Visions of modernity in the St. John’s Bible

February 23, 2015 @ 12:00 am
Event Photo

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6:1 – 8:13), Donald Jackson (artist, scribe), Copyright 2011, The Saint John's Bible. Images courtesy Chazen Museum of Art except where otherwise noted.

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An exhibition at the Chazen illuminates the enduring role of religion in art.

The word of God is a bountiful font for works of art both profound and mundane. One the oldest forms of such work, illuminated manuscripts, has been reimagined for the 21st century with the St. John's Bible, a monumental creation that was 15 years in the making. Created through the efforts of St. John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minnesota, this Bible is now the focus of a major exhibition running at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison through March 15.

Bibles may be ubiquitous, found in every hotel room, even while religion is both receding in its demographic adherence and acquiring new, dangerous power in the hands of extremists. But even for a secular audience, the Bible still embodies a compelling artistic tension, preserving long-trodden themes in a culture and industry of art that is fueled by novelty and experimentation.

Titled Illuminating the Word: The St. John's Bible, the exhibition at the Chazen features dozens of individual pages of the new bible out of more than 1,100 total, all still unbound, and features multiple frontispieces and other high-profile illuminations from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Gospels of Matthew and John, Acts, Revelations and others.

The St. John's Bible is a product of calligraphy and painting, both produced on sheets of vellum (calf skin parchment) that are three feet wide and two feet tall. The script and illuminations are made with Chinese lampblack ink from the 1870s, natural pigments fixed with albumen, and, most breathtakingly, gold, silver and platinum leaf, illustrated with handmade quills made from goose, swan and turkey feathers. There are more than 160 illuminations total presented in seven separate volumes: Gospels and Acts, the Pentateuch, Psalms, Prophets, the Wisdom Books, the Historical Books, and the Letters and Revelations. It's written in English and is based on the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, selected for its acceptance by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and multiple Protestant churches. (A digital version of the entire Bible may be viewed online.)

On January 22, the project's director, Tim Ternes, delivered a public presentation about the St. John's Bible at the Chazen. He discussed how it was conceived and executed, and described in detail how an ecumenical spirit infused its creation. He also emphasized the unique nature of the project, at least in modern terms, declaring it to be an historic work of art.

“Try to go to any art museum in the world and not see Adam and Eve," Ternes says.

But the perception of art also thrives on ambition and audacity, and this bible is suffused with each.

The project was first envisioned by Donald Jackson, a British calligrapher who serves as an official scribe for Queen Elizabeth II and the crown of the United Kingdom. He visited St. John's Abbey in 1981 for a calligraphy conference. Attracting more than 500 people, it was the world's largest scriptorium, joked Ternes in his talk.

The conference was held at St. John's Abbey Church, a mid-20th century edifice of cast concrete in a striking Brutalist design. The building was an early example of a Catholic church built with a modernist approach, and the beauty he saw in this reenvisioning of a sacred space inspired Jackson to pursue his lifelong dream of creating an original illuminated Bible, explained Ternes.

In 1995, Jackson approached the monastery with his idea, citing the impending Millennium as a motivation for embarking on such an intensive, expensive, and potentially interminable project. Negotiations commenced, St. John's committed to the cause, and Jackson first put ink to vellum on Ash Wednesday of 2000. He worked with five other calligraphers, four other scribes, and a team of artists, working mostly in a scriptorium in Monmouth, Wales, with crucial work being completed by contributors in California, Minnesota and Washington state. Computer-aided design was essential in developing the division of labor in creating and subsequently assembling the vast project.

Drawn from the tradition and values of the Order of Saint Benedict, the St. John's Bible and its illuminations are intended to be both literal and prophetic, while weaving in contemporary values and a scientific understanding of the natural world. The imagery was developed from ideas drawn from a religious committee at St. John's Abbey, and took further shape in correspondence with Jackson across the Atlantic. It was a slow, deliberate and exacting process. “After both sides of the ocean said [the ideas] were theologically and artistically sound, then it would go on vellum," said Ternes.

In the works for just over a decade, the St. John's Bible was completed May 9, 2011. It was the first Benedictine illuminated Bible to be commissioned and completed in some 500 years, the last being produced before the Reformation. It is one of few overall to be created in Christendom over this time period.

Legacy, both religious and artistic, is an elemental goal of the St. John's Bible. Since it was illustrated with ink black, other natural colors and precious metals on vellum, it's expected to last upwards of 1,500 to 2,000 years, pending proper care and protection from the vagaries of history. Should it be preserved that long, its creators hope the book will serve as a reflection of Catholicism in the early 21st century, at least as envisioned by Donald Jackson, his team of artists and the Benedictine monastery of St. John's in Minnesota.

To illustrate the fusion of religion and modernity embodied in the Bible, here are seven particular illuminations on display at the Chazen:

1. In the beginning… (Genesis 1:1-23)

The first illumination in the St. John's Bible establishes a resolutely 21st century voice, seeking harmony between ancient narrative and contemporary comprehension of the universe. One of the most widely known passages of the Bible, the opening verses of Genesis are spectacularly depicted with a collage highlighting the seven days of Creation. Day one finds explosions of color, in the form of infinite fractals, bursting forth from the formless void and evoking the Big Bang. Day three, which sees the separation of land and waters, as well as the seeding of vegetation, is presented as an orbital view of the Ganges River delta with its many winding streams and mouths. Day four and its lighting of the night with stars illustrates the heliocentric confirmation of Galileo. Day six and its eruption of living creatures offers figures drawn from prehistoric cave paintings, the first a huntress from Africa, perhaps a nod to the evolutionary lineage of the Mitochondrial Eve. Altogether, scientific understanding of the heavens and earth is woven into the scriptural imagery, and humankind is introduced with a woman. It's a bold opening stroke, indicating that Jackson and his team are committed to their goal of highlighting contemporary perspectives.


Creation, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2003, The Saint John's Bible, Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

2. Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

One of the seven volumes of the St. John's Bible focuses on and is named for the prophets of the Old Testament, which includes Ezekiel's visions during the Babylonian captivity. The valley of the dry bones symbolizes the condition and despair of the Israelites in their exile. “How do we take this passage and make it relevant to 21st century people?" asked Ternes. In this illumination, the carnage of war and detritus of violence that have blighted the last century are depicted, including the Armenian Genocide during World War I, the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, and the 7/7 King's Cross terrorist bombing in London. A pile of discarded spectacles references the Holocaust. Heaps of bones recall the Rwandan Genocide. Together, they manifest the horrors of the modern world and their roots in ethnic and religious hatred. Washed with a joyless gray, this human debris is instantly recognizable—and chilling.

Similar visions are presented in an illumination accompanying a more infamous prophetic passage, that concerning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Spanning two pages, and the verses of Revelation 6:1-8:13, this image features oil derricks and pumpjacks, smokestack gas flares, tanks and their gun barrels, and minuscule radiation symbols. Realities of the present and threats to the future, they're all lieutenants to war, pestilence, famine and death.

Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 36:15 – 37:25), Donald Jackson (artist) and Susie Leiper (scribe), Copyright 2005, The Saint John's Bible.

3. Praises (Psalms 1:1-6)

The Psalms take up an entire volume of the St. John's Bible, five books that number 150 songs of praise and lamentation. Musical in nature, the script for these verses is accompanied throughout by direct representations of sound. Specifically, every page of the volume features soundwave voiceprints of Gregorian chant by monks at St. John's Abbey, in delicate gold leaf of barely perceptible gradation. These digital illustrations of the human voice start on the frontispiece of the volume and run horizontally throughout. That opening folio also features soundwaves that highlight the songs of other religions' traditions. Arrayed vertically on each page, these include Native American song, a Jewish men's choir singing Psalms, an Islamic adhan, Indian Sufi chanting, Hindu bhajan, Buddhist tantric harmonies and Taoist temple music. Minute, simultaneously literal and abstract, these layers of painted voices speak to the technical preparation behind the artistic presentation.

Psalms Frontispiece, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2004, The Saint John's Bible, Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.

4. Genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17)

The illumination accompanying the beginning of the Old Testament concerns the creation of the universe, while that for the opening of the New Testament reestablishes the tradition for the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth across 42 generations. The Gospel of Matthew opens with an image that depicts that family tree, including, where possible, the names of mothers. In the shape of a menorah, it's another testament itself to the St. John's Bible's ecumenical mission, its candle flames depicted in the form of Islamic shamsas, and the tree's trunk anchored by a Tibetan mandala. Just as striking are images of the double helix, the structure of DNA, that repeat in the interstices between branches. As an ancient art, genealogy is tied to the identity of noble lineages, and as a modern science it offers an expanding frontier for exploring our individual and collective genetic identity. The painstaking detail and warm colors glowing with golden fire demand scrutiny, root and branch.

Genealogy of Christ, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2002 The Saint John's Bible, Saint John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA.

5. To the Ends of the Earth (Acts 1:8)

The Acts of the Apostles, the first book of the New Testament following the Gospels and accompanying them in the first St. John's Bible volume to be completed, concerns the earliest years of the Christian church, and its expansion outward and onward to Rome. The opening verses quote the resurrected Christ speaking to his apostles on their missionary charter: “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." This opening includes a small illumination of the Blue Marble, a photo of Earth shot from Apollo 17 on the first day of its 1972 mission to the Moon. Above the planet is a comet, its sweeping, broad dust tail identifying it as Hale-Bopp, which made a spectacular show in the Northern Hemisphere during the first half of 1997. The facing page, meanwhile, offers the cosmos, complete with a galactic spiral and another cometary pilgrim. It's an apogee of the monastery's modern vision, unexpected in a Bible but instantly familiar.

To the Ends of the Earth (Acts 27:31 – 28:20), Donald Jackson with contributions from Sally Mae Joseph and Andrew Jamieson (artists) and Sally Mae Joseph (scribe), Copyright 2002 The Saint John's Bible, Saint John's University, Minnesota USA.

A smaller image of the planetary orb is found on another folio, that covering Romans 6:1-8:24, a passage illuminated with the “Fulfillment of Creation." Its opposing page also features a much smaller version of the Genesis opening collage and more of the starry skies, all superimposed with binary code, algebraic equations, and a scattering of circle, square and triangle symbols intended to highlight quantum physics. Fascination with the heavens is as old as religion itself, but perceiving their scale and our place in the universe is at the heart of our modern quest for scientific and mathematical understanding.

6. St. Paul (Acts 15:1-41)

Paul the Apostle is the central pillar of the early Christian community, responsible for proselytizing the gospel of Christ around the ancient Mediterranean world. His letters to churches in cities on and near the Aegean Sea comprise much of the rest of the New Testament. The saint's profound impact on the contours of the religion he helped shape is captured in this illumination, which highlights humans' growing proclivity towards urban life over the past 2,000 years. The figure of Paul is surrounded by architectural illustrations of buildings ancient, medieval and modern in form, from Romanesque churches to brownstones to towering apartment blocks, as well as the Stella Maris Chapel at St. John's Abbey. Modernity can be as simple as the form of the buildings in which humans live, work and worship, a cityscape of compressed time.

7. Anisoptera (Philemon1:4 - Hebrews 3:19)

While the message of the divine is generally the focus of Biblical illuminations, including those discussed above, this art form also highlights the world as it is in the form of marginalia illustrations. Depicting the beauty of simple flora and fauna has a long history in these handwritten manuscripts, and the St. John's Bible adheres and extends that tradition. This folio late in the New Testament includes a pair of dragonflies native to Minnesota, one on each page. “We geographically ground the work in the plants and animals of central Minnesota," noted Ternes. In a nod to the project's trans-Atlantic collaboration, each insect alights on a tuft of Yorkshire Fog grass. The beauty is in its simplicity, a counterpoint to the full-page illuminations that brim with manifold ideas. More creatures and flowers inhabit the rest of the book, a reminder that humans of the 21st century are as wedded to the natural world as our forbears.

Other pages on display at the Chazen, and in the remainder of the St. John's Bible, offer an indelibly contemporary perspective, even if only in the style of the illuminations and their nods to multiple experimental movements of modern art. However, this book is still a clear product of its religious and artistic tradition, and is replete with images of kings, prophets and apostles that recall centuries of Christian iconography both in books and on church walls.

Pages from the St. John's Bible will remain on exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art through March 15. A series of events addressing the project and its artistic and religious meaning is slated through the rest of the exhibition, including a February 26 symposium hosted by the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, discussions and demonstrations of calligraphy, and ecumenical explorations of this art form in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

“The St. John's Bible is not a picture book. These are not meant to be illustrations of the top ten Bible stories," said Ternes.

“These are meant to bring you together," he continued. “They're designed to make you stop, think and discuss them with someone else."

When questioned at his talk, Ternes declined to assign a price tag on the project and Bible itself, citing security concerns, but press reports over the last decade have suggested a total investment of between $4 to $8 million dollars, with the latter figure prevailing in recent years. The Heritage Edition of the St. John's Bible, a museum-quality, full-sized, multi-volume edition printed on heavy cotton paper and bearing additions of gold leaf to the illuminations runs in excess of $150,000; only 299 sets are to be produced. Many are purchased by churches and academic institutions, and are currently the centerpiece of other exhibitions around the United States.

That makes the Chazen exhibition all the more special, given that it offers a close look at the original work, and with so many high-profile pages on display at once. This is a monumental creation at a level that's a rarity to glimpse in Madison, an opportunity to take in a vision that flowers from the roots of the Western artistic tradition. It's a reminder than when religion is at the source of so much prejudice, hate and conflict, a perspective grounded in ecumenical tolerance can capture the essential beauty of the world that everybody must share.

Though it sounds grandiose, Ternes compared the artistic scope and scale, religious devotion and potential historical impact of the St. John's Bible to that of Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City, which were completed just over a half-century ago.

“Nothing like this has ever been commissioned in the modern world," noted Ternes about the St. John's Bible, which he says “has the potential of being the world's next most important religious artifact."

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last updated: February 23, 2015 @ 11:04 am

Kristian Knutsen

Kristian Knutsen

Kristian Knutsen is a writer and editor who lives in downtown Madison.

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