Art for the modern age

The Saint John's Bible is meant to be a communal experience that ignites the spiritual imagination for people of all faiths around the world.

Jason Engel experienced that firsthand in a McDonald's on the South Side of Chicago. Headed home after giving a presentation at the University of Chicago, Engel made his customary stop at the fast food joint, where he encountered Michael, a homeless man, whom he befriended.

Engel retreated to his car and emerged with the bible, a handwritten, illuminated account of the Pentateuch. A conversation ensued among restaurant patrons and employees about the imagery and the words. A "Visio Divina" of sorts.

"It's meant for people to gather around it, touching the pages together," Engel said.

A reproduction of The Saint John's Bible will tour several locations in the Archdiocese of St. Louis in 2017. An effort of the Benedictine-sponsored St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., the work of art — which has been called "America's Book of Kells" — is the first to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in 500 years.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis will receive Gospels and Acts, the sixth volume of the Heritage Edition, a reproduction of the original handwritten Bible. (The original is on display at Hill Museum and Manuscript Library on the campus of St. John's University.) Gospels and Acts includes illuminations of the genealogy of Jesus, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, Luke's anthology, the crucifixion and the Gospel of St. John Frontispiece.

While the words are timeless, the illuminations are examples of this being a "Bible for the 21st century," said Jim Triggs, executive director of the Heritage Program. The images have themes such as caring for the poor and the sick and creation, converging with modern concepts in science, such as strands of DNA and magnified viruses, and images from the Hubble telescope. "So 1,000, 2,000 years from now, people will see the priorities of Christians in the 21st century."

The dream

Inspired by the handwritten, illuminated Bibles at the British Library in London, world-renowned artist and calligrapher Donald Jackson knew he wanted to create a similar work of art. After witnessing the Benedictine monks of St. John's Abbey and University, he proposed the idea to them in 1995.

A group of art historians, medievalist specialists, artists, Biblical scholars and theologians met at St. John's University, and presented to Jackson abstracts for the illuminations. A team of calligraphers and artists created the 1,165-page manuscript, using the text and notes of the New Revised Standard Version translation. Each page took about eight to 12 hours to complete.

The project was completed in 15 years and includes seven volumes — Pentateuch, Historical Books, Psalms, Wisdom Books, Prophets, Gospels and Acts and Letters and Revelation. The last page was presented in a ceremony in 2011.

In 2006, the Heritage Edition was created, a reproduction of the seven volumes. There are 299 sets, which tour all over the world. They are used in liturgies, by scholars and in presentations and in the everyday activities of faith communities.

Benedictine influence

The bible reflects Benedictine values, including themes of hospitality, conversion of life and justice for God's people. The gold leaf was used to represent the divine, silver for wisdom, and rainbows to show God's promise. The images use a large range of artistic styles, including iconography, abstraction, chrysography and illustration.

Benedictine Father Dominic Lenk of St. Louis Abbey in Creve Coeur was a student at Saint John's University from 1994-98, just as the project was beginning. He recalled the hallway conversations among the monks as the effort was being proposed.

"I started getting wind of this project they are thinking about doing, something that hadn't happened in half a millennium," he said. Questions were posed: How about the community's guest house that needed to be built? Shouldn't we be giving this money to the poor?

At the same time, the new millennium was on the horizon, which Father Lenk believes ultimately contributed to the decision to go ahead with the project. "Handwritten bibles are in our tradition," he said. "It was the monks who transcribed everything. The prayer books, the (Benedictine) Rule, everything was written out by the Benedictines. It hadn't been done for 500 years, and here was the opportunity. Sure, there was prayer and discerning to seek God's will."

The Benedictine influence is evident in how the Word comes alive through the art found in the illuminations. In the famous Benedictine tradition of "Lectio Divina," where the text is prayerfully read, the illuminated bible is more of a "Visio Divina," where the art tells the story.

"What's nice about these images is that it's not exactly representing what the picture is showing," Father Lenk said. "We see it in the image of the nativity, and all the things that people can see in that one image. It really enriches and takes you deeper into the text."

A communal experience

Jason Engel was headed home after giving a presentation on The Saint John's Bible at the University of Chicago. As it became his custom, he stopped at a McDonald's for a bite to eat on Chicago's south side.

Engel was standing in line, holding a small bible in his hand, when a man approached him and asked, "Are you a Christian?"

The man introduced himself as Michael. He was homeless, and had just missed his bus to get back to the shelter he was staying at, so he asked Engel to eat dinner with him.

Michael revealed that he had just been "saved" by Jesus and was writing poetry for Him. After reciting his poetry for an hour, Engel stopped him and said, "I have something to share with you." He went out to his car and returned with the Pentateuch volume, opening it up right there on the table in the restaurant.

"The first time anyone sees it, they have this really intense reaction, and it's hard to describe unless you witness it for yourself," Engel said. "He was like, 'What is this? Can I touch this?'"

Because the Heritage Edition is a reproduction, it's meant to be handled by others, as long as they have clean hands. "We want people to touch the pages, to feel what the paper is like, the ink. The tactile experience is very important."

As Engel explained the bible, an elderly woman approached them and asks what's going on. "It was that same reaction of awe and surprise. She's very moved by this experience and soon she and Michael are sitting there together, reading passages from the bible and talking about what they see in the illuminations."

One by one, others approach the group, including a group of teenage employees. Then the manager — who at first was none too pleased her employees were not at work, but softened when she saw what everyone was looking at, Engel recalled.

Engel described the experience as one of the most unique he'd had in his four years as a volunteer ambassador with the bible's Heritage Program. "The Heritage Edition is such a large book, not something one person can read from," he said. "The communal experience happens almost every time." 

The Saint John's Bible launch events

Tuesday, Jan. 31: The archdiocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs is hosting an event featuring the Pentateuch and Psalms volumes and presentation by Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John's Bible at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minn.; 6-8:30 p.m. at the Cardinal Rigali Center, 20 Archbishop May Drive in Shrewsbury. RSVP by Jan. 20 to JamesComninellis@archstl.org or (314) 792.7177; or visit www.stlouisreview.com/bP4.

Wednesday, Feb. 1: A Brown Bag lunch and presentation by Tim Ternes will be held from 12:15-1:30 p.m. at the Cardinal Rigali Center. Participants are asked to bring their own brown bag lunch.

Thursday, Feb. 2: St. Louis Young Adults will present a special edition of Theology on Tap, "The Illuminated Word," from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at the Cardinal Rigali Center; Tim Ternes will give a presentation, and beer, wine and appetizers will be provided. RSVP to Angela Richard at stlya@archstl.org.


The Saint John's Bible will be on display at several other locations throughout 2017. Specific events will be announced in the future. Visit www.archstl.org/bible for more information.

Cardinal Rigali Center, January-March

St. Louis Priory School, April

Mercy Hospital St. Louis (main lobby), May-June

Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, July-October 

>> What is an illumination?

The art featured in the original Saint John's Bible are considered illuminations, images created with handmade inks and hand-ground pigments, made with fish oil, egg yolk and whites and silver and gold leaf embellishments.

Artist Donald Jackson described the process as a means to allow light to play off of the pages as they are turned. The works of art also are to illuminate our eyes to the depicted Bible verses.

The original Bible was handwritten in a calligraphy style, using rare Chinese black ink sticks made in the 1890s. Goose, turkey and swan quills were used for the writing instruments. The paper was made from calfskin vellum. The skins were soaked in lime, dried and scraped and sanded smooth. The final product is a translucent page that allows the words and images to "blend" into each other throughout. 

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