Saint John’s Bible artist inspired to elevate God’s word

Photo by Michael Freeman

The world-renowned calligrapher and scribe to Queen Elizabeth II was taking in what he thought were a few moments of quiet between presentations. Rather, he found himself in the middle of a funeral Mass for one of the St. John's University's Benedictine monks.

Peering into the chapel from the gallery, Donald Jackson watched as the coffin was processed to the altar. "This monk was holding this fairly regular, cheap Bible ... I thought, 'You've got to be kidding. That little book does not look worthy of what's in it,'" Jackson recently recalled in a phone interview from his home in Wales.

There's something to be said about a person finding himself in a certain situation, armed with the gifts he's been given, and coming to the realization that those gifts could be put to use to do something beautiful and good. People of faith would call that the work of the Holy Spirit. For Jackson, that moment was the planting of a seed that led to the creation of the Saint John's Bible. An effort of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., the hand-illuminated Bible is the first to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in 500 years.

On Jan. 30, the Archdiocese of St. Louis kicks off a yearlong tour of the Heritage Edition, a reproduction of the original handwritten Bible. The tour includes Gospels and Acts, which 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.

"It's been a journey. I ended up going the way the road pointed. The person that was looking over that rail — there wasn't any other person with my particular set of skills, personality and dreams who happened to look down and would have the reaction that I had," Jackson said. "You would also say I was meant to be looking at that. This was the place where people might want to think about putting something into making it worth the value. If you're saying something is very special ... then the thing itself needs to reflect that."

The idea was first proposed to university officials in 1995. A symposium was held to determine there would be enough support for such an endeavor. There was debate. He recalled one of the older monks, who said very little throughout the meetings, except to share a memory of when the basilica was built in St. Paul. "He said, 'I can't remember the number of times I've encountered God in that basilica. This (Bible) is the word of God. You cannot put too high a price on the word of God.'"

The project became the realization of a childhood dream Jackson had to create a handwritten, illuminated bible. He took to calligraphy around the age of 9, when the teacher discovered his talent for art and handwriting and had him reproduce illuminated initials. At 13, he received a scholarship to attend art school and continued on with graduate studies in London, eventually starting his own calligraphy practice.

Jackson described the feeling of calligraphy as being full of life. "The act of dipping a pen into colored ink — it's wet, slightly dangerous, because it drips, and the blots make a mess if you're not careful. There's the thrill of making a mark, which is glistening and alive. Nowadays it's a ballpoint (pen) or flicking away on a computer. There's no wetness, there's no flow, there's no kinship with the mark. If you think of the way when the light catches the red ink, it's something exciting. That thrill spurs you to experiment and stick with it."

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.

Jackson said that any artist who embarks on a project has to find meaning in the work and to "reach into it" with full effort. He encourages people to draw their own interpretations of the art found within the pages of the Bible. "The art only comes alive when you're gazing at it," he said. "It's ignited by you ... and it's a mirror of what you feel and bring to the experience. That's how we experience art." 

>> 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 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; Ternes will give a presentation, and beer, wine and appetizers will be provided. RSVP to Angela Richard at stlya@archstl.org. 

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