Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John's Bible

Article excerpt

Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John's Bible. By Christopher Calderhead. Collegeville, Minn.: The Saint John's Bible / Liturgical Press, 2005. 218 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

A reviewer of this book has three formidable challenges to meet: deciding where to begin, what to leave out, and how to include the obligatory cavil.

The starting point is a problem because this is a book about another book, the uniqueness of which gives this book its point and purpose. The Saint John's Bible is (or will be, when it is finished) a set of seven big volumes, written by hand on vellum with decoration in (real) gold and color-an illuminated manuscript, that is, very much in the medieval tradition that faded away as the printing press came into its own. The old scribes' techniques have since been revived, and calligraphic craftsmanship now flourishes, but a project on the scale of the one commissioned by the Benedictine monks of Saint John's Abbey in Minnesota has not been attempted for centuries. How successful the attempt has been can be seen in the published reproductions of the completed volumes. One is inclined simply to marvel at the splendor, the variety, the whimsy, and the ingenuity of the pages.

Several of these pages appear in Illuminating the Word, together with close-ups of many more, yet that is not the book's primary virtue. Christopher Calderhead has gone behind the scenes to trace and lay out in detail the vastly complex and equally fascinating process that brought The Saint John's Bible to birth. Today, what with computers and desktop publishing, making books in the Gutenberg manner is itself a specialized art, and the practices it replaced are all the more so. It would be possible to describe these as a journalist might do, dumbing down the technicalities and playing up the archaism, but Calderhead's approach is in another league entirely. For one thing, the eye he brings to the various skills involved is the eye of an expert. He knows whereof he speaks. For another, he speaks in a prose that is lucid without being chatty, and informative without being didactic. Much of what he has to say takes narrative form-how the idea of a whole hand-written Bible was conceived and how it developed, how actualizing that idea was planned, overall and in detail, how component parts were proposed, tried out, and corrected. …