Meeting Scripture Through the Illuminated Word
The Saint John's Bible — sacred art and contemplative tool
As I sit before the illustration accompanying the story of creation in The Saint John’s Bible, I see representations that are obvious — the seven days; Adam, Eve and the serpent; land and sea. And I see many that are less so — little gold boxes, a bird. My mind plays at filling in the gaps. The person next to me is doing the same. After a few minutes, we turn to each other and share what we saw. Within moments, this sharing has turned into an excited discussion of the creation stories and the symbolism involved, referencing back to the illustration again and again. In the final phase of the exercise, our facilitator calls on people and we hear all the things they saw and how they interpreted them — some quite surprising. Now, this is fun bible study.
And that’s page one. The immensity of The Saint John’s Bible project is hard to convey. It’s been over half a millennium since a completely handmade illuminated bible has been produced, and this project has been 12 years in the making, combining the production, theological guidance and financial commitment of Saint John’s Abbey in Minnesota with the artistic direction of the Queen’s scribe, Donald Jackson — whose life dream this has been since 1970 — and his calligraphy team in Monmouth, Wales.
Some would say it hasn’t been attempted because it is no longer necessary, since technologies exist to mass-produce books using fonts. But you can’t say that once you’ve seen The Saint John’s Bible. The point is the linking of craft and art to faith. The humanness of it, with its exuberances and its flaws, is what makes it so sacred.
The pathway of the visual
The Saint John’s Bible needs no more justification than any religious art, but gains added weight because of the mystical importance in Christianity of the Word of God; the Bible is not dead text but living Word. “The illuminations are not illustrations,” says Michael Patella, OSB, chair of the committee that oversees the artwork. “They are spiritual meditations on the text.”
The potential of The Saint John’s Bible‘s is most obvious in this idea of using it for a kind of lectio divina, the traditional contemplative method of sacred reading. They call it visio divina.
“The second movement in lectio is meditatio, and meditating on the illuminated word is one aspect of meditatio,” says Barbara Sutton, Associate Director of Formation and Outreach at Saint John University’s School of Theology/Seminary. “What I like about what we are doing is that we’re connecting the illumination with the text.”
Sutton developed the curriculum for Seeing the Word, an exciting complementary program to help groups use The Saint John’s Biblein lectio divina. Out so far are a handful of “reflection guide” pamphlets — each with a reproduction of an image, the corresponding scripture passage, commentary on the text and image, and an explanation of how to practice lectio divina. Thirty of these guides are planned. An extensive program manual for facilitators is coming in February. Sutton says this will have support for small-group faith sharing, large-group Liturgy of the Word and in-home family study. The manual will have themes for six-week study groups, such as discipleship, renewing the face of the earth, and women in the bible. A supplemental DVD has projectable images so a larger group can experience the images in the way I described above.
“It opens up another pathway of getting into the text,” says Abbot John Klassen, of Saint John’s Abby.
Modern content, accessible products
And that doesn’t have to happen in a group setting. I plan to buy at least one — and eventually more — of the 9-3/4-by-15-inch trade reproduction volumes myself (as well as give them as Christmas gifts.) In order to keep things manageable in size and weight, the Bible is broken it into its classic seven sections, each bound as a separate volume retailing for $60 to $80. Over the last 5 years, six have been released when ready. The final volume, Letters & Revelations, is being completed now.
The St. John’s Bible is thoroughly modern. Despite using traditional processes, when it comes to content, its makers held firmly to the intention that this not be a recreation of a medieval bible. It uses the NRSV translation, chosen because it is supported by current scripture scholars and written in clear contemporary English, and because it is accepted by not only the Catholic Church but most other Christian churches as well. (Though the arrangement of the books and the inclusion of Wisdom and Sirach are in the Catholic format.) The various artistic styles used in the illuminations and incidental illustrations throughout are also contemporary.
You can encounter The Saint John’s Bible in many different ways: the original copy in Minnesota; exhibitions around the world; copies of the Heritage Edition in institutions; the trade reproduction editions; giclée art prints and products like Christmas cards; and through the Seeing the Word programs. With the completion next year of the final volume, this work of a dozen years, half a millennia in the waiting, will be complete — in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “a great work of art” and “a work for eternity.”
Those near New York City are lucky to have the opportunity through December 17 to view some samples of the book, and to see two presentations — all at St. Paul the Apostle, on Columbus Avenue at 60th St. On November 28, from 6:30 – 9 p.m., Rev. Eric Hollas, OSB, from Saint John’s University, will give a talk on “The Illuminator as Preacher.” And on December 16, 7 – 9 p.m., Barbara Sutton, director of the curriculum development project for the St. John’s Bible, will expand on using an illuminated Bible as a contemplative tool in a talk called, “Visio Divina, Prayer Practice for Encountering God.”