My bedtime book for the last couple of weeks has been Illuminating the Word: The Making of the Saint John’s Bible, written by artist and Anglican/Episcopal priest Christopher Calderhead. This lavishly illustrated, well-written, and well-ordered book recounts the birth of the Saint John’s Bible, the first bible of its kind to be produced in 500 years. “Birth” is an appropriate metaphor because the seven volumes of the Saint John’s Bible will be living books, functioning members of the religious community that commissioned them. These enduring works of art and faith will travel, touch people’s lives, and acquire a history of their own that will likely continue for centuries after the people who created them have passed on.
The book begins with the community of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Saint John’s has a strong tradition of preserving illuminated manuscripts in its Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. Through past projects they had made a connection with world famous calligrapher Donald Jackson of Wales, and when he suggested they commission him to write a new manuscript bible (or Gospels, the stories differ), they (eventually) agreed to undertake this massive project.
Donald Jackson was in charge of the production of the bible, but Saint John’s “Committee on Illumination and Text” was in charge of the content. Wanting to make this a bible for our times, not a throwback to the past, the committee decided on using the New Revised Standard Version of the bible text, which is considered the most accurate and up-to-date (with respect to scholarship) translation now available. They also determined which illuminations were to be painted and provided detailed theological briefs to guide Jackson’s team in designing the illuminations.
The book then moves to the scriptorium in Wales, where Jackson and his team of artists, artisans, and scribes worked to design the bible. It was not a given that they would use traditional materials. At one point Jackson considered using mylar for the pages. “It takes writing beautifully,” he says. But in the end Jackson chose traditional methods and material, not because they were traditional, but because they were the best for this project.
The two-foot-high pages are of vellum (calfskin), difficult to find in such a large size and difficult to prepare, but it gives extremely crisp edges to the letters and with care will last for centuries. All of the writing is done with quills, which were also hard to find in the right size because birds are slaughtered so young now. The scribes used antique Chinese ink that Jackson was only able to secure enough of by accident, and many of the other tools and materials used in the making of the Saint John’s Bible were 50 to 100 years old, brought out of calligraphers’ hoards for this special purpose.
Because there was no model to follow, and for copyright reasons, every word of the bible had to be laid out in advance. This was done with the aid of computer, but even this process was labour intensive because each line had to be justified by hand. The computer allowed Jackson to play with the page size, column height and width, line weight, and other factors without wasting time and vellum, both of which were in short supply. The scribes followed the printed layouts exactly when writing, leaving spaces for the illuminations as prescribed.
Illuminating the Word describes in detail some of the technical challenges involved in writing and illuminating with the chosen materials. Sometimes scribes had to work without heat to prevent the vellum from over-drying. The various methods of laying down gold are described in detail. Also, Calderhead delicately recounts the difficulties Donald Jackson had in translating the very verbal theological briefs into the visual medium. The birth of this great bible certainly had its share of labour pains. What Calderhead couldn’t describe, because it hadn’t happened yet at the time of writing, was the final binding of the bible volumes between oak boards. I would love to hear that story too.
The book concludes with a look at some of the illuminations in Gospels and Acts and at the book of Psalms (both of which are now available in scaled down hardcovers). The Committee on Illumination and Text will also be editing its theological briefs for the illuminations into a sort of study guide to be used with the Saint John’s Bible (can’t wait for that!!).
I’m sure this is not the last book that will be written about the Saint John’s Bible. Saint John’s, Donald Jackson and his team, and all the many benefactors who have made this project possible are leaving behind an enduring, living legacy, and I am very glad to be a witness to it. I’ll leave the last word to Christopher Calderhead:
When the Bible is finished, bound and installed at the Abbey, the story will not be over. Like the great manuscripts of the past, the Saint John’s Bible is meant to speak to generations to come, igniting the imagination, encouraging a rich engagement with the Scriptures and inviting people to explore a living tradition of art, spirituality and theology through the written and illuminated word.