The Good Book on Display

Knights of Columbus Exhibit Showcases First Illuminated Bible in Half a Millennium

Picture Benedictine monks in medieval times as they meticulously copied the Bible by hand and illustrated it with colorful scenes and fanciful lettering.

Many were the hours, days, months and years it took to make a single copy.
Then along came Johann Gutenberg and the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with moveable type, finished around 1455 in Mainz, Germany.

The Middle Ages would never be the same, nor would the modern world.

Effectively, this way to mass produce the Bible, and then other books, relieved the monks of the need to sit for hours on end every day to copy the entire Bible by hand. The Benedictine monks commissioned their last handwritten Bible approximately five centuries ago.


‘The St. John’s Bible’

But in the last years of the 20th century, the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., commissioned a handwritten and illustrated Bible, the first one in 500 years.

Called “The St. John’s Bible,” this monumental project of more than 1,100 pages was finally finished, except for the binding, in May 2011, when calligraphic artist and illustrator Donald Jackson wrote the final word — “Amen” — at the end of the Book of Revelation.

The St. John’s Bible will not be bound into its planned seven volumes quite yet, because many pages are traveling for exhibits in numerous locations at present and in the coming months.

Currently, the “Illuminating the Word of God: The St. John’s Bible” exhibit runs through Nov. 2 at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn.

The exhibit spreads throughout four of the galleries as it presents 68 of the 1,178 original pages, plus a number of items directly related to the success of the project.

Immediately striking is the size of the pages. They are nearly 16 inches wide and 24 inches high. Opened as a book, they are nearly three feet wide.

Next, the handwritten script is compelling. It looks ancient, yet it is new. In fact, Donald Jackson created the elegant script used for this Bible — called the Jacksonian script, appropriately — as a work of art in itself.

He certainly has the qualifications, as he is one of the world’s foremost calligraphers and “senior scribe” to Queen Elizabeth.

It was his lifelong dream to make such a Bible, and when he approached the Benedictines in Minnesota — who have a manuscript and rare books library — they became the project’s patrons.

Jackson carried out his work in his scriptorium in Wales, where a team, including five scribes, worked like medieval monks as they undertook the project just before the turn of the 21st century.

Amazingly, much of the work was carried out in the ancient tradition. Each page is written on vellum (calfskin) that was prepared by parchment makers in England who have been in this business since the mid-19th century; then the vellum was finished at the scriptorium studios.

The deep-black ink used for the script came from rare 19th-century Chinese ink sticks mixed with water at the scriptorium. The red inks date back to the 1870s. The brilliant blues come from lapis lazuli, and the greens are from ground malachite. Gold leaf appears profusely among the pages, too.

Each chapter begins with a capital letter, all done in different designs through this Bible, although not as elaborately decorative as in many existing medieval manuscripts. The script, with its black and other colors, was applied with quills from turkeys, swans and geese, as in ancient times. Each quill was hand-prepared at the scriptorium. In one gallery, a fascinating section showcases these implements and tools and gives good insight into their purpose through a short, continuous video showing their preparation and use.

Visitors learn that since the first segment — the Gospels and Acts — was completed in 2002, the ancient-minded project had one foot in the 21st century. One of the modern touches involved the graphic design. The page layouts and even the placement of each word were all done on a computer, an instrument the medieval Benedictine monks would not recognize.

For the most part, the illuminations also fall into this modern footprint. Take the opening page of Genesis on exhibit in the show. Creation is shown using seven vertical bars, each meant to reveal what God created that day. For example, one suggests the waters; meanwhile, the slightly recognizable figures for the creation of Adam and Eve are taken from ancient cave drawings. The sparkling gold separating each bar represents the presence of God.

Throughout, the gold represents God, rather than a visual image of him. The idea was for the work to appeal to all Christian churches (however, some illustrations subtly carry references to other religions). At the beginning of the Book of John, Jesus appears in the illumination, but none of his features are distinct.


Ode to St. Jerome

For this biblical re-creation, the New Revised Standard Version (Catholic edition) was chosen because the project’s planning committee concluded it is widely used and accepted.

This monumental work is meant to remind visitors of the equally epic work of St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church, whose feast the Church celebrates on Sept. 30.

In 382, Pope Damasus entrusted Jerome to translate the Scriptures into Latin from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Working and living in a cave in Bethlehem, Jerome revised the Gospels, the Psalms and a large part of the Old Testament in Latin. His Latin version was known as the Vulgate, which, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded the faithful in a general audience in November 2007, became “the ‘official’ text of the Latin Church, which was recognized as such by the Council of Trent and which, after the recent revision, continues to be the ‘official’ Latin text of the Church.”

The St. John’s Bible is an ode to St. Jerome and all of the monks after him who took great pains to create, preserve and share the sacred Scriptures with the world. It illuminates the centuries-old way that hidden monks toiled to make copies of the Bible with the intention of bringing glory to God. Or, as Benedict XVI reminded his 2007 audience, “St. Jerome said: ‘Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.’”

Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.


Editor's Note: This story has been updated since it went to press.The Catholic edition of the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) was used. The St. John's Bible has all 73 books of the Catholic Bible, too, including the Deuterocannonical books.