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placeholder A work for eternity: 21st century scribes produce illustrated Bible

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placeholder March 30 , 2009   •   VOL. 47, NO. 6   •   Oakland, CA

Dan and Katharine Whalen carry the Wisdom volume of the Saint John’s Bible (Heritage Edition) into the Cathedral of Christ the Light during the March 7 Mass. The couple donated the Bible to the cathedral.
A work for eternity: 21st-century
scribes produce illustrated Bible

The “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” illustrates pages from the Book of Wisdom in The Saint John’s Bible. Master calligrapher Donald Jackson and a team of scribes used quills and handmade inks on calfskin vellum to create the illustrated Bible.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — It’s being called the Sistine Chapel of calligraphy. When completed in 2010, the Saint John’s Bible will be the first handwritten and illuminated Bible penned with ancient methods since the invention of the printing press, according to its creators.

This biblical work of art will contain some 160 illuminations woven into text covering 1,100 pages of calfskin vellum sheets.

A team of scribes led by a master calligrapher, Donald Jackson, has spent the last 10 years silently scratching out biblical verses with turkey, goose and swan quills dipped in handmade inks. They and other artists also use hand-ground pigments and gold and silver leaf to illustrate and add contrasting colors to the texts.

The huge manuscripts will be bound into seven volumes that measure two feet tall and, when open, three feet wide. In addition, there is a Heritage Edition, a full-size fine art reproduction of all seven volumes. Thus far, one volume — Wisdom Books — has been completed.

Katharine Whalen shows the Wisdom volume of the Saint John’s Bible Heritage Edition to parishioners of the Cathedral of Christ the Light after the bible was presented to the cathedral by Whalen and her husband Dan, March 7.

One copy of the Wisdom volume was presented to the Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light on March 7, by Oakland residents Dan and Katharine Whalen. The Whalens have also donated the cathedral organ.

Dan Whalen is interim president of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where in 1998 the Benedictine monks commissioned Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Crown Office to lead the project.

The Saint John’s Bible uses the New Revised Standard Version and, when completed there will be one original, made up of seven volumes: Gospels and Acts, Psalms, Pentateuch, Historical Books, Prophets, Wisdom Literature, and Letters and Revelation. Five of the volumes are now complete.

The finished original manuscript crafted by Jackson and his team will reside at a special museum on the St. John’s University campus. The Heritage Edition given to the Oakland Diocese is expected to go on display later this year.

At the press conference last year, Jackson asked the question most people might pose: “Why do it? I mean it’s a crazy idea to turn the clock back 500 years” in this day and age of computers and laser-jet printers.

The image “Christ our Light” is seen on a page from The Saint John’s Bible. The Bible contains artwork styles that range from Byzantine to modern.

But he said the tools of the old medieval scribes “enable you to write the words of God from the heart.”

And by creating such a hefty, richly illustrated book whose pages look and even feel special, the reader is being told to “slow down, set this volume down carefully” and meditate over each and every word; it is not something to flip through casually, Jackson said.

Often mass-produced Bibles are printed with small, cramped type on cheap “onion-skin” thin paper and put what should be thought-provoking passages of God’s word “in a straitjacket,” he said.

The Bible needs to also reach out to the human senses, not just the intellect, he said.
The Saint John’s Bible, with its large pages and creatively arranged text, “invites one to linger over phrases, words and even letters” and “presents the word of God as something special,” said one of the project’s many press releases.

Even the artwork, which ranges from Byzantine icons to modern styles and botanically correct renderings of insects and plants, is meant to invite the reader toward greater reflection.

Jackson said he and his scribes have had “to let go of modern conceptions of perfection” and of creating a flawlessly copied text. They cannot, after all, hit the delete button or use correction fluid to cover up mistakes.

Small errors can be scraped away with a sharp knife-edge, he said, but a more common “occupational hazard” of accidentally omitting a line is not so simply corrected.

This is the cover of “The Book of the Gospels: The Saint John’s Bible Edition,” illustrated by a team of scribes over the past 10 years.

But with the help of their artists they have been able to turn “what was a disaster into something charming,” Jackson said.

For example, an artist has drawn a small bird grasping a rope that holds a banner upon which is written the missing verse. The bird is pointing its beak to where the line should go while appearing to be hoisting the forgotten line back where it belongs. A chubby bumblebee does the same thing in another volume, only she is using a pulley system copied from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks.

Though the Bible has been commissioned by Catholics, it’s intended to be ecumenical in nature, to appeal to Protestants, Muslims and Jews, said Jim Triggs, executive director of the Bible’s heritage program at Saint John’s.

The university hopes to raise about $50 million from sales of the various editions of the Bible. The proceeds will be used to pay for the work that went into the production of the books as well as construction of a center on campus for the original Bible, the funding of student scholarships and research in rare manuscript preservation, Triggs said.

(Chaz Muth of Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)

Benedictine Abbot John Klassen of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. participates in the blessing of the Saint John’s Bible (Heritage Edition) in the Cathedral of Christ the Light, March 7.

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