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Jackson loves the feel of pen on page

Collegeville, Minn.

Since Donald Jackson was 9 years old, he has been drawn to copy ancient scripts and decorated letters. He loved the feel of the pen as it touched the page and the breathtaking effect of the flow of colored ink as its wetness caught the light.

He still experiences such sensations as he works, whether at his calligraphy workshop in Wales or in an office in the House of Lords where he serves as scribe to Queen Elizabeth. Often it is the quill rather than his conscious thought that chooses the shapes and selects the designs his words will take.

“The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God,” said the British Methodist who is scripting the first handwritten, illuminated Bible in the modern era.

Thirty years ago Jackson, now 62, expressed interest in illuminating the Bible while a guest on NBC’s The Today Show. But it was during a 1996 conference on book arts at St. John’s University here that Jackson knew he must execute the task -- a task “I’d been preparing for all my life,” he said.

Jackson was stirred as he watched a monk carry a large book down into the congregation at the abbey church, heard him read from it, saw him hold it up and say, “This is the Word of the Lord.”

In the midst of a gathering about books, here was a book “unlike all others,” he recalled in an April interview with Anglican priest and calligrapher Christopher Calderhead of London.

After getting the agreement of St. John’s to sponsor a Bible for the 21st century, Jackson began to design a script for the work, a script that would be both classic and contemporary. He wanted to write the word of God in such a way “that it is not wearing blue jeans or a sweat suit.”

“It has to have a collar and tie and be respectful and serious,” he said.

In designing the script, he sought to pitch the shape, weight and legibility of the lettering with beauty, liveliness and seriousness. The challenge was to create a harmonious balance of dense, heavy lettering, needed to support the English text, with sufficient white space to underpin the script. As a model for layout, he chose the medieval Winchester Bible with its double columns of 54 lines each.

Before a word could be put on vellum, Jackson and his team had to steep, scrape and sand the calfskins, a sweaty task, but required if the sheets are to hold the ink. The $500-a-sheet skins need a rhythm and flow about them to be right for the calligrapher. They can’t be torn up and started on again.

Jackson compares calligraphy to performance art. It is something he has trained for over five decades. Like a dancer or ice skater who must know the move perfectly before executing it, the calligrapher moves in quick strokes -- although the scribe may have to warm up for several minutes before putting quill to vellum.

In his scriptorium, Jackson cures quills, sharpens reeds and prepares ink for the task. He has selected Chinese stick ink made of soot and gum. The sticks date to Queen Victoria’s 19th-century London, as do the vermilion blocks in his store.

For the illuminations, which may be studied for centuries to come, Jackson chooses the stuff of centuries past -- hand-ground minerals and precious stones. He grinds lapis lazuli for rich blues, malachite for glowing greens and vermilion for bright reds.

Jackson paints in egg white tempera on vellum. He adds a touch of egg yolk to enhance the brightness and depth of warm colors while dabbing a jot of egg white into the cooler colors to improve their luster.

To make gesso, he mixes powdered white lead with sugar and fish glue. When it has dried, he blows softly on it through a sharpened reed. The moisture from his breath helps the gold leaf to adhere. He is also utilizing silver, platinum and cooper to embellish some pages, thereby giving the impression that the pages have been burnished or illuminated.

Jackson sees his task an expression of the Benedictine dictum of ora et labora (prayer and work). “I think the finger of God touches all of us, and when you’re working with those words, you’re never more conscious of it,” he told a National Public Radio interviewer last year.

The Bible has become Jackson’s Sistine Chapel. He spends seven to 10 hours writing a non-illustrated page. He may work many days on an illumination.

“A book like this is about the importance of the words and of the object which holds them,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to sweat and to labor to make the words go down on the page.”

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001