As a child Donald Jackson dreamed of creating a handwritten and illuminated bible. As of today Jackson, who is now one of the western world’s foremost calligraphers, has finally had his dream become a reality after 15 years in the making. In 1995 Jackson first observed the Monks of Saint John’s Abbey (a community of Benedictine monks in Collegeville, Minnesota) processing their Book of Gospels at Sunday Mass. From this he developed a deeper understanding of the significance of “their book” and was inspired to create one himself. From there he shared his ambition with Fr. Eric Hollas, OBS, a monk and then-director of Saint John’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. The monks embraced his dream and from there on an extraordinary masterpiece of a collaboration of art and biblical scholarship began to take shape. This bible is the first completely handwritten and illuminated Bible to have been commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey since the invention of the printing press.
Currently on display in the Ferguson Gallery at the Loyola/Notre Dame is “The Saint John’s Bible: Inspiration and Illumination” exhibit. Last week I went to go view the exhibit, and being enthralled in the exhibit’s curation and beauty I stayed looking at it for a good hour. The exhibit showcases the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible, which in itself is an excellent reproduction of the original. The bible contains seven volumes, four of which are highlighted in this exhibit. While observing all the cases of the exhibit some things stuck out to me that I really liked and related to things we have been discussing in class.
In the display case for the volume “Prophets” it was noted that “The Section of the bible know as The Prophets primarily contains words of the prophets after whom its individual books are named (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel). These prophetic messages are mostly in poetic form.” In my opinion poetry is a beautiful thing. Having everything written using calligraphy in this version of the bible certainly makes it beautiful. Here we have the form mimicking the content. This reminded me of how in class we have discussed how we have found this in a lot of poetry. For example in Rita Dove’s “Fox Trot Fridays” we saw the dance of the foxtrot was of course the content of the poem, and yet Dove also gave the form of the poem a foxtrot like feel. We also discussed how in John Donne’s poem “The Flea” the form mimicked the content as well.
In the display case of the volume “Wisdom Books” it was noted that “Perhaps the best-known of the Wisdom Books is the “Song of Solomon,” which began as a collection of love poems celebrating the joy of erotic love. In particular, the image of the garden in the Song represents the beauty of the human body as part of God’s creation, the profound union that flows from mutual love, and the goodness, pleasure, and joy of erotic expression.” In the recent weeks in a lot of class discussions we have discussed the idea of whether or not it is ok to discuss the idea of sex. Certain works such as “The Flea” by John Donne, “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvel, and “Jump Cabling” by Linda Pastan have all toyed with this idea. In a couple of my past blog ideas I have defended the idea that it should be something that is acceptable to discuss, since it is only human nature. The fact that even the Bible celebrates it should certainly be a sign that it is not a sin to talk about sex. Just as the display case noted the human body is one of God’s beautiful creations.
From the beginning Jackson and the monks agreed on three things that their Bible would be: Monumental, Contemporary, and Ecumenical. The final product The Saint John’s Bible measures two feet tall by three feet wide, and contains 1,160 pages in seven volumes. Even though each letter is rendered by hand, The Saint John’s Bible also makes use of computer technology to create the page layouts. The bible also uses a modern English translation with contemporary scripts and illumination. Lastly the text, translation, and imagery reflect the Abbey and University’s commitment to celebrating what all Christians have in common with one another and all of humanity. I really enjoyed the last part of what they agreed their Bible would contain. I’ve been saying this all semester long in my blogs, but to repeat myself again: We should celebrate what we all have in common. Rather than judging others for being different one might find that there is some common ground between strangers if you just get to know them. I’m really glad that this beautiful work of art celebrates that overall.