Illuminating the word of God
The Saint John’s Bible combines captivating, original art and hand-inked Scripture to create a Bible that engages readers in a deep way.
March 29, 2011 | Editor's note: The Saint John's Bible will be featured as part of Drawn into Scripture: Arts and the Life of the Church, Duke Divinity School's 2011 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 10-11.
It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by the meticulous craftsmanship of The Saint John’s Bible: exquisite calligraphy done with hand-cut quills, stencils and stamps of gold powder, and pages made of calfskin gilded with gold leaf.
But it’s not an art book, insist the people who are working with it. It’s an interpretation of the Bible that incorporates ancient craft with modern-day worship, and its theological relevance goes far beyond its appearance.
“The art leads to the theology and the theology leads to the art,” said the Rev. Michael Patella, chairman of the Committee on Illumination and Text -- the primary group that determined the Bible’s contents -- and a professor at the School of Theology-Seminary at Saint John’s University, which is about 90 miles northwest of Minneapolis. “We wanted the two of them to work in tandem.”
The Bible is the culmination of 30 years of dreaming by Donald Jackson, a British calligrapher who expressed interest in making a handcrafted Bible as early as 1970. The process began in 1995, when he broached the idea with the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University. The school spent two years pondering the proposal, including creating test pages and doing preliminary planning of possible illuminations. In 1998, the university and Jackson signed a contract for the $4 million project, which involved scholars in Minnesota and a team of artists coordinated by Jackson in Wales.
On Ash Wednesday 2000, Jackson wrote the first words, from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The effect transcends denominations. Although The Saint John’s Bible is a Roman Catholic interpretation, Wilson Yates, a retired professor of religion and the arts at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, is unabashed in his reverence for it.
Questions to consider:
- To what do we pay attention? What draws our attention to every detail? How can the things on which we focus shape our imaginations?
- How can we account for awe? As we are able to draw attention to the stunningly beautiful elements in Scripture, how can we breathe deeply and let the beauty envelop us?
- Imagination is cultivated by border crossings. The Saint John’s Bible crosses the borders between centuries of technology while maintaining a firm footing in the tradition. When and with whom do we explore boundaries of time, culture and relationship? What might we do to create and sustain a discipline of border crossings?
- Saint John’s organized pastor groups studying the illuminated Bible. What other ancient and contemporary works might be the focus of reflection for groups of pastors? Music? Buildings? Paintings?
“The text and the visual imagery work together in a way that is more profound in its impact than either the text or the imagery is on its own,” he said. “It’s all about the power of the combination of the two art forms, literary and visual. It’s a book for any Christian reader -- or non-Christian, for that matter,” he said.
That opinion was seconded by one of Yates’ associates, Cindi Beth Johnson, the seminary’s director of community programming in the arts, religion and spirituality.
“The images alone in The Saint John’s Bible could stand as a theological proclamation,” she said. “The Bible invites people to see the Scripture in a new way because of the images.”
The experience of God in the 21st century
One of the many things about Jackson’s proposal that intrigued the university was its timing, Patella said. A new millennium was approaching, and the school saw the Bible as a way of commemorating that. When Jackson mentioned that he had pondered the same thing, “at that moment, everything seemed to fall together.”
Patella’s Committee on Illumination and Text determined four main categories that it wanted the book to emphasize.
The first was biblical exegesis. The second was biblical cross-reference, he said. “As a way of informing the artists, we’d tell them if, say, a piece of text in the New Testament was borrowed or repeated from the Old Testament.”
The third category was local association. The committee tried to work in as many references to Saint John’s University and Minnesota as possible.
“The reasoning behind that was to give the reader a historic sense of where the manuscript came from,” he said. “If you look at the Bibles from 500 years ago, for instance, they have illustrations of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.”
The fourth category was called “free association” and was considered the most important.
“We encouraged people to reflect on a passage and share anything that it brought to mind,” he said. “For instance, the story of the loaves and fishes. Perhaps someone would look at that and say, ‘It reminds me of when my dad took me fishing.’ And someone else would say, ‘It made me remember my mother baking bread in the kitchen and all the wonderful smells that created.’”
Any avenue that could be used to engage the reader was explored.