There’s a Bible in every hotel room in the United States and, of course, in every church pew. You can even find digital Bibles online. Why then, in a digital age, when one can access Holy Scriptures with a simple swipe and tap on an app, would a Bible produced with the painstaking techniques used by medieval monks be relevant in today’s contemporary world?
Simply put: artistry, spirituality and the relationship of both to the written word.
“Word and Image: The Saint John’s Bible” focuses on all three. The exhibition at the Joslyn Art Museum showcases the first handwritten, illuminated Bible created since the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.
The Bible is the brainchild of Donald Jackson, scribe to Queen Elizabeth and the Crown Office at the House of Lords, who first had the idea as a child. It became a life-long dream, and when he approached Saint John’s University in Minnesota in 1995 about how to mark the millennium, the Benedictine monks saw both the artistic and spiritual merit of the project.
After years of discussions and planning, Jackson wrote the first words of the illuminated Bible on Ash Wednesday in 2000: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.”
Some 850,000 more words in modern English followed.
It took 23 scribes, artists and assistants and 12 theologians working with Jackson in a scriptorium in Wales to produce them. They used medieval tools and materials such as hand-cut quill pens, ancient inks and 24-karat gold, silver and platinum as well as digital technology to create the Bible, which was finally completed in May 2011.
The Bible features more than 1,100 calfskin vellum pages, which measure two by three feet each, and 160 artworks. Seventy-six unbound pages are featured in the exhibition, which runs through Jan. 19.
The artworks, called illuminations, are what really capture the imagination — as is intended.
“They are meant to inspire intellectually, spiritually and even literally,” said Taylor Acosta, Joslyn’s associate curator of European Art. “They prompt ‘lectio divina,’ which is divine reading, prayer and meditation, and ‘visio divina,’ or divine seeing, which is open to a variety of associations and interpretations.”
Added Tim Ternes, director of the Saint John’s Bible at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University: “The artworks are designed to bring Scripture to life. They are meant to be spiritual meditations so that people can have discussions and debates. They are an invitation into Scripture.”
Take, for example, the Bible’s first pages, which relate the story of creation. Seven vibrantly colorful panels represent each day of creation, with references to the chaos of the Big Bang, the movements of planetary orbits, mathematical equations and an image of an ancient huntress depicted on a cave wall in Nigeria.
There is also a brilliant block of gold, which holds particular meaning.
“You can see your own reflection,” Ternes said. “We are created in the image of God, and you can see yourself in God as well as the person standing next to you — even if you don’t like that person.”
It’s in these kinds of subtle ways that the Bible challenges viewers.
“The imagery is so symbolically rich. It’s fascinating,” Acosta said. “It rewards sustained, repeated viewing.”
Both Ternes and Acosta stressed that viewers don’t have to share the Christian faith to appreciate the exhibition. There are plenty of nods to various cultures throughout the Saint John’s Bible.
The illumination placed at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew features a family tree structured as both a tree of life and a menorah, the Jewish multi-branched candlestick. A mandala-like cosmic image near the base is common to several religions and references the universality of the search for God. Intricate gold medallions placed above the menorah were inspired by illuminations from the Koran.
Additionally, modern science appears in the Bible. In the same illumination, patterns of DNA double helixes are situated between the menorah’s branches.
“The double helix ties the Bible to the 21st century and also demonstrates the connectedness of all humanity,” Acosta said.
That type of inclusion is what makes the Saint John’s Bible both accessible and relevant to everyone, Ternes added.
“It was important not to go backwards, but to go forwards,” he said. “The Benedictines live in the present but look to the future. That’s very powerful. The Saint John’s Bible revives tradition, moves it forward and puts Scripture into a modern context. This is meant to be a communal book so that people can come together.”