The St. John's Bible

In 1856, Benedictine monks from Bavaria traveled to Minnesota and built an abbey dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. They brought with them a vision of the future and the role of education that inspired them to found Saint John's University. They also brought a tradition steeped in 1500 years of monastic history. On the last day of the VRA + ARLIS/NA 2011 2nd Joint Conference, I took the opportunity to take a day trip to St. John’s Abbey and University located on 2,500 pristine acres in Collegeville about 75 miles from Minneapolis. The current church was designed by Marcel Breuer (see photo) with impressive stained glass and liturgical objects crafted in the modernist tradition. The University is also home to the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML), with its outstanding collections of historic material.

Abbey architect Marcel Breuer
Abbey architect Marcel Breuer

The HMML is one of the world’s leading cultural preservation institutions. Its mission is to identify, digitally photograph, catalog, and archive the contents of endangered manuscripts belonging to threatened communities, and then to make these unique cultural resources available to users around the world. HMML has photographically preserved more than 115,000 manuscript books dating from the ancient to early modern eras, totaling some 40,000,000 handwritten pages.

The founding impetus for HMML in the 1960s was to safeguard western monastic manuscript collections in countries on the front line of the Cold War, beginning with Austria. This focus soon grew to include general manuscript collections throughout Europe, and then in Ethiopia as well. The HMML broadened its focus in 2003 to include manuscripts from the many other eastern Christian traditions: Armenian, Syriac, Christian Arabic, and Slavonic.

An illuminated, handwritten Bible was commissioned by Saint John's Abbey at the turn of the millennium. This contemporary Bible is at once old and new: a present-day masterpiece of the ancient crafts of calligraphy and illumination. It is being created by professional scribes in a scriptorium in Wales, under the direction of Donald Jackson (born in 1938 in Lancashire, England), who is the official scribe and calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth II and the Crown Office of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Jackson has created a new script specifically for the project.

Donald Jackson, 'Vision of Isaiah, Isaiah 6: 1-13', 2005.
Donald Jackson, 'Vision of Isaiah, Isaiah 6: 1-13', 2005.

Because of the large amount of text, the writing has to be small. A good clear script in a two-column format was finally chosen. It is easy to read to the modern eye and has a strong enough texture to work with powerful illuminations.

The first task for the calligraphers that joined the project was to learn the new script. They began by making a detailed examination of its style and texture, producing dozens of practice sheets. Once underway, it takes the calligraphers between seven and a half and thirteen hours to complete the 108 lines on each page. To ensure that each page matches the one facing it, care is taken that the two pages are written by the same calligrapher. The vellum pages pass through many hands before completion. Footnotes, book headings, chapter numbers, capitals and Hebrew text are added at different stages by different calligraphers.

The creators of The Saint John's Bible use a mixture of techniques used in the creation of ancient illuminated manuscripts (hand writing with quills on calf-skin vellum, gold and platinum leaf plus hand-ground pigments, and Chinese stick ink) and modern technology (computers are used to plan the layout of the Bible, and line-breaks for the text).

It is a collaborative effort, involving many persons in both Wales and the United States. The Committee on Illumination and Text (CIT) at Saint John's selects the passages to be illuminated in each volume. The version of the Bible used is the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (NRSV-CE). The CIT sends Jackson a set of briefs discussing the proposed illuminations and the theological content the committee feels each illumination should express. As the initial sketches are developed, Jackson and project coordinator, Rebecca Cherry, send digital images and explanations to the CIT by e-mail. The committee members review the sketches for theological content and send back their observations. When the CIT formally approves a sketch, Jackson and team proceed with the illumination.

The scribes require quills that are both strong and supple. The best ones come from mature turkeys, swans, and geese. Before they can be used for writing, the quills must be cured, cut, and trimmed. In every illumination, gold is the first design element placed on the page. Three types of gilding are used: powdered gold, acrylic medium, and gesso. Gesso gilding is the most technically demanding and produces the most spectacular results.

The Bible is separated into seven volumes. This was done for practical reasons—each completed, bound volume will weigh as much as 35 pounds, with a combined weight of more than 165 pounds. This also produced interesting artistic results. While images and motifs repeat across volumes, each collection of Biblical books takes on its own character. I recommend viewing the 2003 documentary The Illuminator and the Bible for the 21st Century that shows the work in progress and many of the technical aspects in wonderful detail.

The Heritage Edition of The Saint John's Bible is the full-size fine art facsimile of the original. Measuring two feet tall by three feet wide when open, each volume is signed by Donald Jackson. The edition is limited to 360 signed and numbered sets with the same seven volumes as the original. In addition, an eighth volume of commentary places The St. John’s Bible in historical context and describes several of the illuminations. Each facsimile is currently available through subscription for $150,000.00

Donald Jackson, artist and scribe. Matthew Frontispiece: The Genealogy of Christ
Donald Jackson, artist and scribe
Matthew Frontispiece: The Genealogy of Christ

by Edward Lukasek