PHOTOS BY Hillary Ehlen and courtesy of Saint John’s Bible
In a digital world of copy and paste perfection, one internationally orchestrated project is bringing the venerable stories of the Bible into modernity with an intricate, yet human touch.
Even from a distance, the massive collection of pages encompassing The Saint John’s Bible glisten with colorful imagery. Illuminated by ancient ink, gold leafing and platinum inlays, every page is lined with immaculate letters, each etched by hand using quills.
Now on display at the Hjemkomst Center until the end of December, the official Saint John’s Bible is in its 26th exhibition and is the largest art exhibition ever hosted by The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County. With 68 original folios of the first handilluminated and hand-calligraphed Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in 500 years, local excitement around the works began with past displays of reprints from the book.
“We think of this as being a rare opportunity for people to see something that is world-class here in our community,” said Anne Kaese, calligrapher and volunteer with the HCSCC. “The exhibit has traveled around the world, but only the bestof-the-best art institutes have ever been able to house it. This is just a phenomenal opportunity for our community.”
Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, set the project into motion when they commissioned the project to be led by renowned British Royal calligrapher Donald Jackson. Together with 23 other professional scribes, artists and assistants, he created the concrete visual elements in a scriptorium in Wales while the Abbey oversaw theological direction.
“We ended up commissioning Donald to put together a team to do this as a way to mark the millennium,” said Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John’s Bible at Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in St. Cloud, Minnesota. “But theologically, once we get past the physical reason for doing this, the reason it’s really done is because scriptures, the Psalms, in particular, are so much a part of the Benedictine tradition. It really guides and defines almost everything they’ve done in their 1,500-year history as Benedictines. They wanted to do something that reminds us the Bible is communal, that it’s meant to be shared.”
With an overwhelming size alone, the pages crisscrossed oceans from crafterto-crafter in a logistical whirlwind that came to an end on May 9, 2011, when the final word was penned.
A COMMUNAL BIBLE
“If you look around, you are kind of encased in the scripture,” Ternes said. “It’s not a small book. It’s not meant to be a personal book, it’s meant to be a work that invites you to come together with others, to make meaning. What a powerful way to explore anything. It’s having a huge impact on how people view scripture and include others in their scripture reading.”
The communal effect of the work wasn’t the only progressive concept binding The Saint John’s Bible. Images present also depict a modern world.
“The artwork and messages behind The Saint John’s Bible celebrate all that we have learned, explored and are continuing to discover about our world,” Kaese said.
Within the pages, subtle hints outline the current world as we know it. Behind the blue and green orb of earth, binary code peaks through. Images of human tragedies recognize sorrowful points of the recent past.
“You can’t think of it as an illustrated Bible, we did not make pictures of the passages,” Ternes said. “We didn’t illustrate the last supper or the ten commandments, what we did was create visual, spiritual meditations about the words that gives you something to think about, but don’t say, ‘Here’s what it means.'”
INTERPRETING THE TEXT
As a guide to creating such interpretive artworks to accompany the traditional passages, Jackson and his team worked with the Committee on Illumination and Text to find a shared meaning of the text in their respective fields.
“The artists were artists, the theologians were theologians, so we had to find a way for the two to connect,” Ternes said.
When the two met, they began to create an expression of Saint John’s Abbey’s faith directed to the modern world, now standing as a visual record of a new generation’s artistic interpretation of an age-old historical and literary document.
“In a thousand years time–and the materials will last that long–they will have a clear understanding of how we viewed our world at the beginning of the millennium,” Kaese said.
As a work of art, a piece of history and a marvel of craftsmanship, The Saint John’s Bible is much more than meets the eye. Its calfskin vellum pages, full of wisdom from long ago and insights only recently discovered, offer an immutable communion for today and tomorrow.
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