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Cover story

Word by word

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Collegeville, Minn.

More than a thousand worshipers gathered here in late April, in St. John’s Abbey and University Church, to feast their eyes on the first volume of the first modern handwritten and illuminated Bible to be commissioned since the advent of printing 546 years ago. In song, in prayer and in homiletic reflection, worshipers paid homage to the work of world-class British calligrapher Donald Jackson and his team of scribes.

Greeting celebrants was the first volume of the St. John’s Bible, the four gospels and Acts of the Apostles, written with goose quills at a scriptorium in rural Wales. It held pages of beautifully crafted text, scripted on calfskin vellum and sculptured like columns girding the Word of God. Illuminations of key scenes from the life of Jesus were interspersed through the pages.

Those in attendance might well have compared themselves to first-time visitors to Chartres or Notre Dame Cathedral in the age before photography or guidebooks. Slowly their eyes were opened to a monumental artistic and spiritual endeavor that Jackson is overseeing. Long after the service ended, many lingered to gaze anew at a phrase or a single letter in this initial volume, to be one of seven when the $4 million project is complete. (See related story for information on major donors supporting the effort.)

The early results were just as the Benedictine monks here had hoped: a project with ancient roots executed in the context of modern technology. It is an undertaking with a lofty aim: to ignite spiritual imaginations of believers worldwide for generations to come.

Its value for Benedictines cannot be underestimated, Benedictine Br. Dietrich Reinhart said, for “monks do not go to scripture to get recipes and instructions.” Rather, scripture is a resting place for their important questions, a place of personal rejuvenation and re-grounding. Reinhart, president of St. John’s University, said he hoped the Bible project would promote the renewal of the Benedictine abbey and the academy.

“A great Bible is being written by hand, laboriously, joyfully, over many years, and under St. John’s aegis,” Reinhart said. Appropriately enough he read “In Praise of Scribes” by a 15th-century Benedictine abbot at the unveiling.

The celebration in the abbey church marked a year since Jackson put goose quill to vellum to begin the project. Participants were rewarded with a work that interprets and illustrates God’s word from a contemporary perspective. They saw in its pages the reflections of a multicultural world and of humankind’s strides in science, space travel and technology. Unlike many earlier manuscript Bibles, which were intended for personal use or to be held in the hand, this Bible is ceremonially sized -- nearly two feet tall and 16 inches wide -- intended for use in public worship. The finished Bible, bound in wooden boards encased in hand-stitched leather, will reside in St. John’s Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, available for use in some worship services in the Abbey Church. Some already regard it as a relic-in-the-making, which will draw pilgrims to the monastic shrine.

The planners have chosen the New Revised Standard Version, a modern English translation by the National Council of Churches of Christ, approved by the U.S. Catholic bishops and widely used by Catholic and Protestant churches. The version, a 1989 updating of the Revised Standard Version, employs gender-inclusive language.

To illuminate the start of St. Matthew’s Gospel and to act as a bridge between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Bible, Jackson chose to depict the family tree of Jesus as a Jewish menorah. Intertwined among its branches are spirals, suggestive of DNA strands.

The brilliant azure and vermilion candelabra with its thin vanilla-hued tapers invites the onlooker to closer inspection of Jesus’ roots. From the ancient scroll at the center of the menorah to the DNA chains atop it, the design at once suggests Jesus’ biological connection to the whole human family, past and to come.

Shared belief

Jackson has scripted the names of Jesus’ ancestors, including the names of their wives, in English and Hebrew. He has entered the name of Abraham and Hagar’s offspring, Ishmael, in Arabic -- a sign both of Abraham’s sacredness to Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and of the abbey’s commitment to interreligious dialogue.

Reinhart hopes that as people learn about the St. John’s Bible they will celebrate the heritage of shared religious belief and become more aware of the uniting force of sacred texts.

The Bible will contain illuminated images that carry meaning for Muslims and Jews as well as for Christians, illustrating that this endeavor is intended for all God’s people, he said. “It indicates that the church rejoices in the truth wherever it may be found.”

How did the 200 monks at St. John’s come to embrace this daring, seemingly anachronistic endeavor? It began five years ago when Jackson asked Benedictine Fr. Eric Hollas point-blank: “Do you want me to make the word of God live on a page?”

“Audacious!” Hollas thought. Jackson’s query to a potential patron sounded like Caravaggio soliciting a cardinal for a commission. Hollas, a medievalist, needed less convincing than did some of his confreres. As director of St. John’s Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, he knew how its nearly 30 million pages of microfilmed documentation have become a magnet for international scholars. As a repository of microfilmed manuscripts dating to before 1500, the collection is the largest in the world.

Hollas and several other Benedictines knew they could find no better scribe than Jackson, Queen Elizabeth’s own calligrapher. Since 1964 Jackson has written the royal family’s announcements as well as state documents issued from his office in the House of Lords. He has also displayed his art at the annual International Assembly of Lettering Artists, which, on occasion, has met at St. John’s.

Yet through most of his career, Jackson has had but one quest -- to write the entire Bible, carefully crafted letter by carefully crafted letter.

“When it takes a nanosecond to send the entire Encyclopedia Britannica to the moon, there’s something exciting about spending 10 minutes to draw a single letter,” Hollas told NCR. Further, Jackson’s proposed project was well within Benedictine tradition. The order’s devotion to the book arts remains strong today even though its most recent previous commissioning of a manuscript Bible dates to in the 12th century.

Benedictines have been practicing Lectio Divina -- the prayerful reading of scripture -- for 1,500 years, since St. Benedict prescribed it in his historic Rule. Devotion to the Word, and attention to words and texts in general, were key elements of Benedictine monasticism as it spread across Europe. The laborious copying of sacred texts and the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, a hallmark of medieval monasteries, proved to be key elements in preserving of Europe’s intellectual heritage through centuries of barbarism.

The religious fervor that took root when St. Benedict established his rule early in the 6th century, atop a hillside at Monte Cassino, Italy, spread across Europe from Portugal to Scandinavia. Twelve centuries later, it would make its way to Collegeville, where monks, dispatched from Metten in Bavaria, would go to work among German immigrant families of central Minnesota.

In 1856 as they steered their boats up the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the monks ferried little freight other than sacred books. But those volumes and the ones that came later -- some 5,000 rare books and 30,000 reference works from the 15th to 20th centuries -- have placed Collegeville in a direct line from Monte Cassino, Cluny, Durham and other renowned abbeys. Today St. John’s and its neighboring community of Benedictine sisters in St. Joseph, Minn., make up the largest Benedictine family in Christendom.

Choosing justice themes

Still historical arguments do not persuade all brethren, noted Reinhart, who faced opposition from university trustees and administrators. Some reckoned that a handcrafted Bible in the 21st century is unrealistic, crazy, not the best use of St. John’s resources or energies.

Reinhart listened to the opposition, then noted that both proponents and critics of the project were similar in this respect: they put high value on two themes that Reinhart felt the project would address. Most obvious is the importance of great art to the religious imagination. Less directly, an illuminated Bible would address the need for the religious impulse to engage in work for social justice. The St. John’s Bible was not to replicate a medieval manuscript. Its designers wanted a modern Bible in English, one that would speak to the American church in the 21st century. Its themes were intentionally chosen: issues of social justice, the role of women, stewardship of the earth, God’s covenant with humankind.

After nearly five years of prayer, planning and painstaking preparation, St. John’s Abbey and University commissioned the Bible and blessed Jackson, its artistic director, as well as the tools of his craft. On Ash Wednesday, 2000, Jackson began his work with a video audience of thousands around the world. In a dramatic flourish, he began the work with a verse of his choosing, the opening verse of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God.”

Video streaming is but one of the technologies employed by Jackson and his team of three calligraphers and three part-time illustrators, who labor in a renovated mechanic’s shed in rural Monmouth, Wales. The well-lit scriptorium is a short ride from Tintern Abbey, now a ruin but once an abbey of austere Benedictines in the High Middle Ages. The scriptorium houses a computer corner where Jackson receives e-mail directives from St. John’s and where he is able to use a digital scanner to transmit copies of the group’s work in progress to Collegeville.

Students at St. John’s and at the neighboring liberal arts College of St. Benedict’s, as well as bibliophiles, scholars and artists can watch the progress of Bible-building on the Web site: www.saintjohnsbible.org. On opening day of the project, the site had 26,000 hits.

Getting the Good News from a modern translation onto vellum skins in the 21st century requires not only traditional illuminator’s tools -- goose, swan and turkey quills, piles of gold leaf, powdered pigments, watercolor cakes and pots of soot-black ink -- but also a computer-generated template of the entire Bible. The template must account for every word and line of the seven volumes as well as the spaces where the illuminations are to fit.

Jackson needed to design his own script for the task -- one easily legible and sufficiently sturdy to support English, which contains many more words than Latin, Italian or French. Viewed on the page, the twin columns of 54-lined-text form a pattern of dark writing, alternating with bands of white space. From a distance the lettering and its wraparound space present a textile-like weave.

After Jackson learned his own script, and before teaching it to his assistants, he engaged a technology maven whose job it was to find a computer font closely matching his new script in size and style. Once such a script was found, the computer began to produce the layout of each of the Bible’s 73 books, arranging the text into 1,150 pages and allowing space for more than 160 illuminations.

The Bible will be divided into the project’s seven volumes as follows: I, Gospels and Acts; II, The Pentateuch; III, History Books; IV, Psalms; V, Prophets; VI, Wisdom Books; VII, the rest of the New Testament -- Romans to Revelations.

Just what the 160 illuminations should depict has become the subject of lengthy meetings over four years within the Illumination and Text Committee. Fr. Michael Patella, one of five Benedictine priests and nuns in the eight-person group, heads the committee of theologians, artists, medievalists, biblical scholars, art and church historians.

Patella pulls a hefty theological “brief” from his desk. It tells Jackson what the group has been discussing about each of the passages that will be illuminated in Volume II, The Pentateuch.

Images of water and land

The scholars weigh in with exegetical commentary about the Creation story in Genesis as well as scriptural cross-references to it. They freely associate the events with art, music and sculpture from contemporary time and from ages past. To this they add a fourth ingredient -- local or regional connections, such as images of water and land associated with St. John’s own Lake Sagatagan. A few years ago the abbey reclaimed 50 acres of wetlands, which has witnessed a return of flora and fauna native to the area.

The Bible has become Jackson’s Sistine Chapel. Part of his efforts to make the Word of God come alive on the page will be the inclusion of Minnesota ducks, woodlands and native peoples in his illuminations, Patella told NCR.

Jackson, who welcomes a variety of ideas about a particular passage before he begins to illuminate it, studies the brief. He then creates a series of pencil sketches and e-mails them to the committee, which in turn provides him with feedback before he begins his color draft. When the consultation is complete, Jackson spends seven to 10 hours writing a non-illustrated page. He may work many days on an illumination. He expects to work another four years before scripting the last line of the Book of Revelation: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”

Patella likes to think of the project in the context of New Year’s Eve 1999 when the whole world was able to watch a global celebration of the millennium across 24 time zones and seven continents. He places the Saint John’s Bible within millennial manifestations, celebrating as it does 2,000 years of Christianity and reaching back another two millennia to Sarah and Abraham and to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. “This is our unique way to welcome the Third Millennium,” he said.

While Jackson’s art will gather images and characters from antiquity, these illuminations will be presented to a public, which, for the first time in human history, can share their different cultures and traditions with great ease of communication, Patella said.

When the seven volumes are completed in 2006, in time for the 150th anniversary of the founding of St. John’s, Patella hopes that it will “proclaim the age-old Good News to the world with the freshness of a new era.” Long after the monks at Collegeville have been buried and its buildings have disappeared, he is assured the Word of God, and the monk’s heritage will live on in the Bible that St. John’s produced.

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001