The Saint John’s Bible

The Saint John’s Bible ~ concept to creation

The Saint John’s Bible

In 1998, Saint John’s Abbey and University commissioned renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. We invite you to explore this work of art that unites an ancient Benedictine tradition with the technology and vision of today, illuminating the Word of God for a new millennium.

The Process

“The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.”                                  

                                                                                  ~ Donald Jackson, Artistic Director

The Saint John’s Bible is a work of art and a work of theology. A team of artists coordinated by Donald Jackson in Wales and a team of scholars in Central Minnesota have brought together the ancient techniques of calligraphy and illumination with an ecumenical Christian approach to the Bible rooted in Benedictine spirituality. The result is a living document and a monumental achievement.

Back in the 1990s, Donald Jackson observed the monks of Saint John’s Abbey processing with their Book of the Gospels for Sunday Mass, and he recognized the importance of “their book.”

To create a Bible that would capture the beauty and tradition of centuries of liturgy and carry it into the future—that is the vision that united a calligrapher in Wales with a group of Benedictine monks in Minnesota.

Explore this area of the web site for more on the history, vision, guiding principles and techniques that make The Saint John’s Bible an epic work of art.

“The Bible is the calligraphic artist’s supreme challenge (our Sistine Chapel),                 a daunting task.”   ~ Donald Jackson, Artistic Director

From childhood, Donald Jackson dreamed of creating a hand-written, illuminated Bible. He communicated that ambition to Eric Hollas, OSB, a monk at Saint John’s Abbey and then-director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, in 1995. Father Eric brought the idea to the monks, and they embraced Jackson’s dream. In Wales, at Jackson’s scriptorium, and in Collegeville, Minnesota, among a community of monks living according to the ancient Rule of Saint Benedict, the dream of a masterpiece in art and biblical scholarship took shape. For more on Donald Jackson, click here.   http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/process/dream.htm Jo White, Honorary Curator of the Saint John’s University Calligraphy Collection, wrote the date on this two dollar bill and tore it in half the day Donald Jackson first proposed the making of The Saint John’s Bible to Eric Hollas, OSB. The two halves were reunited when the contract was signed.

Principles

“The illuminations are not illustrations.                                                                                     They are spiritual meditations on a text.                                                                                         It is a very Benedictine approach to Scriptures.”

                 Fr. Michael Patella, OSB,  Chair of the Committee on Illumination and Text

Early on, a document outlining the vision and values behind The Saint John’s Bible was written. These goals and principles have guided the course for the artists and scholars involved, a mission statement for the project.

1.     Ignite Imagination:   With the same dynamic relationship that existed between medieval Benedictine houses and the scribes whose talents they engaged, Saint John’s Abbey and University and calligrapher Donald Jackson, in collaboration with many from the wider community, will produce a Bible, a work of art, that will ignite the spiritual imagination of believers throughout the world.                      

2.     Glorify God’s Word:   A Biblical illumination takes the Word of God and glorifies it by transforming the Word into a complementary art form employing illustration, color and design. The Saint John’s Bible is meant to be a prophetic witness to the glory of the Word of God and to humankind’s God-given dignity.                                                                                                                                       

3.     Revive Tradition:  In the Middle Ages, monasteries were leaven in both church and society. They were centers of culture and learning which kept the tradition of scriptural reading alive for the whole world. They helped preserve knowledge and culture for the sake of the larger human family.

In commissioning a handwritten, illuminated Bible, Saint John’s revives a tradition that has been nearly absent from the Christian world since the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. The Saint John’s Bible affirms this community’s commitment to the study of Scripture, to the book arts and to educational, artistic, spiritual and scholarly pursuits.                                                                            

4.     Discover History:   Scholars have speculated about the processes and challenges involved in creating a great manuscript. The Saint John’s Bible will allow art and cultural historians the opportunity to experiment in historical discovery, to explore a process that was once a core activity of human civilization.

5.     Foster the Arts:  The Saint John’s Bible with its spiritual themes and art will reflect the cultural context both of Saint John’s and contemporary society. During the time that it will take to create the piece, Saint John’s intends for it to be a source of artistic vitality both inside and outside the Saint John’s community.

6.     Give Voice:  The Saint John’s Bible seeks to give voice and expression to those who are now unprivileged. By involving many people, The Saint John’s Bible will be linked to other commentaries, and other images, other interpretations and understandings. Inviting various groups to contribute to The Saint John’s Bible extends the arms of churches to the marginalized in the true spirit of Christianity.

A Bible for the Times

“If the presence of The Saint John’s Bible causes us to pause and remind ourselves of a life beyond contemporary politics and the daily frenzy of the world, then it will meet a universal need.”

1.    Ecumenical Translation: The Saint John’s Bible uses the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation of the Bible. This translation was chosen because it is theologically sound and because its predecessor, the Revised Standard Version, is officially authorized for use by most Christian Churches: Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox.

2.    Representing the Divine:   Several approaches are taken to representing the divine in the pages of The Saint John’s Bible. Reading the Gospels, you will see the images of Jesus range from representational to abstract. In Prophets, the rainbow, that sign of God’s enduring promise to Noah, is used to show the presence of God. Gold leaf is used throughout, from Creation to Apocalypse, to direct the reader to the presence of the divine.

3.     Imagery:  Throughout The Saint John’s Bible, you’ll see the signs of our times. Strands of DNA are woven into the illumination of the “Genealogy of Christ.” The Twin Towers in New York appear in the illumination of Luke’s parables. Satellite photos of the Ganges River Delta and photos from the Hubble telescope were used to depict Creation. In Acts, “To the Ends of the Earth” includes the first vision of earth as seen from space in a hand-written Bible. What do you see?

Themes

The Saint John’s Bible reflects universal themes, including the goodness of creation, reality of salvation, and bond of the covenant. It also reflects the 1500-year-old tradition of Saint Benedict and his Rule. The following Benedictine themes receive particular attention:

Themes from The Saint John’s Bible                                              

Hospitality:  The Rule of Saint Benedict says the guest should be received as Christ. The Saint John’s Bible emphasizes texts advocating hospitality for the poor, the pilgrim, the seeker and the stranger.

Transformation: Benedictines take a vow of conversatio or conversion of life. Conversatio entails an ongoing process of aligning one’s life more closely to the life of Christ.

 Justice for God’s People:  Of special concern to Benedictines and all believers in biblical revelation is the repeated call for justice for all of God’s people.

Production

“When I was a nine-year-old, desire led me to copying ancient scripts and decorated letters. I loved the feel of the pen as it touched the page and the breathtaking effect of the flow of colored ink as its wetness caught the light.”

                                                                                    ~ Donald Jackson,  Artistic Director

Nothing has captured the imagination of the public more than the beauty of the tools, materials and techniques employed in the composition of The Saint John’s Bible. How is it made? How do you manage a project of this scope? One answer is: It involved breaking some eggs.

Layout & Design

1.  Initial Design:  A computer is used to size text and define line breaks. The two foot by three foot pages of each volume are laid out in full-size spreads. This enables scribes to work on pages simultaneously, maintain consistency and avoid awkwardly breaking words.

2.  Calligraphy: The script used in The Saint John’s Bible was designed by Donald Jackson with three qualities in mind. The text had to be readable, modern, and appropriately dignified for the Bible. Subtle differences in the final script mark the work of the six individual scribes on the project.

3.  Illuminations:   A schema put together by Donald Jackson and the Committee on Illumination and Text [link] tells which passages will be illuminated and designates the size of each illumination. Many illuminations are commissioned to artists or the result of collaboration between Donald Jackson and additional artists.

Themes from The Saint John’s Bible                                           

Hospitality:  The Rule of Saint Benedict says the guest should be received as Christ. The Saint John’s Bible emphasizes texts advocating hospitality for the poor, the pilgrim, the seeker and the stranger.

Transformation: Benedictines take a vow of conversatio or conversion of life. Conversatio entails an ongoing process of aligning one’s life more closely to the life of Christ.

 Justice for God’s People:  Of special concern to Benedictines and all believers in biblical revelation is the repeated call for justice for all of God’s people.

Production

“When I was a nine-year-old, desire led me to copying ancient scripts and decorated letters. I loved the feel of the pen as it touched the page and the breathtaking effect of the flow of colored ink as its wetness caught the light.”

                                                                               ~ Donald Jackson,  Artistic Director

Nothing has captured the imagination of the public more than the beauty of the tools, materials and techniques employed in the composition of The Saint John’s Bible. How is it made? How do you manage a project of this scope? One answer is: It involved breaking some eggs.


Tools & Materials

1.  Vellum:  The pages of The Saint John’s Bible are made of calfskin vellum. The skins are soaked in lime, dried, scraped or “scrutched,” and sanded smooth. The final product is nearly translucent, with a “hair side” and “smooth side.”

2.  Quills:  All the script is written using quills hand-cut by the scribes. Only the largest flight feathers, called “primaries,” are used: goose quills for the main body of text, turkey and swan quills for heavier letterforms.

3.  Ink:  The script is written in lamp black ink from nineteenth-century Chinese ink sticks. The ink sticks are ground in an ink stone with distilled water.

4.  Pigments:  Vermillion, lapis lazuli, and other cakes and powdered pigments are used for color. The materials are mixed with egg yolk and water to make paint that is thicker than the black ink and loaded onto the quills using brushes.

5.  Gold Leaf:  Gold leaf makes the manuscript truly illuminated. Using the moisture of breath imparted through a bamboo tube, the artist activates the glue binding agent in gesso until it bonds with the gold leaf. Burnishing tools and brushes finish the gilded image.

 6. Stencils and stamps:  Stencils and stamps are used to apply paint and gold powder throughout, creating a rich visual vocabulary. Stencils and stamps are made from computer images and provide recurring elements within and across volumes of The Saint John’s Bible.

Reproduction

“This project not only revives the ancient tradition of the church sponsoring creative arts: it also offers an insight into that lost skill of patient and prayerful reading.”                                                                                            

                                                       ~ Rt. Revd. Rowan Williams,  Archbishop of Canterbury

The text and illuminations of The Saint John’s Bible encourage us to take our time—to live with the images and words. Liturgical Press and fine art printers have collaborated with The Saint John’s Bible to offer a range of quality reproductions.

The Heritage Edition:  This set of full-size, museum-quality reproduction volumes are being produced in a limited edition for collectors and institutions. Using the highest quality printing techniques and materials, beautifully bound and embossed with metallic foils, this edition is itself a work of art.

For more information on The Heritage Edition, click here. http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/heritage/

“This is a work of art, a great work of art … a work for eternity.”                                                ~ His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI     

Explore the opportunity to bring The Saint John’s Bible to a cherished educational, religious or cultural institution … it will be a legacy enjoyed for generations. Or, add it to an art or fine book collection.

Trade Reproduction Books:  This lovely, accessible edition of The Saint John’s Bible from Liturgical Press offers the complete text and illuminations in a 9 ¾” x 15″ hardcover format with dust jackets. Perfect for exploring the text and illuminations and following the progress of the project.

For more information, click here.   http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/Subjects.aspx?ID=45

Fine Art Prints:  Giclée (pronounced ZHEE-clay) is a quality color process that produces the highest quality color prints, with the look and feel of a watercolor and the clarity of the original. Virtually any page of The Saint John’s Bible can be ordered as a fine print.                                         For featured prints, click here.          http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/Subjects.aspx?ID=47

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