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For the first time since the invention of the printing press, artists have put quill pen to paper to hand-write—in calligraphy—the Bible in its entirety. Now nearing completion, the result is a wonder to behold. And available to readers and gazers at Santa Clara.
As a teenager studying art in the 1950s, Donald Jackson had a pair of burning ambitions: one, become the scribe to the Queen of England; and, two, hand-copy the Bible in calligraphy. The first he accomplished in his mid-20s. For the second, he waited more than 30 years to begin. But then, a project he thinks of as “a calligrapher’s Sistine Chapel” isn’t meant to be rushed.
Jackson began this epic undertaking in his scriptorium in Wales more than a decade ago— when he was approaching age 60—working with quill pens, handmade inks, and 24-karat gold and silver leaf. Next year he expects to complete the seventh and final volume of the Saint John’s Bible.
Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, recalls a day in 1995 that he and Jackson were having lunch. Jackson had been leading seminars in calligraphy at the university since the 1980s, and he was wondering: Would the university be interested in partnering on writing the Bible by hand?
“It was the craziest thing I ever heard,” Fr. Hollas says.
No one had undertaken anything like what Jackson was proposing in more than 500 years. And yet, the very idea—blending medieval artistry with modern artistic sensibilities to create a Bible handwritten in calligraphy with illuminated text— offered an unparalleled opportunity to inspire the spiritual imagination of people around the world. The Benedictine monks of Saint John’s were in. They decided to commission Jackson for the Saint John’s Bible. And Fr. Hollas now acts as the public spokesperson for the project. “It is a wonderful testimony to human creativity to do something like this,” he says.
Double Helix and Graffiti
Two years were spent planning the undertaking before it was officially begun in 1998. Theologians and scholars at Saint John’s decided that the Saint John’s Bible would adopt the translation of the New Revised Standard Version and would be divided into seven volumes, each measuring 2 feet tall by 3 feet wide when open. About 1,150 sheets of vellum and $4 million for expenses would be required. Starting with the Gospels, Jackson began working in Wales with a team of five scribes. Along the way, he invited five guest artists to illuminate the manuscript.
Computer technology was also part of the process. Software mapped out the text page by page, accounting for line and page breaks and allowing space for the 160 or so illuminations. Then came the hands-on work. One page could take anywhere from six to 10 hours to complete, depending on the scribe. Most of the text was in a new font, “Jacksonian,” that Jackson created specifically for the project. In places other fonts were used to convey emotions such as joy, anger, love, and sorrow.
As he continues to guide the creative process, Jackson meets and corresponds with a committee of historians, art historians, theologians, and other scholars. With certain themes and passages in mind, they give Jackson theological briefs that reflect on what the scripture might have meant when it was composed or what it might mean to a reader today.
This collaboration has produced an eclectic mix of vibrant illuminations, including images of the World Trade Center towers and DNA’s double-helix. Other images, like the menorah, reflect Christianity’s Jewish roots. Islamic and Near Eastern Art are represented in multicolored patterns and mosaics. Wisdom is personified by an elderly Palestinian woman. Flora and fauna found in the woods near Saint John’s University, and butterflies from the Welsh countryside, decorate the pages and tie the Bible to the communities in which it was created.
J. David Pleins, a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara, says that the way images intimate diverse religions is more than ornamental: “What they’re saying is that we can learn from each tradition and from each other. By the same token, those who are from different religious traditions can look at this sacred text and gain something from it and see themselves included in that process.”
One of the guest artists is Thomas Ingmire of San Francisco, who lends his artistic vision to the edgy illustrations that resemble graffiti art. In 1977, Ingmire became the first person outside of the U.K. be elected Crafts Fellow of The Society of Scribes and Illuminators in London.
“Every generation has an obligation to portray the sacred in art and in music, not just in preaching,” Hollas says. “Artists can preach to us the same way preachers do in the pulpit. They inspire us. They allow us to see things in a way we would not have seen. We need them.”
One of Hollas’ favorite renderings is of Adam and Eve. The couple is depicted as Ethiopian tribespeople, illustrating an awareness of the scientific consensus that humankind originated in Africa.
“If we’re going to interpret an origins story in scripture, we should imagine the first humans in terms that are consistent with contemporary science,” says SCU Religious Studies Associate Professor Catherine Murphy. The illustrators, she says, “are celebrating both human diversity and unity…as well as making the biblical myth more scientifically current.”
The High-Tech Path to Heritage
When Jackson began work on the Saint John’s Bible, the focus was entirely on the original hand-lettered manuscripts. But midway through, Jackson took time out to create an additional edition that wasn’t within the realm of possibility when the project was launched. Recent advances in digital printing technology enabled creation of the Heritage Edition, a reproduction— although labeling it as such doesn’t do it justice. “We’re trying to make it the finest reproduction of a book ever done,” says Hollas.
With high-resolution scans of the original pages, a Heidelberg press in Minnesota prints on 100 percent cotton paper using multiple infrared dryers to cure each ink pass on contact. Just a few years ago, no such printer existed. Especially challenging is the preparation for gold and silver embossing, because the variety of textures of the Heritage Edition pages have to mimic Jackson’s work on the original. In some instances Jackson writes on top of the gold leaf, so the pages are shipped back to the press to undergo a second printing before the pages are sent to Arizona for binding.
“They produced it in such a way that it looks like the ink is coming through the page, as it would on a real piece of vellum or parchment,” SCU’s Murphy observes. “To see something this beautifully done, this contemporary, this large, and to be able to touch it, enjoy it, ponder it… in a way it’s like an icon itself.”
Hollas says that the Heritage Edition is a work of art in its own right. So it, too, has to reflect Jackson’s judgment: “We didn’t want the printed book to be the work of someone else. It needed to be his, at his creative height.”
These special reproductions are finding homes across the world—including at Santa Clara University. Tita Crilly Diepenbrock, widow of James Diepenbrock ’51, saw a traveling exhibition of the Saint John’s Bible in Tacoma, Wash., in early 2008, and knew she wanted one of the 299 Heritage Editions available for interdisciplinary study—in art, theology, and history—on the West Coast.
“She saw it as part of the educational life of the institution, not gathering dust on a shelf somewhere but actually used by students,” Pleins explains. “It’s quite amazing to be able to take this huge work and flip the pages, and feel, and come close to that effort of writing the thing by hand.”
Last December, a ceremony was held in the Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Technology Center, and Orradre Library, where then-President Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60 received the first volume on behalf of the University. The Heritage Edition will soon be showcased and available to students and faculty in the library. Professor Paul Crowley, S.J., chair of the Department of Religious Studies, calls the Saint John’s Bible “one of the most precious things we’ve been given. It’s an event in text.”
SCU is now in possession of two volumes: Wisdom and Prophets. The pages for the entire project will be complete by the end of 2010, but the seven volumes won’t be bound for a number of years, following a capstone tour.