Beautiful Words: The St. John's Bible Project

By Byassee, Jason | The Christian Century, August 9, 2005 | Go to article overview

Beautiful Words: The St. John's Bible Project


Byassee, Jason, The Christian Century


BIBLES ARE CHEAP. In their zeal to make scripture accessible to everyone, Protestants have manufactured Bibles in almost every language and made them available for startlingly small sums. Perhaps in doing so they have unwittingly made the Bible cheap not just financially, but theologically. Whereas Wycliffe and Tyndale devoted their lives to creating a Bible in the vernacular, modern folks have access to plenty of Bibles but are not very interested in reading them.

The St. John's Bible is not cheap. It is being produced by dozens of scholars and artists who have been laboring for almost a decade, at a cost of about $4 million, to create the first handwritten, illuminated Bible in five centuries. Even reproductions of the seven-volume Bible will be pricey. A museum-quality facsimile will cost thousands of dollars. The one trade volume available, Gospels and Acts (Liturgical Press), runs $64.95. This is a long way from the two bucks it takes the Gideons to produce a New Testament. In fact, chief calligrapher Donald Jackson and his colleagues are producing something priceless--a Bible beautiful enough to make readers want to keep reading, and even want to praise God.

The project began with a decision by St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, to commemorate the second millennium of Christ's birth in grand fashion. The Benedictine order has long been devoted to manuscript preservation. In the Middle Ages the order copied precious books that would otherwise have been lost. In the Internet age, it continues to work on the stewardship and dissemination of manuscripts.

St. John's decided to produce a Bible with all the trappings of the greatest editions of the past--using gold leaf, calfskin pages, quill pens and so on. But the project would also draw on modern resources, such as computers to plot out the spacing and provide schemata for the calligraphers. To oversee the work they tapped Jackson, chief calligrapher for the queen of England, whose life ambition was to produce a handwritten Bible. St. John's allowed him to choose a team of assistants. A committee of theologians and biblical scholars directs the project from Minnesota.

The St. John's Bible, due to be completed in 2007 and roughly halfway there, has been called "America's Book of Kells" by Newsweek. It may be far more important than that, for this text is meant not only to be beautiful, like a museum object, but to inspire a renewed love of scripture. It is meant to be read at home and used in liturgy.

The three finished volumes--Gospels and Acts, the Pentateuch, Psalms--have been on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and there are plans for a nationwide tour. Beautiful as the trade volume is, the originals must be seen to be believed. The handsome script, specially designed for the SJB, is as beautiful as that of any ancient manuscript. Its rich texture invites the eye to continue reading; the words are so aesthetically pleasing you don't want to stop. Texture is a key word in this project. The production of these volumes is more like the patient and loving knitting of a fine garment than the printing of a book.

Christopher Calderhead, author of Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John's Bible (Liturgical), points out that in the case of a modern book the reader is the first to see any particular copy--it is sometimes wrapped in cellophane at the printer's and opened for the first time by the purchaser. The St. John's Bible, in contrast, has been lovingly and excruciatingly pored over by a highly trained scribe, illuminated by a master artist, planned and supported by a monastery and a university's theology faculty.

The illuminations themselves are inspired not only by ancient Christian canons, such as Orthodox icons, but also by modern art. The serpents biting the Israelites in Numbers 21 are so many jagged lines, which seem to threaten to jump off the page. The demons in the Gospels' exorcism stories are portrayed as a wave of screaming creatures that call to mind Picasso's Guernica. …

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