Friday, May 08, 2009
The St. John’s Bible
When my oldest grandson, a slightly built laddie, attended preschool, he came home one day and announced that a “big girl” had told him that he was “too little to be going down the big slide.” Asked by his daddy what he did next, the tyke said, “I did it anyway.” Well, it’s genetic. His grandmother is about to “boldly go” where the big people tell you that polite folks shouldn’t go. I’m gonna’ do it anyway; I’m gonna’ talk about religion: sort of.
Last year, at a gathering of writers at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, at the urging of my friend, Pam, who is a religious education writer and collects Bibles, I attended a talk by Father Michael Patella, OSB, from Saint John’s College in Minnesota. Father Patella was speaking about, and showing slides of, a project that his monastery had conceived and executed: the St. John’s Bible. In 60’s parlance, it blew me away.
Since my man, Guttenberg, the guy who fixed it so all of us can have easy access to the written word, invented movable type back in about 1450 and printed his famous Bible in 1455, there have been only a handful of handwritten Bibles, and none of this quality. But these guys in Minnesota, with collaboration from a Welshman, Donald Jackson, have done it with stellar results. My spoken word cannot convey the grandeur of their written word.
A committee of artists, medievalists, theologians, biblical scholars and art historians, a blend of the modern and the traditional, puts lie to the theory that nothing gets done by committee. You’ve got Bible scholars; you’ve got Donald Jackson, calligrapher to the Queen, you’ve got symbolism (loads of it) and you’ve got computers. Together, since quill was first put to vellum on Ash Wednesday in 2000, they’ve completed five volumes and have two more in production. The result is a delight to the hearts of lovers of the Bible, lovers of art, and lovers of books.
The modern aspects incorporate layout and design using a computer to place the illustrations, 160 illuminations and the calligraphic script font designed by Jackson specifically for this project. Additionally, the language is the New Revised Standard Version: easy to understand English.
The traditional, medieval even, aspects then kick in and include the use of turkey, goose and swan quills to apply natural handmade inks, (letters are written in lamp black ink from century old Chinese stick ink made from carbon—saved, no doubt, for some real special project), hand-ground pigments, and gold and silver leaf gild onto sheepskin vellum. There are a limited number of the sets, produced in this fashion, which are available for the price of your home and first-born child. Then there is presumably an infinite number of sets, produced by scanning the magnificent pages and printing them onto quite nice stock, still very handsome, and sold for a price that doesn’t quite make you grab your heart and fall over: the set that most of us might consider purchasing. (We’ll pass over the fact that the volumes are sold shrink-wrapped, a recent abomination in the book-selling world.)
If you missed seeing some of the illustrations last fall when they were on display at the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City as part of the print tour, you can use “the Google” to find the Saint John’s Bible. At that website, you will see examples of the art and can download some short videos of the work in progress. There is one where you will see Donald Jackson crack an egg, grab the yolk by the sack, puncture it and drain it to make egg tempera. For those of us who have trouble just separating an egg for basic cooking, seeing this is like watching a magic trick; it just leaves you slack-jawed.
After you have seen the beauty of this, you too might decide to “do it anyway” and go around talking about religion: sort of – an argument could be made that it’s art and not religion – in spite of what the big-people, polite-folks say that you shouldn’t do.