It is a one-of-a-kind work in progress: the first hand-written, hand illuminated bible in 400 years. Benedictine monks at St. John’s University in Minnesota and a team of scribes in Wales are working together to create it. The monks are raising the several millions of dollars the project will cost, the scribes are doing the writing and illuminating.
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MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: Now, a look at a one-of-a-kind work in progress: the first hand-written, hand illuminated Bible in 400 years. It’s a collaboration between Benedictine monks in Minnesota and a team of scribes in Wales. The monks are raising the several millions of dollars the project will cost, the scribes are doing the writing and illuminating.
Fred de Sam Lazaro talked with both the monks and the scribe who leads the project.
FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In the rarified world of calligraphy, it doesn’t get much better than being Donald Jackson, a scribe to the Queen of England — a man whose work graces royal proclamations.
But from his scriptorium in Wales, a team led by Jackson has taken on what he calls their Sistine Chapel project: a handwritten, illuminated Bible. There’s been nothing like it since Michelangelo’s time.
It will have 160 illuminations, using handmade inks and gold leaf to illustrate significant events and passages — 1,150 pages in all, on parchment made from calfskin, as in medieval times.
DONALD JACKSON: What you’re seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. What goes on underneath is all these different ideas, thoughts, decorative images. So there’s enormous varieties. I work to a brief, I work to a brief that’s sent to me from St. John’s.
DE SAM LAZARO: The monks at St John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota are custodians of a 1,500-year-old Benedictine tradition. Handwritten scripture is part of that heritage. But they switched to Gutenberg printers long ago and never looked back — not even when Donald Jackson first asked them to sponsor his $4 million idea.
Brother DIETRICH REINHARDT: I thought, “I need this like a hole in the head.” I’m trying to balance the budget, trying to hire new faculty, trying to raise funds for facilities. But then I started to laugh and thought, “Wouldn’t it be wondrous?” It kindled all the romantic parts of my life that 30 years of monastic life still has not wiped out!
DE SAM LAZARO: Many monks shared Brother Dietrich Reinhardt’s misgivings. Was this elitist? An expensive anachronism? But in the end, the concerns helped make the case for the Bible. Also to shape it, says Abbot John Klassen.
Abbot JOHN KLASSEN: We wanted to have a work that would really affect our awareness of this global civilization — an awareness of the peoples of the earth and an awareness of how those stories can be texts of liberation, texts of hope, texts of meaning across the face of the earth.
DE SAM LAZARO: In other words, a departure from the Eurocentric Christian tradition. This theme is evident in illuminations such as this “Genealogy of Christ,” shaped like a menorah.
Mr. JACKSON: It represents a tree of life. And within this tree of life, I’ve also used fragments of a Buddhist mandala with cosmic symbols. I’ve also interwoven with this fragments of the DNA design, because as I did this, what came out most forcefully to me was, what could have been a boring family tree, I realized was everybody’s family tree — yours and mine. We are all connected. So at one point here, I just added the name of Hagar, the handmaiden of Abraham, whose son Ishmael was the ancestor of Mohammed. So I put her name in Arabic.
DE SAM LAZARO: Like the overall theme, the editorial process is international, inclusive. It is also painstaking. …
Mr. JACKSON: I will take a picture of this, digitally, send that by computer to Minnesota from Wales and invite comments. You know, “Is this doing what you feel it ought to be doing?”
Unidentified Woman #1: I’m satisfied with the image itself, but not with the position and scale.
DE SAM LAZARO: Back at the abbey, the committee on illumination and texts — monks, nuns, and theologians — pores exhaustively over every detail.
Unidentified Man #2: There’s a lot of illustration at that point, so this could probably be a lot subtler pattern at this point.
Unidentified Woman #1: But it needs to come to the surface.
Mr. JACKSON: I’ll take some of that on board and some of it I don’t, and then I move on to doing the finished thing.
DE SAM LAZARO: So, over a period of days, sometimes weeks, an illumination, such as the Emmaus, germinates.
Mr. JACKSON: I took that and I developed it a little further, and I changed that costume, I made Christ a little bit more powerful and I brought in decorative elements to try to suggest a movement from meeting to going into the house to him, breaking the bread for him, and he vanished from their sight. And so I was using words to try to emphasize that. But in fact what happens in the finished piece is I moved on from that and changed it quite a lot.
I had the lettering on the side here in blue and the writing across here and as I did it, I realized the writing had to be on the bottom and it had to be in gold, because the gold picks up what’s going on above here.
DE SAM LAZARO: The text accompanying the illuminations is from the new Revised Standard Version. It removes a lot of male-oriented language. But Abbot Klassen says neither the text, which is approved by most mainline Christian churches, nor Jackson’s illuminations can be called politically correct.
Abbot KLASSEN: They’re deliberately abstract so that you, as a person being invited into the illuminations, have to engage with it and bring your own visual imagination as well as your spiritual imagination into the illumination in order to create your own meaning and interpretation.
Brother DIETRICH: When you think of how you illustrate the Exodus, the Israelites being freed from slavery. In a country here where 20 percent of our people here have ancestors who were slaves five or six generations ago, that has a whole different relevance. This is not a story just of sacred history in the biblical saga, but it’s something that continues to shape not only some of the deepest problems in our culture, in terms of race and ethnicity and justice, but also shaped some of the remarkable stamina and creativity of a whole people in America.
DE SAM LAZARO: After its completion, sometime in 2006, the St. John’s Bible is expected to go on display in a new building at the abbey. St. John’s has already raised three of the four million dollars, through corporate, foundation, and individual donations. Later in the decade, reproductions will be published for consumer editions.