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Illuminated Bible travels art circuit

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The Saint John’s Bible

Donald Jackson, Artistic Director and Illuminator
Travelling Art Exhibit

The use of art alongside Scripture is a long-standing tradition in the church. The medieval argument for the use of painting, sculpture, and stained glass in church was that people couldn’t read, and art was a way to present biblical stories and truths.

Nowadays, most people can read for themselves, yet art is still used in churches, either in displays or on power point screens used in worship. Drawing on this enduring tradition, one Catholic abbey has commissioned an illuminated – or hand-illustrated – Bible.

The Saint John’s Bible is the first illuminated Bible to be produced in 500 years. Commissioned by St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota and produced in Wales, the project was envisioned by a committee of biblical scholars, theologians, art historians, and artists, and illuminated by a team of artists and calligraphers led by Donald Jackson.

The completed work is 1150 pages of vellum, or calfskin, and will be bound in seven volumes. Currently, the unbound work is on a limited tour of art galleries and museums. Sections of the original book made a stop at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) from April to June.

When I went to the WAG exhibit on June 3, I was impressed that it wasn’t simply an exhibit of illustrated biblical pages, but also included notes and a video on both how and why this Bible was created. The committee endeavoured to make the book not only beautiful but also legible, and to make sure the illustrations are theologically rooted. By knowing the story behind the illuminations, the pictures are given meaning greater than the materials used.

The Saint John’s Bible was created to be accessible to people of all faiths. It is written in English, not Latin like medieval illuminated Bibles. It uses the New Revised Standard Version, which is the only translation accepted by all Christian denominations.

The monks commissioned The Saint John’s Bible to introduce North America to a historical European tradition, as well as to demonstrate how much the monks value the word of God. The word illumination, in this context, means “the decoration of a medieval manuscript with elaborate tracery or designs in gold” – and gold has been used throughout the work as a symbol of God’s presence.

Although the exhibit at the WAG has now closed, reproductions of different sections of the original manuscript are available for purchase. The images next to the text expand upon the written Bible stories. 

Pictures based on traditions from Asia, Africa, Europe, South and North America represent the global church. Pictures based on tribal artwork or the Orthodox practice of iconography show the various traditions of the church, while abstract art and images based on scientific exploration tie the Bible into the modern era.

For example, the illumination for Genesis 2:4–25 is based on an anthropological concept: Adam and Eve are presented as African tribespeople bordered with gold, textiles, a Peruvian feather boa, and African body painting.

Another illumination reflects traditions from around the world. The more abstract illumination for Matthew 1:1–17 portrays a menorah, on which is listed the family tree of Jesus. The details around the drawing show arabesques from Arabian culture, and double helixes of DNA.

Mennonite churches have often had difficulty accepting art as a part of the church and a gift from God. The fear of worshipping an idol affects all pious peoples. The team that created The Saint John’s Biblechose to address this problem by never specifically illustrating God, but rather using gold to symbolize his presence.

I found that these illuminations didn’t detract from the text, but added new ideas to my own thoughts about the Bible. The pictures can challenge, expand, and illuminate our own interpretations of the Bible, even if we can read the words for ourselves.

Page-by-page reproduction books published by Liturgical Press are available at limited art galleries and bookstores across North America, or online at sjbible.org.

—Meribeth Plenert

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