by Cori Hilsgen
After traveling the world, The Saint John’s Bible is home to rest and is now on display in a permanent gallery at the St. John’s University Alcuin Library.
“The Saint John’s Bible is a communal book, so my intent was to design and create a gallery which invites people in and creates a communal space to share the volumes,” said Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John’s Bible and Hill Museum and Manuscript Library programming. “The size of the folios, the way they float in the cases and surround you when you enter, all serve to invite the viewer to come together with others to make meaning.”
He said the gallery is designed to display 28 original folios from the unbound manuscript. The current exhibition features folios from every volume of the Bible. The folios were chosen to showcase calligraphy from every scribe and every artist who worked on the project.
Rare books and manuscripts from the SJU HMML collections are displayed with the Bible to give a historical context to the works. Tools, materials and sketches, which were used to create the volumes, are also on display.
“The gallery can accommodate up to 50 people at a time and is designed to give guests a sacred experience,” Ternes said. “Guests enter the gallery through beautiful ebonized oak doors handcrafted at St. John’s Abbey Woodshop that feature a honeycomb design mirroring the great window in the St. John’s Abbey and University Church. As the Bible remains unbound at this time, the folios are displayed on special mounts designed to make the unbound folios look like opened books. Light levels will be low to maintain conservation standards and allow the folios to be the focal points of the space.”
The Bible includes seven volumes of more than 1,100 pages, two-feet tall by three-feet wide, of handwritten, illuminated pages by calligrapher Donald Jackson of England and others. It has more than 160 illuminations.
Jackson, the artistic director of the project, led a team of calligraphers and artists in writing and illuminating the Bible at his scriptorium in Monmouth, Wales. The team included skilled scribes and guest artists.
Jackson specifically designed the calligraphic script for the Bible. The letters are written in lamp-black ink from 19th-century Chinese stick inks made from carbon.
Throughout the production of the Bible, Jackson visited St. John’s University on a regular basis to consult with the Committee on Illumination and Text, spent time researching on the campus and more. The Committee on Illumination and Text made decisions about which passages of the Bible were to be illuminated and worked with Jackson on the imagery used to depict scripture passages.
The goal of creating the Bible was to spark spiritual imagination of people throughout the world through a work of art that illuminates the Word of God in a way that is relevant today.
The Bible was written on calfskin vellum using goose, swan and turkey quills. A team of scribes used natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments and gold- and silver-leaf gild similar to those used in medieval times.
The small-script letters are about two millimeters tall. The height of the script is directly proportionate to the size of the quill.
Each page has two columns of script, with 54 lines per column, for an average of 10.5 words per line.
Computers were used to size the text and define line breaks. Artists used pages that were laid out in full-size spreads with sketches in position to guide their work.
Each book of the Bible has an illuminated book heading, and each chapter begins with a large decorative capital letter. Each decorative capital is different.
The Bible speaks of the 1,500-year-old tradition of St. Benedict and his Rule, which includes especially following the values of hospitality, transformation and justice for God’s people.
Each of the seven volumes of The Saint John’s Bible has its own illuminations or special treatments and characteristics. The seven volumes contain the 73 books of the Old and New Testaments.
Gospels and Acts was the first volume of the Bible written, and it was completed in May 2002. Pentateuch was completed in August 2003, Psalms in April 2004, Prophets in April 2005, Wisdom Books in July 2006, Historical Books in March 2010 and Letters and Revelation in May 2011.
The Illuminating the Word: The Saint John’s Bible exhibit premiered in 2005 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and then traveled throughout the United States and internationally.
The Saint John’s Bible was officially commissioned in 1998 and was introduced to the public in 1999 at the onset of the new millennium. A few years ago, a copy of the Bible was presented in person to an appreciative Pope Francis during a special ceremony at The Vatican in Rome.
The New Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible was chosen for The Saint John’s Bible for several reasons, including that it is a translation widely used and accepted, it is a modern English translation with a strong literal tradition and it uses gender-inclusive language, usually in a non-obtrusive manner, for references to men and women.
St. John’s University is the patron of the Bible project and played an important role in assembling the team of advisors, faculty, theologians, administrative staff and artists who collaborated on the 15-year project.
The Bible was funded by about 1,400 individual, group and corporate donations. It was not financed with university money.
Jackson is considered one of the Western world’s foremost calligraphers. His education included six years of specialization in calligraphy, lettering and bookbinding.
Visitors to the exhibit can electronically turn pages of a full-sized, high-definition version of the entire Bible and explore videos and details about each page.
Future exhibition themes will change throughout the year, rotating about every four months.
The 1,653 square-foot gallery opened to the public Oct. 6 and is located in the lower level of the library.
Guided tours and/or group presentations are available but need to be arranged in advance. Visitors should plan about 30-60 minutes for self-guided tours and 90-120 minutes for a guided tour or formal presentation.
The gallery is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The gallery will be open from noon-4 p.m. on Saturdays, Oct. 21-Dec. 16. It will close Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 23-25 for Thanksgiving. There will be no weekend hours from Dec. 17-May. The gallery is closed Sundays. Admission is free.
To arrange a tour, contact Ternes by email at email@example.com or by phone at 320-363-3351. For more information, visit the saintjohnsbible.org website.
Author: Cori Hilsgen
Hilsgen is a contributing reporter for the Newsleaders. The central Minnesota native is a wife, mother and grandmother. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Management and Communication from Concordia University – St. Paul, MN and enjoys learning about and sharing other people’s stories through the pages of the Newsleaders.