NEW HAVEN – “Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible” is a Knights of Columbus Museum exhibition of the first handwritten and hand-illustrated Bible of its scale to be commissioned in more than 500 years.
The Bible was commissioned in 1998 by the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., to mark the new millennium with an ecumenical work of art aimed at igniting the spiritual imagination of people worldwide.
Regarded as a masterpiece of the ancient crafts of calligraphy and illumination, the Saint John’s Bible is a modern-day manuscript created in the manner used by medieval monk scribes: on calfskin vellum with quills and paints hand-ground from minerals and stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, silver, copper and 24-karat gold.
The exhibit runs through October.
Monumental in both size and scope, the 73 books of the Old and New Testaments were produced in seven volumes of approximately 1,127 pages with 160 illuminations (the pages measure nearly 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide when open) — all using medieval techniques and materials.
“The Saint John’s Bible has done an outstanding job of proving to us that the Bible is communal,” said Tim Ternes who directed the Bible’s production.
“The artwork and handwritten pages work together to invite people into the passages” for discussion, conversation and to share in its meaning, he said. “They are not merely illustrations, but to be used as visual, spiritual meditations.”
The daunting, 15-year project is the vision of Donald Jackson, a world-renowned calligrapher and senior scribe to Her Majesty’s Crown Office at the House of Lords. He dreamed of creating a handwritten, illuminated Bible as a child. In the early 1970s, he expressed his desire during an interview with Barbara Walters on the “Today” show.
“When I was 9 years old, desire led me to copying ancient scripts and decorated letters,” says Mr. Jackson, on the project’s website. “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.”
Directed by a committee of theologians, art and medieval historians, artists and biblical scholars, the individual pages were created by a team of 23 professional scribes and artists, who collaborated at Mr. Jackson’s scriptorium in Wales to harmonize the specially designed style of calligraphy used in the Bible, called the Jacksonian script.
Using medieval tools, the scribes wrote with turkey, swan and goose quills that were stripped of feathers, cured in hot sand, and cut to a chisel-edge shape. Black ink came from rare, 19th-century Chinese ink sticks that Mr. Jackson purchased decades before starting the project; red vermillion ink cakes were made in the 1870s and 24-karat gold, silver or platinum leaf was used in almost every illustration.
Heralded as a celebration of the word of God for the 21st century, the Saint John’s Bible combines a centuries-old tradition of craftsmanship with modern themes, images and the latest capabilities of computer technology. Written in English, it used the New Revised Standard Version for its modern English translation and strong literal tradition.
The Saint John’s Bible Committee on Illumination and Text met on a regular basis to discuss passages to be illustrated and to record their reflections for Mr. Jackson, who used the monastic practice of lectio divina – a particular style of reading the Bible – to reflect on the texts.
Museum visitors tend to speak in superlatives when describing the Saint John’s Bible.
“I didn’t expect what I saw,” said Anna Cybulaki, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Poquonock. “It’s just so overwhelming. It belongs to the whole world … as a treasure for future generations.”
Added her friend, Rosemarie Mahan, “It’s not only about the word of God, but about the beauty found in every page. It’s so inspiring … creative. It raises your mind to Christ.”
The multi-million dollar project was funded by 1,500 private donors. Since the last word of the Saint John’s Bible was penned in 2011, the original pages of the Bible have been touring at various venues.
“As long as there’s an interest, it’s meant to be shared,” said Mr. Ternes.
Following plans for widespread exhibition of the pages to the public, the seven volumes – Pentateuch, Historical Books, Psalms, Wisdom Books, Prophets, Gospels and Acts, and Letters and Revelation – eventually will be bound and permanently housed on the St. John’s University campus.
The Knights of Columbus Museum is located at 1 State St. Admission and parking are free. For information, call 203-865-0400. The museum will host a presentation at 2 p.m. Sept. 20 titled “The Ancient Art of Illumination,” with Valerie Weilmuenster, a scribe and illuminator who is on the faculty of the St. Michael Institute of Sacred Art in Mystic.