It took a team of scholars and artists over 15 years to hand-write and illuminate the Saint John’s Bible, and the results are amazing.
It has been over 500 years since a monastery of any size has taken on the herculean task of hand crafting a bible.
“A commission like this has not taken place in the modern world since the Sistine chapel”, said Director of Saint John’s Bible Project, Tim Ternes.
The bible was commissioned by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville Minnesota back in 1995 as a way to mark the millennium, it was completed in 2011.
The Saint John’s Bible is a monumental work. It has 1127 handwritten and illuminated pages. When opened it would measure two feet tall by three feet wide. The collection, both Old and New Testament fills seven volumes that size.
The work was the brainchild of Donald Jackson, considered one of the worlds foremost western scribes. He is scribe to the House of Lords, he writes for Queen Elizabeth.
He came to Saint John’s with the idea for the project and together Donald, along with his team of calligraphers and artists and the team at Saint John’s embarked on a journey that would last 15 years.
Once Saint John’s University chose which parts of the bible would be created both the theology team in Minnesota and the artistic team in Wales, in the UK, would talk out how it should look. These discussions could go on for months, and not until both sides of the ocean were satisfied would the pages be created on the vellum.
The Saint John’s Bible is a contemporary bible, with modern artwork illustrating the passages; it was made however using medieval techniques.
“We are going for a manuscript that will last between 1500 and two thousand years,” Ternes said.
The materials chosen were some of the same found in other books from the medieval ages that are in the collection of Saint John’s University.
Using a turkey, swan or goose quill, it’s written on calf skin vellum, with ancient Chinese ink sticks from the 1870’s made of lampblack, or candle soot.
The pages are illuminated using actual 24 carat gold. The displays housing the pages actually catch the gold in the light – it’s really a ‘wow’ moment. The pages shine.
Besides the glowing pages, the writing itself is a piece of art. This is not a computer printed book – it took six people working for seven years to create just the words in the Saint John’s Bible. Donald Jackson had to find five other calligraphers, whose lettering would closely match each other, so as to look as though the script came from the same hand throughout the bible.
“The consistency and elegance and gracefulness of the script is miraculous,” Ternes said.
There were some spelling mistakes made, but since the bible was being written on vellum, the errors could be scratched out and sanded away, the reader would never know.
Other mistakes however took a bit more work to correct. There are 9 places in the Saint John’s Bible where a line was left out. To fix the problem the team went back to ancient manuscripts and borrowed a method used to correct mistakes in those times. A little design, a bird, bumblebee, even a lemur, is drawn into the margins to show where the missing line goes and a trail leads down to the missing line at the bottom of the page, pulling the line into place.
The work is as fascinating to see as the story of how it all came together is to hear. It is meant to be a bible for everyone.
“Even if you are a person of no faith at all, you will find this fascinating because of the human endeavor that went into it,” Ternes said.
The Saint John’s Bible is on display now at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover through March 27th. You can get more information on the project and see the entire bible when you visit the Saint John’s Bible on the web.