Pass the Smelling Salts

I’m having the vapours. I can barely contain my excitement. The dogs, who had been unsure, are now 100% convinced that I’m touched. What has sent me into these transports? The publication of the first volume of the Saint John’s Bible.

[pause for breath]

Genesis: Creation“The what?”, you ask? Why, it’s only the first bible manuscript to be commissioned in 500 years! In 1995 the monks of St. Johns Abbey, Minnesota, and world-renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson, decided it was high time to revive the tradition of bible manuscripts. The first words (the prologue of John’s Gospel, of course) were laid down in 2000 and Jackson’s team of calligraphers are still at it.

This project is a wonderful marriage of the modern and the traditional. The materials are all hand-crafted—the vellum pages, the bindings, the quill pens, even the inks. But make no mistake, this is no attempt to recreate the past. The calligraphy and artwork, though drawing on tradition, is new and contemporary, and every page was laid out on computer. Also they have chosen to use a contemporary Bible translation, the New Revised Standard Version, which some consider to be the best translation of the bible to date.

In the Middle Ages, monasteries helped preserve knowledge and culture for the sake of the greater community. By commissioning a handwritten Bible, Saint John’s revives a tradition and affirms its commitment to the study of scripture, to the book arts and to educational, artistic and spiritual pursuits.

When complete the Saint John’s Bible will comprise seven volumes, each two feet tall, and although it will live at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University, it will also go on tour to educate and inspire. Prints of the illuminations are available for purchase, and a variety of volume reproductions—from the trade version I am apoplectic about to high-end, full-size facsimiles—will be produced.

At the dawn of the 21st century, Saint John’s Abbey and University seek to ignite the spiritual imagination of believers throughout the world by commissioning a work of art that illuminates the Word of God for a new millennium.

I’ve been waiting for this for a long time—and it looks like I’ll be waiting a little longer. The first volume, Gospels and Acts, is set to be released in April, and I’ll be looking at May flowers by the time it graces my mail box. The same goes for the companion book, Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John’s Bible. So I guess the first lesson this book will be teaching me is patience.

Gospels and Acts: The Saint John's Bible


7 comments on “Pass the Smelling Salts

  1. deborah says:

    I WANT ONE!!!!
    I think i see a graduation gift in my future. The prints on-line are breath-taking. What an endeavor, and at a time when CDrom bibles are all the rage—pffffff. Thanks for posting the link!

  2. For the past 17 years I have been making by hand an illuminated mnauscript of the Bible. I do not use computers, this is entirely hand made. It is currently on display at the Center for Biblical Arts in Dallas, Texas. It is completely handmade, handwritten and I finished the New Testament in 1995.
    I have the blessings of Both Anglican Archbishops and from Pope John Paul II in 2002. The Archbishop of Canterbury gave to me a Bible to correct my text in 1997. I started in 1987 and I wrote the scripture while I was taking care of my grandmother who had a stroke. Ever since then I have had the disicpline of writing the scripture each day by hand.
    I am currently working on an ornate set of Gospels, yes this is the second time I have written them, and this set has 160 illuminations as saint Johns counts them in them already and in the end it will have about 200, not including cross pages or about 1000 illuminated initials. I have bits fo the Old Testament done. The gospels are written in a different hand in each chapter. It is extensively decorated and I was shooting for a modern day Book of Kells. But whereas the saint Johns bible has a full page illumination at the beginning of their books, I have one at the beginning of each chapter. Mo0st of the chapters are wirtten in an historical manuscript style, the deocartions are my own I just immersed myself into that style. The result is a tapestry of the history of manuscript illumination and I have shared the experieces of scribes for the past 2000 years.

  3. Sylvia says:

    That's great. I wonder how many calligraphers and artists out there are making manuscripts of the bible. It must be a wonderful experience. In “Illuminating the Word” Donald Jackson describes how wonderful it was to write out the book of Psalms, and how difficult it was to let it go after he was finished!

  4. James Pepper says:

    Actually there are quit a few recently, the millenium saw many churches doing this across the world. The Orthodox, Russian and Eastern have been doing it all along. The Ethiopian Church has done it, so has many individuals over the years. Marc Chagall did it, so did mnay artists of the 20th century and a lot of them has seen the world from an airplane, Donald Jackson apparently does not know about these people. In Newsweek Donald Jackson says that he is the first person to write the bible who has seen the world from 40,000 feet, but a lot of people fly in airplanes, how can he be sure of that. Thomas Jefferson did it so did William Morris the founder of “modern calligraphy”. There is the bible made at Canterbury in the 1970's and the one in florida also in the 1970's and the one in Exeter all made by inviduals, illuminated on vellum. Thern there are the frontier bibles where people wrote the scripture large so that everyone could read it in church. An of course the reason bibles were made like this in the first place was so that they could be read by people in churches and copied out by individuals who could write. So you have all of that going on
    There there are bibles made by monasterys in europe after the invention of the printing press. Just because the press was invented does not mean that people stopped doing it and besides for a long time books were very expensive. It wasn't until the mid 1800's when things really got cheap to produce. And the art form evolved during this time. It is not stuck in the 1300's.

  5. Sylvia –
    Ready to get the vapours again? If not, sit down and take a deep breath before reading on.
    The latest from St. John's U. is a Field Trip: The “London Celebration” combines the display of original pages from the SJB at the Victoria & Albert Museum (sigh), the presence of Donald Jackson (head calligrapher) and to top it all off – a special presentation by Sister Wendy Beckett! Thought you would want to know if you haven't heard about it already – Ninth Wave

  6. James Pepper says:

    yup Saint Johns gave sister Wendy the Colman Barry award.
    I got a phone call from the V&A their curator of Books said that if she had known about my Bible two years ago she would have put it on display with the Saint Johns exhibition. So we are trying for the Library of Congress. Saint Johns gave the Librarian of Congress the Colman Barry award last year. But the Library has yet to make up its mind if it will show the Saint Johns Bible.
    CBS and UMTV made videos on my Bible recently you can reach them by going to my web site “The Pepper Bible” and clicking the links.
    I finished the Gospels again. This is the second time I have written them, they contain 310 illuminated pages, and 565 pages in all, and most of them are decorated. The Gospel of Saint Luke has 25 Celtic Carpet pages and most of the verse initials are inhabited. There is an interlinear polyglot in John Chapters 18 and 19 in Greek Latin and English, I used the Complutensian Polyglot of 1514-1517 for the source.
    James G. Pepper
    Biblical Scribe

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