COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. – It’s a rare quill-penned Bible, illustrated with medieval-era inks, spearheaded in the 1990s by Queen Elizabeth’s senior scribe. After its parchment pages traveled to exhibits across the United States and Europe, they have landed a permanent home at a museum not far from a Minnesota cornfield.
The Saint John’s Bible went on display last month at St. John’s University in Collegeville. The town of 3,000 now hosts one of the few hand-scripted Bibles created in the past century. It’s the latest chapter of a 20-year project that sponsors hope will make the Bible relevant for centuries to come.
“Christianity, as a whole, turned away from handwritten manuscripts shortly after the invention of movable type,” said Tim Ternes, director of the Saint John’s Bible at the university’s Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. “We felt it was important to introduce it to a 21st-century public.”
The public now is being encouraged to not just view the Bible, but to arrange exhibitions and build educational programs around its religious and artistic content.
St. John’s Abbey and St. John’s University commissioned the Bible as a millennium project in 1998, employing a team of international calligraphers and artists who used only the tools of medieval scribes. The new exhibit fast-forwards the sacred texts to the 21st century, offering high-definition digital viewing of all 1,127 pages, climate-controlled displays and a public relations strategy that keeps Bible pages — or its life-size replicas — traveling to locations ranging from the Library of Congress to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to the Vatican.
“Since 2005, we’ve had 27 major exhibitions around the country and in the United Kingdom,” said Ternes.
Tears and awe
The Bible exhibit, in the Alcuin Library on campus, opened this fall as part of a $25 million library renovation. Last week, Ternes stood before a tour group in the adjacent auditorium. His slide show started with a photo of a Donald Jackson — the official calligrapher of Queen Elizabeth. Ternes explained, “It all starts with this man.”
Jackson had been invited to speak at a conference organized by St. John’s Abbey in the late 1990s, as the abbey was considering a millennium project, Ternes said. The world-renowned calligrapher proposed creating a handwritten Bible for modern times. After several years of planning, the project’s first words — “In the beginning” — were gracefully penned on calfskin parchment at Jackson’s scriptorium in Wales.
The final “amen” was finished in 2011.
Ternes explained that Jackson relied on a quill pen and hand-ground natural pigments to illustrate the Bible. The plants and animals adorning the pages, such as graceful butterflies, birds and deer, are native to Minnesota. Hundreds of years from now, the Bible will still be identified with this region.
Keeping the Minnesota connection was important, Ternes said. “We changed all the ‘Amens’ to ‘Ya sure. You betcha,’ ” he joked.
In the gallery, 28 pages are displayed in open-book format, standing 2 feet by 3 feet inside glass displays. They include pages from the Book of Psalms to the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
“One of the toughest challenges was how to portray God,” said Ternes. While Jesus occasionally is depicted, it was decided that the color gold would represent the divine, he said. Sometimes that gold is polished — so the viewer can see a reflection of himself.
The tour group was enthralled.
“I’ve never been a big Bible reader, but this just draws you in,” said Mary Davis, a retiree from St. John the Baptist Church in Collegeville, pausing next to a page.
“And I had no concept of what went into producing such a thing,” she said. “It’s absolutely stunning.”
Rita Mills, a retired teacher from Little Canada, said she was so captivated by the Bible that this is her third viewing. She also went to previous exhibits at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Science Museum in St. Paul, and is inspired by both its spiritual and artistic message.
“The fact that the God-concept is the color gold,” she said, “and that it is a reflection of us no matter what we look like, that is so powerful.”
Mills said she plans to invite her book group and social network to visit the display. Her friend Wanda Jacobsen of St. Joseph added: “I’ll be posting this on Facebook.”
Back to the future
The words were music to the ears of Ternes, who has spent the past 14 years singing the Bible’s praises. He had given 3,000 presentations as of three years ago, he said, “and then I stopped counting.”
Most of the Bible will remain in a climate-controlled archive in its new home. The 28 pages on exhibit will be rotated. The Bible won’t be bound in the foreseeable future, Ternes said, because that limits display.
There are also 299 Bible “heritage editions,” — full-sized fine arts reproductions. Some are available to purchase, some are on display in sites as diverse as the Mayo Clinic and St. Catherine University.
Ternes is particularly pleased about the diverse offshoots generated by the Bible. It will be featured in a lecture at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts in January. A private school in Waconia will use it to inspire Advent reflections. Pastors are projecting pages of the Bible as a backdrop to their sermons, he said.
The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County was able to secure funding to host an exhibition of 69 pages, plus community programming, running in Moorhead through Dec. 31. A major national exhibition will be announced next year, said Ternes.
Jacobsen said she’s seen artistic treasures of Europe, and the Bible display ranks with the best of them. “It’s absolutely amazing,” she said, “and it is in central Minnesota.”