What a thrill it was to see a news story and video of Pope Francis beholding a glimpse of The Saint John’s Bible.
That magnificent work, the product of so many years of intense dedication and joyous toil, is one of the artistic landmarks of all time. We who live in central Minnesota take it for granted – most of us, anyway. Others simply may not be aware of that book’s artistic, historical and spiritual significance.
For centuries during the so-called “Dark Ages,” it was monks toiling away in monasteries who helped keep civilization alive and unforgotten. With feats of backbreaking labor, they laboriously copied by hand the scrolls, scraps and tidbits of written manuscripts, long before the invention of the printing press. They not only copied texts but also adorned those texts with ravishingly beautiful illustrations, known as “illuminations.” Such monks not only made hand-written copies of the Bible, but they – along with others, including Arab scholars and scribes at that time – also copied any manuscripts they could get their hands on, such as texts from ancient Greece and Rome that are the foundations of civilization in the Western World. Without such monks and other scribes, the Dark Ages would, in fact, have been “darker,” and the knowledge that helped mankind take such a leap forward during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods would have been irretrievably lost.
The creation of The Saint John’s Bible was a brilliant brain storm by British master calligrapher Donald Jackson and Eric Ollas, OSB, a monk at St. John’s Abbey. From that initial contact in the mid-1990s, the concept took shape and was embraced by St. John’s monks and many others, including generous funders. The idea was almost madcap lunatic to most who heard about it. The goal of producing a hand-written Bible, with illuminations, just like monks of old did it, seemed like a foolhardy ambition. And yet, page by page, week after week, year after year, Jackson and his calligraphers and artists achieved the feat right up to its very last astonishing page. Amen.
Scholars, art experts and spiritual leaders the world over gasped with admiration at the finished, seven-volume project. It’s truly a monument for the Ages. When Pope Francis saw a few pages of the seventh volume in the Vatican two weeks ago, he turned speechless. He raised his arms and smiled with a hint of rapture.
His reaction was perfect. And that is because that magnificent work of art takes one’s breath away, so much so that it can render a viewer speechless. Its beauty and its importance are, indeed, beyond words.
We in central Minnesota should be proud this incomparable work of art was inspired – even in many of its flora-and-fauna illuminations – right in our own backyard. St. Johns’ Abbey and Donald Jackson deserve the very highest of kudos for having the visionary grit to make possible this wonderful gift to the world.