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 www.saintjohnsbible.org 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.