Illuminating: Medieval art form meets 21st century knowledge in The Saint John's Bible

Imagine a book that combines age-old artistry with what we know about the world in 2017. It's the incredible story of the Saint John's Bible.
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      Originally published in June 2017.

      When you think of a Bible, you might picture a modest, even dull-looking volume, with tissue-paper pages and columns and columns of text.  

      But the Saint John's Bible is not your average Good Book.

      Its seven volumes are large, sumptuous creations, meant to be gathered around, marvelled at, and reflected upon. Old and New Testament stories are illustrated using symbols and images that come from our own time.  

      Among the sources of inspiration: Images from the Hubble telescope, satellite pictures of the Ganges Delta, and strands of DNA. Butterflies flit past; voiceprints of the songs of many faiths are transcribed. The scientific and the sacred go hand in hand.  

      Baptism of Jesus (detail), Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

      Chain-link fences are symbols of division; piles and piles of eyeglasses remind us of the Holocaust. A rendering of the Twin Towers appears in an illustration of the Prodigal Son.

      Master Calligrapher Donald Jackson works at his tilted desk in the Schoolroom (Michael Freeman Photography, London England)
      While working on a hand-written, illuminated Bible, the Queen's Scribe Donald Jackson heard the news of the Twin Towers attack and incorporated this tragedy into his artwork. 1:40
      The one thing that the Saint John's Bible absolutely wanted to do was show that there was no division between science and theology. Science tells us how and theology tells us why... and the how of science, the whole evolutionary history, we wanted the Bible to reflect that.- Fr. Michael Patella, OSB, Professor, Saint John's Abbey and University


      The result is a treatment of Scripture that ignites the spiritual imagination in nearly anyone who encounters it.

      And it's all been done by hand. It's been quite a while since anyone has hand-lettered and hand-illustrated a Bible — more than 500 years.

      The Saint John's Bible takes its cues from a medieval art form, the hand-illuminated manuscript. They were key sources for meditation and prayer. Surviving examples of illuminated Bibles are full of ornate lettering, hypnotic patterns, and curious and compelling illustrations.

      A life's dream, a millennial commission

      The Saint John's Bible was commissioned in the late 1990s by the Benedictine Fathers at Saint John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. They were looking for a profound way to mark the millennium.

      But the seed of the project was sown in Wales.  A hand-lettered, hand-illustrated Bible had been a lifelong dream for Donald Jackson, one of the world's most skilled calligraphers and scribe to Queen Elizabeth II.  

      Sally Mae Joseph applies gesso over a frisket stencil in preparation for the gilding of the small squares and rectangles which appear throughout the book of Psalms. (Derek Evan, HUW Evans Agency, Cardiff, Wales)

      It was Jackson who approached Saint John's with the idea; they approved and sponsored the effort. Donald Jackson became Artistic Director, and assembled a team of artists and calligraphers to make it happen.

      And why did I do that? It's very much like the old cliché of 'Why do you climb Mount Everest?' Well, because it's there.- Donald Jackson, Artistic Director, The Saint John's Bible

      The Abbey and University in Minnesota put together a special committee to advise Jackson on the themes and ideas they wanted to emphasize: hospitality, transformation, and justice. These themes are at the heart of the Rule of St. Benedict, the code that informs life as a Benedictine monk.

      Despite a bumpy start in the early months of the project, as they figured out how to work across the Atlantic in the early days of the internet, they soon established a unique trust and exchange of ideas that culminated in the final strokes in 2011.

      Every aspect of the creation of this Bible respected tradition — right down to quills made from goose and turkey feathers, the use of real gold, and paints made with egg yolks. But that's not the only thing that distinguishes the Saint John's Bible as a special project.

      Tradition rules how it's made, but what it contains is informed by a contemporary experience of life on Earth. And that forges connections with a broad spectrum of people of many faiths, believers and non-believers alike.

      How the Saint John's Bible incorporates many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions

      3 years agoVideo
      How the Saint John's Bible incorporates many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions 1:12

      Getting the word out... to McDonald's?

      The original manuscript pages are housed in Minnesota, where a special gallery is under construction; but more and more people are getting a chance to have an intimate encounter with this masterpiece, thanks to the Heritage Edition. It's a full-size, limited-edition version of the Saint John's Bible that is designed to be as close as possible to the original.

      It's a major acquisition, but it's making its way into schools, churches, hospitals, and other places across North America and around the world.  

      Jason Engel spent three years as a volunteer ambassador for the Heritage Edition, presenting the Saint John's Bible to groups and individuals, at official events and in more informal settings: Like at a McDonald's in Chicago, where one night, out of the blue, he drew a crowd around a volume that contained the book of Genesis. It all began when he met Michael, a man recovering from addiction, who approached Jason as he waited in line to order.

      So it's me and Michael and this elderly woman and these teens and the restaurant manager...and at least one of the teens didn't speak English. And there was another girl there who spoke Spanish. So as I'm speaking or anyone's asking questions...or as we're reading the text, someone would read it out loud, and she'd be translating into Spanish. So we had this whole multicultural, multigenerational meeting over this Bible, at McDonald's.- Jason Engel, Volunteer Ambassador

      St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont., had the Heritage Edition in 2017.  Cristina Vanin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and she has been closely involved with bringing the Saint John's Bible both to the University and to the community at large. It has been a powerful experience for her, and for the many people she meets on her outings with the book.


      Click 'LISTEN' above to hear Tapestry's special episode on the Saint John's Bible.


      We were all taken in by this beautiful work of art. It's brought so much life.  The number of faces that have come up to this Bible as I've turned pages and people are wowed by it has been overwhelming for me.- Cristina Vanin, Associate Professor, St. Jerome's University