An international team of calligraphers and artists is working on The Saint John's Bible, portions of which are presently on display at the Tacoma Art Museum. It's the first commissioned handwritten, illustrated Bible in 500 years.
These days, when Bible verses can be pulled up instantly online and printed Bibles are readily available, an international team of monks, calligraphers and artists — including an illustrator on Vashon Island — is creating a Bible the old-fashioned way.
Team members are making their own goose-feather quills, using hand-ground paints, and writing and drawing on pages of treated calfskin.
They’re eight years into the creation of The Saint John’s Bible, billed as the first commissioned handwritten Bible since the invention of the printing press some 500 years ago.
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About 100 of the pages are on display at the Tacoma Art Museum in an exhibition running through Sept. 7.
“At an age when virtually everything we touch is made by machine, there’s something wonderful about making a book by hand,” said the Rev. Eric Hollas, a monk in the Roman Catholic Benedictine order at Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota. Hollas will speak about the project at Seattle’s St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral on Thursday.
It’s a Bible that blends the ancient and modern, both in technique and content.
Medieval materials are being used in a nod to tradition and because they’ve been proven to last.
But the script is new, created by Donald Jackson, of Wales, a former scribe to Queen Elizabeth II who is the project’s artistic director. And Jackson’s team uses modern means to communicate with each other: e-mail, phone and FedEx.
The project also uses a Modern English translation of the Bible — the New Revised Standard Version. And its illuminations — illustrations that feature gold leaf and other precious metals — include references to the Twin Towers, NASA images and other faiths.
It was important to the monks for the project to speak to the faithful now, and also to become a record for the future of how people today interpreted and perceived Scripture.
“We’re making a book that’s intended to last 2,000 to 3,000 years,” Hollas said.
Creating a masterpiece
The idea for a handwritten Bible, Hollas said, came from Jackson.
Jackson has said that creating such a work is to a calligrapher what painting the Sistine Chapel would be to an artist.
For the monks at Saint John’s Abbey and Saint John’s University, which jointly commissioned the $3.5 million project, there were plenty of reasons not to start the project. There was the cost and amount of work involved — not to mention a long list of competing priorities, among which “making a Bible was not high,” Hollas said.
Still, the proposal captured their imagination.
They saw it as a work of art in the long tradition of religious art in the West.
They thought about how people were still amazed by medieval biblical manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells, kept at Trinity College in Dublin. For the Benedictine monks to help create something that could inspire people thousands of years from now — “that’s worth the challenge,” Hollas said.
They thought about how such a Bible might incorporate modern themes in its illustrations.
One illumination features DNA strands, a reference to evolution.
Another depicts Earth, based on an image from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.
Every Bible that’s ever been made has tried to reflect its time, Hollas said.
Not doing so “would be like someone getting up in the pulpit and giving a sermon on some issue that was important 800 years ago but not now. You want a Bible that speaks to people today.”
Some of those decisions have provoked controversy.
One religious-book distributor refused to carry copies of portions of The Saint John’s Bible in his store, objecting to the references to evolution, said the Rev. Michael Patella, a monk at Saint John’s Abbey who heads a committee providing theological guidance to the calligraphers and artists.
For the monks, it was important to show that “faith and reason go hand in hand,” he said.
“Science tells us how we got to where we are. The Bible tells us why we got to where we are.”
Full of personal touches
Among the three American artists chosen for the project was Suzanne Moore, of Vashon Island.
Her first assignment, she said, was daunting: to provide an illumination depicting The Last Judgment, a subject that’s been tackled by artists including Michelangelo and Hieronymus Bosch. She imagined a “multitude of artists lined up over my shoulder, saying: ‘You’re going to do that?’ ” So far she’s completed nine illustrations — work she’s found intellectually and spiritually rewarding.
Moore started her work soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and has incorporated her memories of that and other experiences in her work.
In one piece, she drew a chessboard, saying it reflects her belief that “in some way, humans either play the political game with human lives or are part of the game.”
Her depiction of heaven includes a garden — she loves gardens — and has a number of delphiniums, in honor of her grandmother Delphina.
Hollas said such personal touches distinguish handwritten, illustrated Bibles.
Calligraphy can have shadings in the same way music can — quiet like a string section, dramatic like brass. That’s very different from print Bibles, in which the same typeface is used to describe walking through the Red Sea, Jesus’ crucifixion and the dietary restrictions of traditional Judaism.
“With calligraphy, you can let the emotions speak in a way that print does not,” Hollas said.
And there’s something to be said for the role of art in inspiring and deepening faith.
Biblical tradition is not just about abstract concepts, rules and laws, said Gregory Wolfe, publisher and editor of Image, a national journal based at Seattle Pacific University that explores art and faith.
“It’s about grace, a presence that’s felt to be beautiful and attractive,” Wolfe said.
A work like The Saint John’s Bible “reminds us of the importance of beauty in our experience of the spiritual.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org