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Artists use ancient crafts, modern technology

Collegeville, Minn.

When the Benedictines of San Vito in Pisa commissioned an enormous manuscript Bible in October 1168, the townspeople wanted to help with the huge cost of purchasing parchment and of hiring a professional scribe and several illuminators for the task. Some 60 people, a carpenter, baker and two fishermen among them, donated sums ranging from three pence to 32 shillings to complete the project. The manuscript still survives.

Eight centuries later, the Benedictines at St. John’s Abbey and University here have commissioned a folio-sized handwritten, illuminated Bible and are welcoming donations.

“In an age of instant communication, there’s something paradoxical and very countercultural about taking six years to create a handwritten Bible,” said Rob Culligan, vice president for institutional advancement at St. John’s.

Such a project is not an indictment of modern technology, Culligan told NCR. Without a computer-generated exemplar, desktop publishing, digital photography, faxes and the Internet to carry artwork and text between the scriptorium in Wales and the patrons in Collegeville, there would be no St. John’s Bible.

Minnesotans and others have rallied to support the endeavor, its cost estimated at $4 million. Some 340 donors, many of them foundations, have contributed $2.5 million so far.

Donors can sponsor a single verse for less than $1,000. A $1,000 gift buys a page of text, $2,500 a quarter-page illumination, $5,000 a third-of-a-page illumination and $10,000 a full-page illumination.

Donors who want to underwrite one of the Bible’s 73 books can do so for a $25,000 to $50,000 gift. A full volume of the seven-volume work costs $250,000. Contributors will have their name inscribed in an eighth volume: The Book of Honor.

Before the Bible comes home to St. John’s in 2006, the 150th anniversary of the abbey and school, parts of it will tour the world, starting at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in October 2003. The following year new volumes are expected to premier in museums in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Seattle, and later in London, Paris, Wales and the Vatican. Each exhibition will showcase new pages, Culligan said.

Calligrapher Donald Jackson, artistic director and the Bible’s main scribe, has long envisioned a display of the full Bible with one volume in the center, flanked by three others on each side. The manuscript book, displayed open, would resemble a series of peacocks fanning their tails, he said.

Already the project has sparked the interest of children, who have responded to Jackson’s suggestion that everyone write out or draw their favorite Bible passage by hand. “You will be amazed at how meaningful it will become for you,” the calligrapher said. Drawings by children can be seen on the Web site: saintjohnsbible.org

Besides encouraging children to love the Bible, the project’s planners hope to create a variety of educational programs at all levels. The Benedictines who commissioned the Bible envision it as a resource for scholars, artists and adults seeking personal enrichment, as well as for programs offered through churches and synagogues.

Copies of the Bible in various formats will be published after its completion.

“We’ve decided to take six years to produce this work of beauty,” Culligan said. “We want people to look at every word and every page; we want them to savor it, not speed read it.”

--Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001