of the monks who call the abbey home.

Just an hour from the Twin Cities, it also is home to a spectacular work of art. For the first time in 500 years, the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey have collaborated on a handwritten and illuminated bible known as the St. John’s Bible.

If your summer travel plans don’t include a trip to the Twin Cities, you can head over to John Carroll University, where just inside the Grasselli Library is a copy of the Wisdom Books of the St. John’s Bible, a gift from Target Corp., in honor of retired Target Executive Vice President John Pellegrene, a North Canton native and John Carroll alumnus.

The oversized Bible is rich with imagery from a craft that dates to the ancient world, when manuscripts were on scrolls of papyrus, according to Joseph Kelly, professor of religious studies at John Carroll University. By the Eighth and Ninth centuries, Benedictine monasteries of the west, under the patronage of the Emperor Charlemagne, began writing and illuminating not just sacred works, but also secular works such as love songs.

Near the end of the Middle Ages, however, capitalism and the need for a literate public led to more widespread printing of books. Illuminated manuscripts were left to history.

But in the early 1970s, Donald Jackson—senior illuminator to the Queen of England’s Crown Office—appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show” where host Barbara Walters asked him about his life’s dream. His response? “I would like to write the Bible.”

Later he would describe his dream as, “The calligraphic artist’s supreme challenge (our Sistine Chapel), a daunting task.”

Sharing his life’s dream on national television brought him to the attention of St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery with the largest collection of manuscripts in the world—10 million images and 2 million manuscripts, according to Craig Bruner, director of operations, The St. John’s Bible.

Jackson was the main attraction at the first calligraphy conference held at St. John’s in 1984. During an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, he reiterated his desire to write the Bible, something Abbey community kept in mind as the relationship between them continued.

In the mid-1990s, in preparation for a millennium project, Father Eric Hollas of St. John’s asked Jackson over lunch if he would make the word of God live on the page.

“Do you want it?” he asked.

The answer was unequivocally yes. Jackson and St. John’s Abbey would illuminate the St. John’s Bible—a celebration of books, the book arts and religion.

Video accounts on St. John’s Web site show Jackson using the ancient practice of preparing his Quill, stripping its feathers and mixing his inks with egg yolks for lasting color.

In March 2000, the first words were penned.

In the beginning was the Word,

And the Word was with God,

And the Word was God.

Brother Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, describes the frontispiece as, “The word of God striding out of cosmic time into the world we live in.”

When complete in late 2009 or early 2010, the entire St. John’s Bible will comprise seven volumes—Pentateuch, Wisdom Books, Psalms, Prophets, Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, Historical Writings and Letters and Revelation, according to Bruner.

In all, the St. John’s Bible will contain 1,160 pages and 160 illuminations. While the originals will be housed at St. John’s on permanent exhibition, reproductions like the one at John Carroll will travel the world.

While the text is rooted in history, using ancient methods, it is also very much a product of its time, according to Kelly.

“When medieval scribes were writing and illuminating the Bible, they wrote and illuminated what they knew—flora, fauna and people around them,” says Bruner. “It was modern to them just as the illuminations in the St. John’s Bible reflect the flora, fauna and life of people today.”

In the opening to Matthew with the genealogy of Christ, the illuminations feature the double helix of DNA embedded in the manuscript. “That locates this work in the 21st century, because that’s when human genome project was completed,” says Bruner.

The books are more a work of art than scholarly text, but Bruner says the original will be used liturgically for Christmas, Easter, graduation and other major celebrations.
And there’s a hope the reproductions, which will make their way around the world, will ignite spiritual imaginations.

“We’re trying to make a statement about faith and the importance of art and imagination,” says Brother Reinhart in a video about the project. “The fact that there’s common ground for us to stand on in a world torn apart by violence and hatred and it’s to be found in the sacred texts that enliven and enrich all cultures on this planet.”

Visit for information, photos and video of the project.
Hoke is a freelance writer.

Materials used in the original St. John’s Bible

The original Bible is made on calfskin vellum, specifically prepared for writing. The reproductions are made on 100 percent cotton archival paper.

Inks used include lapis lazuli, 24-karat gold leaf and 100-year-old Chinese black inks made from candle soot.

The gold leaf is decades old and made by hammering pieces of gold flat until it is foil thickness. Calligraphers use a substance called gesso—white lead, fish glue and plaster—that they paint on and let it dry. Using a small tube in their mouth they blow on the gesso to warm it up and create a surface glue that they put the foil on. Using a burnisher, (a stone mounted on a wood handle) the calligrapher rubs the foil, making it permanent.

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