Writing the final ‘Amen’

| Nikki Rajala For The Catholic Spirit | September 15, 2011 | 0 Comments
St. John's Bible

Calligrapher Donald Jackson writes “Amen,” the final word in The Saint John’s Bible. Image courtesy of Donald Jackson’s Scriptorium, Wales

Pages from completed Saint John’s Bible to be displayed at Minneapolis Institute of Arts

It’s done. The work of creating pages for the Saint John’s Bible is now complete.

Abbot John Klassen and other officials from St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville were set to announce the completion of the first handwritten, illuminated Bible created in 500 years at a press conference Sept. 15 at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

To celebrate, the MIA will feature 18 pages from the just-completed volume, “Letters and Revelation,” in a public exhibit opening Sept. 16.

The first words were penned Ash Wednesday 2000. The final pages of “Letters and Revelation” were delivered June 18 by calligrapher Donald Jackson.

In a June 18 abbey prayer service, Abbot Klassen and Benedictine Father Robert Koopmann, president of St. John’s University, burnished crosses on the bottom of the final page, symbolic and liturgical gestures signifying St. John’s ownership of the Bible.

It’s taken millions of letters and thousands of decorated capitals, more than 1,100 pages and over 160 original brightly colored illuminations using gold and silver. The process spanned 4,000 miles between Minnesota and Jackson’s scriptorium in Wales, with innumerable emails between 23 people on the creation side and 12 on the Committee on Illumination and Text from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.

Initial concerns outweighed

In interviews with The Visitor, Abbot Klassen and Tim Ternes, director of The Saint John’s Bible project, discussed the monumental effort.

The abbot said the monastery initially had concerns about the project: “Would it divert us from other more front-and-center goals — an abbey guest house, a science building and student housing for the university, countless other things?”

Abbot Klassen recounted. “Or our relationship to the poor and commitment to social justice, to peacemaking and other extremely worthy goals as a church and monastery?”

Abbot Klassen, who was not abbot at the project’s onset, said some wondered how the abbey would use a handwritten illuminated Bible, and what else would it entail? Was it a good idea to raise money for such a Bible in a technological age?

“The classic line was, ‘Nobody’s done this for 500 years. Maybe there are really good reasons for that,’” he said.

“On the other hand,” Abbot Klassen said, “if anyone should do this, shouldn’t it be us, given our monastic heritage? Centuries before Gutenberg, monks wrote and illuminated texts, communicating what the Bible was about in a visual way to the faithful, who perhaps couldn’t read. It was also a way to create art.”

After much planning, the Bible was commissioned on April 28, 1998.

Originally scheduled to be finished July 2007, Ternes said it took longer because many events intervened for Donald Jackson, including two surgeries, as well as for St. John’s.

After St. John’s received the final pages in June, Ternes said, they needed to be conditioned to their new climate and imaged for security and reproduction purposes before being prepped and installed for exhibition.

Still unbound

So far, none of the seven volumes of original folios have been bound.

“The decision to bind will be made with as much counsel as we can muster,” Abbot Klassen said. “Jackson, a skilled bookbinder, has been thinking about how to bind it flexibly while protecting the integrity of individual volumes. If it’s reversible, we could access different pages of different volumes. That appeals to me enormously.”

It requires flexibility to pair texts and illuminations from different parts of the entire Bible to create new clusters of illuminations.

“Once they are bound,” Ternes said, “we can only show two pages at a time, but unbound we could share 10 or 100. When we bind it, we put an end to the traveling exhibition program.”

‘Their’ Bible

Ternes said the next phase is outreach with exhibitions, presentations and Bible studies. Annually 15,000 people view the folios and illustrations at St. John’s; to date, 1.5 million have encountered it through outreach programs.

“Once people encounter The Saint John’s Bible, it becomes ‘their’ Bible,” he said. “It draws people from disparate traditions and beliefs and invites them into conversation. The imagery impacts them and encourages discussion better than anything I’ve encountered.”

Among his favorite illuminations, Abbot Klassen named a page from Ezekiel with an illumination of the Valley of the Dry Bones using more modern imagery. “You have the wreckage of one 20th-century mass extermination after another — death camps in Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, the stack of eyeglasses, old cars with an oil slick — which shows enormous insight in our hope for transformation and renewal in the promises of God. For me that’s a very powerful one.”

Sciences represented visually in The Saint John’s Bible — like a view of earth from the moon, the HIV virus — were unknown in the Middle Ages. People of color are prominent as are portrayals of women.

“My hope is, now that The Saint John’s Bible has been completed, we are in the position to bring our own thoughtful and prayerful sitting with those illuminations, in retreats and other ways of encountering the text and illuminations,” Abbot Klassen said.

“The ultimate goal in doing this whole project was to help people love Scripture and make it more a part of their lives,” he said.

Exhibit info

What: “The Saint John’s Bible, Amen!” featuring 18 pages from “Letters and Revelation”

Where: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

When: Sept. 16 – Nov. 13. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and until 9 p.m. Thursday.

For more information: visit http://www.artsmia.org and http://www.saintjohnsbible.org.

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