Originally created 06/26/04

Handwritten St. John's Bible uses both old techniques

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. -- As Donald Jackson and his scribes worked on a handwritten and "illuminated" Bible, they used an image unavailable to the monks of the Middle Ages: a view of Earth taken from outer space.

It's one of the many modern touches in "The St. John's Bible," from using computers to lay out pages to using "virtual voice prints" of chanting monks, Buddhists and American Indians in several artworks.

"It's a work of art and spirituality for the new millennium. It's not a 12th-century Bible," Tim Ternes, director of public programs and education for "The St. John's Bible," says. "It's very modern."

But this Bible - believed to be the first of its kind commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in 500 years - is still done the old-fashioned way, with every letter and illustration painstakingly drawn by hand.

Jackson and his team of artists in Monmouth, Wales, use quills cut from goose or swan feathers. Ancient inks are prepared using the yolks of eggs from free-range chickens near Jackson's scriptorium as a binder. The words are written on large sheets of prepared vellum, or calfskin, which are then illuminated or brought to light with gold, silver or platinum to form dazzling artwork.

"People just open a page and tears come into their eyes," Jackson says.

The eight-year, $4 million project funded by private donations has reached the halfway point. Jackson and his artists have completed three volumes and have four to go. About 70 percent of the text has been written, and 40 percent to 45 percent of the illustrations are done.

When the Bible is finished, expected in 2007, the massive work will total about 1,150 pages. When open, the facing pages measure about 3 feet wide by 2 feet tall. Each volume will be bound separately and have a cover of white oak from Wales.

Ternes says "The St. John's Bible" - stored in special cases in a vault at St. John's University, about 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis - is intended for the ages.

"It's being designed to last 4,000 years," he says. The university hopes to eventually build a building on campus to house the Bible.

St. John's Abbey, one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in the world with about 200 monks, and St. John's University, founded by the abbey in 1857, commissioned Jackson in 1998 to create "The St. John's Bible" to celebrate the new millennium and the 150th anniversary of the monks' arrival, Ternes says.

Jackson, 66, who lettered official state documents as a scribe to Queen Elizabeth's Crown Office at the House of Lords, told Barbara Walters in a 1970 interview that he'd like to write the Bible someday. He has called it his Sistine Chapel.

Eventually, Jackson asked St. John's - sponsor of a well-known calligraphy conference he had attended several times - "Do you want this?"

The Benedictines, whose order was founded in Italy by St. Benedict about 530 A.D., have a long tradition of manuscript sharing and preservation. St. John's agreed to the project, and the first words were written on Ash Wednesday 2000.

Writing the Bible is a demanding physical task, Jackson says. The most anyone can work is five and a half hours a day; lettering one page takes between seven and 11 hours.

"You can't sit and say, 'Oh, a page a day,"' he says.

The seven volumes are being done out of order, but eventually will be arranged in the order of a Roman Catholic Bible. The finished version will include the Apocrypha, the books that Protestants don't view as divinely inspired Scripture.

Gospel and Acts was the first volume completed, in May 2002. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible and the same as the Jewish Torah, was completed in August 2003. Psalms was finished this April, and Jackson is working on the next volume, Prophets, due next February.

(To mark the project's halfway point, a delegation - including Abbot John Klassen of St. John's Abbey, President Dietrich Reinhart of St. John's University and Jackson - presented Pope John Paul II with a limited edition, full-size reproduction of Gospel and Acts last week.)

The text of "The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible," a modern English translation, is the version being used. Its predecessor, "The Revised Standard Version," was authorized for use by Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Its language is gender-inclusive when referring to men and women.

At St. John's, a committee on illumination and text meets to discuss biblical interpretations. A mix of theologians and artists, the committee forwards its reflections to Jackson, who creates sketches and mock-ups of pages that are e-mailed back to the committee.

"One of the first things the committee said was we don't want an illustrated Bible. We don't want pictures of the life of Jesus or Moses tapping the rock or Adam eating the apple," Brother Alan Reed, a committee member, says.

Jackson, who was raised Methodist, and his team have responded with a beautiful vision that runs from Greek iconography and Jewish and Islamic symbols to startling modern images, such as a seven-panel Creation that includes a painting from a satellite view of the delta of the Ganges River.

The last image in Gospel is a view of the universe taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. To illustrate forgiveness, the parable of the Prodigal Son incorporates an image of the Twin Towers.

Jackson says using an image from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is apt.

"Everybody felt that rage on 9/11," he says, "but on the other hand, when you read the story in the Bible, it's telling you you can't hate your way out of anything. You've got to love your way out."

In keeping with the tradition of handwritten Bibles, "The St. John's Bible" includes paintings of butterflies and flowers that team member Chris Tomlin made from the rolling central Minnesota farmland and forests around St. John's. The St. John's bell tower shows up a couple of times, and each Scripture reference found in the Rule of St. Benedict is marked by a tiny cross.

Pages from "The St. John's Bible" are on display at the university's Hill Monastic Manuscript Library. Next April, portions of the first three volumes as well as sketches and tools go on exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before starting a national tour.

St. John's also is working on a "coffee table" edition of Gospel and Acts as well as a fine-art print series that would be for sale. A book about the making of "The St. John's Bible" also is in the works.

St. John's Bible at a glance


A total of seven volumes, each 15 3/4 inches wide by 23 1/2 inches tall when closed. Total number of pages: about 1,150.


The St. John's Bible is written on calfskin vellum using goose and swan quills. The team of scribes uses natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments and gold and silver leaf gilding.


A computer was used to size text and define line breaks. These pages are laid out in full-size spreads with sketches in position. Artists use these layouts to guide their work. Each page contains an illuminated book heading. Pentateuch book titles appear in English on the left page and Hebrew on the right page.


The calligraphic script was specially designed by Donald Jackson. Letters are written in lamp black ink from century-old Chinese stick ink made from carbon.


The New Revised Standard Version was selected by theologians and scholars at St. John's University as the translation for The St. John's Bible.


There will be 160 illuminations when The St. John's Bible is completed.


Gospel and Acts, completed May 2002.

Pentateuch, completed August 2003.

Psalms, completed April 2004.

Prophets, February 2005 (projected completion date).

Wisdom Books and Poetry, November 2005 (projected).

Historical Books, August 2006 (projected).

Letters and Revelation, July 2007 (projected).


Pentateuch, 158 pages.

Historical Books, 319 pages.

Prophets, 272 pages.

Wisdom Books and Poetry, 102 pages.

Psalms, 80 pages.

Gospel and Acts, 135 pages.

Letters and Revelation, 93 pages.

Source: The St. John's Bible

On the Net:

St. John's Bible: http://www.saintjohnsbible.org

Hill Monastic Manuscript Library: http://www.hmml.org

St. John's University: http://www.csbsju.edu

St. John's Abbey: http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org

Minneapolis Institute of Arts: http://www.artsmia.org


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