The Saint John's Bible: Beauty and Truth
- How many scribes does it take to handwrite all 73 books of the Bible?
- What writing instruments are used by a modern day scribe who is replicating a medieval process of writing a Bible in script?
- How many hours does it take to write one page of a handwritten Bible?
- How many artists does it take to illustrate 1,127 pages of a Bible?
- How many years does it take to handwrite a Bible?
(See answers at the end of this essay.)
Questions about the details of producing one of the most monumental book projects of the last 500 years-The Saint John's Bible-abound and fascinate. But perhaps the most important question to ask is, why? Why spend an enormous amount of money, time, and effort to write and illuminate a Bible by hand, the first of its size to be commissioned by a Benedictine abbey since the Middle Ages?
The answer to that simple question is multifaceted, just as the Bible itself is multifaceted, and comes down to a moment in time when the right people found each other and together formed a vision. Donald Jackson, probably the foremost calligrapher of our time, Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth's Crown Office, always wanted to write a Bible by hand. Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, has a long tradition of fostering the book arts, preserving manuscripts, and reading Scripture and teaching theology. Inspired by Jackson's skill, desire, and commitment, and by their mission to make the Scripture relevant in today's world, Saint John's signed on the dotted line in 1998, commissioning Donald Jackson, with the advice of a committee of historians, theologians, and artists, to supervise the process of handwriting and illustrating all 73 books of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a project that involved 16 artist/scribes and took 11 years to complete.
Which brings us to a local question-why are we talking about The Saint John's Bible? What does it have to do with us?
It's here, for one thing. On loan from Saint John's, one of the 299 copies of the fine art edition of The Saint John's Bible is on display in the Thomas Tredway Library (and you can buy one of these editions for $145,000!). For one month, until December 15, all seven volumes of The Saint John's Bible are available to groups and classes to explore (yes, you can touch the books with your bare hands) and offer a rare opportunity to get as close as possible to the original manuscript, short of visiting Saint John's in Minnesota.
The Heritage Edition, as these facsimile volumes are titled, was supervised in production by Donald Jackson, and is the only full-size, limited edition, signed and numbered fine art reproduction that will be created. Jackson, in his typical fashion, insisted on attending to every detail in the Heritage Edition. He wanted, for example, to represent the translucent property of vellum, which in the original manuscript reveals the shadow of printing on the verso of each page. If you look closely at the pages of the Heritage Edition, which are made with cotton and not translucent, you can see the faint impression of the print on the verso, thus replicating the experience of reading the original manuscript.
Visit the display and see for yourself the tremendous beauty of the script and illuminated illustrations that grace every volume of The Saint John's Bible. Notice how the illustrations reflect the times in which we live. True to the concept behind The Saint John's Bible, not every illustration represents the successes of humankind. Ezekial 37:1-14, for example, which tells of the Valley of the Dry Bones, is portrayed by a gray heap of skulls, bones, wrecked cars, eyeglasses (representing the Holocaust), and an oil slick, all signs of the devastation that civilization has wrought through war, genocide, and a wasteful consumer society. This is a Bible that makes you think as well as admire.
And that is why The Saint John's Bible was made, and why we are displaying, reading, and exploring it here at Augustana College. A creation that comes out of the best in the liberal arts tradition, The Saint John's Bible is a dramatic, stunning, bold testament to beauty and truth.
- 6 scribes
- quill pens from goose, turkey, and swan feathers
- 7 to 13 hours (each page is about 24 inches by 16 inches)
- 10 artists
- 11 years