Copying the Bible like a Medieval Monk

Article excerpt

Twenty-seven seconds," says Donald Jackson as he picks up a penknife and cuts into the hollow shaft of a white, brown-flecked turkey feather. "Watch."

The first cut makes a rounded, U-shaped cross-section of the tip of the feather. Two more round cuts on either side bring it to a point, into which he makes a little slit. After he trims it a bit more, touching the tip with his tongue, he holds it up - a calligrapher's pen.

Just over 25 seconds. "Y2K proof," he says with a grin. Mr. Jackson is one of the world's foremost calligraphers. As scribe to the Crown Office at the House of Lords in London - a position many refer to as the queen's scribe - he produces the official documents for the crown. He also produced the Royal Consent for the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Now, Jackson is embarking on a six-year project to handwrite and illustrate the Bible, a project commissioned by St. John's University, a Benedictine school in Collegeville, Minn. "The commission comes out of a 1,500-year commitment to the book," says Eric Hollas, director of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at St. John's. "A respect for the book, a love for the book, and a love for the Bible are at the core of the Benedictine tradition." The project was commissioned in part to commemorate and revive the ancient monastic tradition of book writing, but also to produce a contemporary work of art that illuminates scripture for the new millennium. "Donald has been one of the key figures in the revival of the interest in calligraphy in the United States. He always wanted to do a Bible. It was a passion of his. That's the key reason we chose him," Mr. Hollas says. Jackson demonstrates the tools of his trade with panache. In front of him is a weathered leather satchel with other penknives tucked in with goose, swan, and turkey feathers. "{The quill} makes lovely, spontaneous marks," he explains. He does not have any ink with him, but, overcome by his own enthusiasm, he dips the quill in his coffee and gracefully begins to write on a file of papers next to him. Since he was a child, he says, he loved the physical feeling of dipping a pen in ink and moving it around on a surface. "Anything I say about my art is rooted in that physical, sensuous, touch sensation." A white quill in his hand, Jackson explains some of the reasons he always hoped to produce a Bible. "With the writing of these words, every single letter is a little tiny unit of energy," he says. "It isn't a laboriously, painfully produced thing. It can be a joyously energized, spirited piece of writing, which, if you add letter on letter to word on word to page on page, becomes a whole book of energy pulsing." He brandishes the plume with excitement. "That is one of the key reasons the Word of God can come alive when it's written on a page. In a way, that demands far more of you than if you pick up a Bible out of your motel bedroom drawer. …