An illuminating Bible


By Barb Arland-Fye

This is a page from the Book of Psalms of The Saint John’s Bible, a full-color reproduction of the first handwritten illuminated Bible to be created in 500 years. The book was produced by the Liturgical Press of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn. A volume is currently on display at the Davenport Public Library.

DAVENPORT — In the beginning, God inspired Queen Elizabeth’s senior scribe to create a work of biblical proportions: The Saint John’s Bible, one volume of which is on display at Davenport Public Library.
St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., commissioned Donald Jackson to create the first illuminated, handwritten Bible of monumental size to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in 500 years, said Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John’s Bible Project.
Scribes in a Scriptorium in Wales worked under the artistic direction of Jackson, described as one of the world’s foremost calligraphers and Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords.
His team incorporated many of the characteristics of the Bible’s medieval predecessors: it was written on vellum, using quills, natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments and gilding such as gold leaf, silver leaf and platinum. But it employs a modern English translation (NRSV), contemporary scripts and illumination: “a 21st century Bible to inspire our times,” Ternes said during an Aug. 6 presentation at the Davenport Public Library.
That’s what Jackson had in mind when he approached the Benedictine monks in the mid-1990s and asked what they intended to do to mark the new millennium. Would they like to create a fitting vehicle for the Word of God? Jackson asked.
Ultimately, the answer was yes, said Ternes, who left his Davenport audience spellbound by details about the creative process that involved 23 people over an 11-year period.
Jackson and his team completed the seven-volume, 24-1/2-inch by 15-7/8-inch Bible in 2011; its permanent home is the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at St. John’s Abbey and University. Some 1,500 people paid for the masterpiece Bible, which Ternes describes as the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel in terms of artistic and spiritual significance.
“It’s the one thing we’ll probably be remembered for 500 years from now,” Father Eric Hollas, OSB, said in a video clip shown to the Davenport crowd. Ternes predicted The Saint John’s Bible will have a shelf life of more than 1,500 years. After all, the black ink used on the vellum pages dates back to the 1870s.
In total, the Bible weighs 350 pounds and is about 2-1/2 feet thick. That’s why it has been separated into seven volumes: The Pentateuch, Historical Books, Prophets, Wisdom Books, Psalms, Gospels and Acts, Letters and Revelation.
It’s not just a Catholic Bible, but a catholic Bible in the universal sense and follows the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) that most Christian denominations — including Roman Catholic — approve of, he added.
In addition to its handwritten pages, each of which took a scribe seven to 13 hours to create, the Bible features 160 separate artworks. Because human beings created it, mistakes were made – a total of nine — over a span of 1,150 pages. The clever way in which the mistakes were handled is a work of art in itself.
“The Saint John’s Bible is not a picture book. It is not an illustrated Bible. This is a visual, spiritual meditation designed to be shared,” Ternes said. “The Bible is communal … it’s about us and God.”
The project is the culmination of a boyhood dream for Jackson, who at the age of 13 set two goals for himself: to work for the Queen of England and to handwrite Scripture.
Years later, while giving a demonstration to a prestigious conference of calligraphers gathered at St. John’s University, Jackson had the privilege of visiting St. John’s Abbey Church. Impressed by the church’s beauty and grandeur, he thought the monks ought to display the Word of God in a size fitting to a church that seats 2,000.
Someone in the audience asked Ternes how Davenport was so blessed to have a volume of The Saint John’s Bible on display. Noting that the volume is a high quality copy of the original, he credited the efforts of LaWanda Roudebush, director of the Davenport Public Library, and Stephanie Schulte, associate director of customer services.
“We also are working with local artist Paul Herrera to present several programs on calligraphy during the month of August so that people can better understand the significance of this art masterpiece,” Roudebush said.

Bible exhibit
What: The Saint John’s Bible exhibit, featuring the Pentateuch volume
When: Now through Sept. 1.
Where: Davenport Public Library, 321 Main Street, Davenport
Details: The exhibit consists of 10 framed wall hangings of sketches from the Bible and one of its seven volumes in a glass exhibit case
For more information call (563) 326-7832.
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