The Saint John’s Bible

Austin Public Library has a copy of the new Saint John’s Bible

St. John’s Bible: Ancient craft meets spiritual vision

 May 17, 2012, 8:07 am
By Kay Fate
The Post-Bulletin, Austin MN

The St. John’s Bible • The work was commissioned by St. John’s University in Collegeville in 1998.• It took two years to plan and lay out.• The first word was written on March 8, 2000. It was Ash Wednesday.

• The last word was written on May 9, 2011.

• The finished product is 1,150 pages, with 160 pieces of artwork.

• The script on each page took between seven and 13 hours of work. That doesn’t include any illuminations, or art.

• Combining the time of all six calligraphers involved, the script alone took just under 20 years to complete.

• The calligraphers were handpicked by Jackson and had to be willing to give up their own style so the words all looked the same.

• There are nine errors — each with a unique correction.

• Jackson bought the ink used for the project more than 40 years ago, when a small ink shop went out of business. He purchased 144 sticks of black ink at the time; it took 142 sticks to complete the Bible.

• Each word and illumination is created with a turkey, swan or good feather. Jackson’s favorite quill is 135 years old.

• It is written on vellum, or calf skin. The project used 300 calf skins and weighs 350 pounds.

• It’s bound into seven volumes, to allow for easier display of multiple pages. If all were bound together, it would be about 2.5 feet thick.

• Pages are on display at St. John’s University, as well as at traveling exhibits around the world.

• The project is estimated to have cost about $8 million.

• Each Heritage Edition — one of which is housed at the Austin Public Library — costs about $145,000.

Hundreds of people have viewed — and, most likely, appreciated — the Heritage Edition of the St. John’s Bible on display at the Austin Public Library.

To truly appreciate the magnitude of the gift to the city from the Don and Dorothy Hodapp family, it might be worth listening to the story of the hand-drawn masterpiece it replicates.

The Heritage Edition is special in itself: It’s one of only 299 sets created and contains the same seven volumes as the handmade original as well as an extra volume of commentary. The library has received five of the seven volumes; the final two are expected in the next two to five years.

They take longer to print than most books; extra attention is paid to recreating details and the gold illuminations from the original, and each reproduction is overseen and signed by artistic director  and illuminator Donald Jackson.

It was Jackson’s story that Tim Tiernes shared with more than 100 people Tuesday at the Hormel Historic Home. Tiernes is the director of the St. John’s Bible project in Collegeville; he shared multiple stories of behind-the-scenes work involved in producing the original.

Jackson, who is the Queen of England’s calligrapher, does all of the royal documentation. He learned his craft by spending much of his childhood in a library, copying the manuscripts of rare books.

By age 12, he had two goals: “He wanted to work with the queen, and he wanted to hand-write the Scripture,” Tiernes said.

In 1981, Jackson traveled from his home in Wales to a calligraphy workshop in Collegeville with hopes of reviving a dying art. During his visit, he watched monks use a “tiny little Bible” during the funeral service at the St. John’s Abbey.

“It was the first time in his life that he connected his childhood dream with an actual place,” Tiernes said. In 1995, Jackson approached the monastery to ask how it planned to mark the millennium.

A handwritten bible — something that hadn’t been done for more than 500 years — was his suggestion.

“My first question was, do you want me to make the word of God live on the page?” Jackson says in a video, “and they came back and said, ‘We want it.’ It was the realization of a lifetime dream.”

The university’s requirements were clear, Tiernes said.

“It had to be literal, it had to be scholarly, it had to be inclusive, it had to be a version approved by the Roman Catholic Church and it had to be in English,” he said. “Oh, and it couldn’t make anybody mad.”

The completed Bible is the New Revised Standard Version, liberally sprinkled with modern touches, such as DNA strands woven through Jesus’ family tree, and with a nod to its Midwestern heritage with native plants and animals dotting the artwork.

“It’s theologically and artistically sound,” Tiernes said of the finished product. “Not right, but sound.”

Written on vellum — a sturdy calf skin that allows ink mistakes to be scraped away and rewritten correctly — was the clear choice. Still, there are nine errors in the Bible, each corrected in a somewhat whimsical fashion.

Those pages weren’t discarded for various reasons, not the least of which, Tiernes said, is “because this is the word of God. What better way to remind us we’re all imperfect.”

Jackson himself made a mistake on page 1, Tiernes said, “on the creation page. Everybody else there breathed a sign of relief.”

The gift from the Hodapp family is “an incredible legacy for the city of Austin,” he said. “No offense, but this is not a huge metropolitan area, and it’s one of very few places in the world that has them all.”

The Heritage Edition is on permanent display at the library and is available for special study and use. Each day, library staff will turn a page in the open volume.

For more information, call the library at 433-2391 or visit 323 Fourth Ave. N.E.

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