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Monday, September 6, 2010

The St. John's Bible

Fr. Mike Patella gave the last of his lectures in the Asia Room on Saturday morning on the creation and progress of the hand-written on parchment St. John's Bible on display in Collegeville, MN or in various museums around the country.

Here, thanks to the notes of Fr. Ed Szendrey, are highlights of that presentation.


The St. John’s Bible Project.
• A project to create a new hand-written and hand-illuminated version of the Bible.

• The idea was first proposed in 1996, about the time that many Dioceses and Religious Communities were thinking of ways that they could celebrate the new millennium, that is to say the 2000th anniversary of Christ’s birth. The Benedictine (OSB) community wished to do something that incorporated both the tradition from which the Church arose, but also looked forward to the future of the Church.

• This idea originated with Donald Jackson.  Jackson is the court calligrapher for Queen Elizabeth II (he hand-wrote all of the invitations for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, and also hand-writes all official edicts from the Queen). Jackson participates in a workshop at St. John’s University called Calligraphy Connection, which draws calligraphers from all over the world.  In 1980, during an interview on the Today Show, Jackson expressed that one thing he wished to do was to produce a hand-written version of the Bible (much like those of the Middle Ages prior to the advent of movable type).

• In 1996 Jackson presented this idea to a member of the OSB community for consideration as their millennial project. This member brought the idea back to the OSB Superior.  He agreed that the St. John’s OSB community would facilitate and sponsor this project.

• One thing they DID NOT want this project to become was an “antiquarian romp” through history.  Rather, they wished to use this ancient artistic medium to speak to the present-day reality of the Church and its faithful.  Therefore, they wished to have represented in the illuminations women, the poor and marginalized, the concerns of the average person in the pews, environmental concerns and the tension between science and theology (they wanted as much science as possible represented).

• It was decided that the New Revised Standard Version would be used, over the New American Bible.  This is because the NRSV translation more seamlessly incorporates gender neutral language and also because the NAB is currently undergoing a re-translation (they wanted to use a version that will not change in the near future). NRSV was also translated by both Protestant and Catholic scholars.  Using this translation is in keeping with the project’s goal to be ecumenical.

• The first step was to bring together a group of theologians, scripture scholars, artists and art historians (called the Committee on Illumination of Texts).  This group would meet and reflect on passages and sections of the scriptures.  They would then send their ideas to Jackson (at his workshop in Wales, UK), who would in turn draw up sketches that he would send to the committee in Collegeville (Patella: This project could not have been done before the advent of e-mail).

• Jackson put out a call to the calligraphers around the world to look for a team to work on this project.  Of the dozens who responded, he chose four.  So good is this group that on those pages where more than one worked on writing, only an expert can tell where the work of one ends and another picks up.

• The Bible was divided into 7 volumes.  The first section they worked on was the Gospels and Acts. This was followed by the Pentateuch, Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom Lit., Historical Books, and finally Epistles and Revelation (this last volume is still in production).

• Portions of the finished volumes have been exhibited at the Museum of Biblical Art in NYC, the Library of Congress and the Victorian Albert Museum in London.

• The volumes have been digitized and shrunken (with great success in maintaining the beauty of the original) and will eventually be compiled into a 7 volume edition priced at $600.  300 ‘Heritage’ editions will be produced, which will be exact copies of the original (even to the point of printing them on parchment). These will sell for $145,000 (obviously intended for University and Museum collections).

• Proceeds from the sales will be used to finance the educational portion of this project, i.e. developing a teaching paradigm for the St. John’s Bible.  It is hoped that using this Bible as a teaching tool will get more people interested in the Bible and its history, as well as get them to see the Bible in a new way.

• Patella has used examples of this Bible to great effect in his ‘Introduction to the Biblical Tradition’ classes.  Catholic colleges are interested in acquiring Heritage Editions and using them as the center point for programs to revive the Catholic character of their institutions.

• By the way, no animals were EXPRESSLY killed to produce these works. The calf skin used to produce the parchment was obtained from abattoirs that were certified as using humane herding and slaughtering methods (which consequently results in a better parchment).

The second session was a powerpoint of some examples from the St. John’s Bible.  I will share my notes on just a couple of them.
• The illumination for the creation story is divided into 7 sections for each of the days of creation.  Day 1 begins on the left and then it proceeds to the right.  Interestingly, the section for the third day (the separation of the land from the sea) was based on satellite photos of the Ganges River Valley, considered one of the cradles of civilization.  The section for the sixth day (the creation of humans) was based on prehistoric cave drawings found in East Africa, where human beings are believed to have first evolved. The seventh day of rest is rendered in different tones of gold.  Throughout all of the illuminations of the St. John’s Bible, the color gold is used to represent the divine presence.

• The illumination for the Ten Commandments is rendered quite uniquely.  The bottom of the illumination is a series of random dots, but as you move upward, they begin to coalesce more and more until finally the words of the first commandment are distinctly seen at the top.  This represents the creation of the moral universe, chaos at the bottom, but more and more orderly the closer it gets to the top (i.e. God/Heaven).

• Interesting note on Proverbs 31:10-31 (instruction to the valiant woman/wife).  Instead of seeing this as instructions to a wife, read them with the mindset that this passage is referring to Christ (as much as Christ is the creative word, or Sophia, of Wisdom Lit.).  This passage is about what Christ does for God’s children, and what all children of God must do for one another. Good homily fodder.
Much more on the St. John’s Bible project can be found at .

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