Amen! Historic St. John's Bible is finished

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2011 - 10:25 AM

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibits the last 18 pages of the handwritten manuscript.

"Do you want me to make the word of God live on the page?" British calligrapher Donald Jackson asked more than 15 years ago.

It was an audacious question. St. John's Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., said, "Yes."

And so began a grand and improbable collaboration between a little Benedictine community in Minnesota and a guy then best known for handwriting the ceremonial marriage documents of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. Together they produced the only handwritten and illuminated Bible created in the past 500 years, a total of 1,150 artful pages sparkling with gold leaf and jewel-toned colors.

In a triumphal conclusion, "The St. John's Bible, Amen!," a small show featuring the last pages from the final volume, opens Friday at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. On view through Nov. 13, the exhibit features just 18 pages from "Letters and Revelation," in which Jackson's colorful illustrations frame and accentuate graceful lines of biblical text.

St. John's took on the project "because it's what monks do," John Klassen, abbot at St. John's Abbey and University, said at an opening ceremony Thursday. "It was a chance to help ignite the spiritual imagination of people around the world."

Conceived to celebrate the millennium in 2000, the St. John's Bible is expected to serve as an inspiration and pilgrimage point through the next millennium.

Goose-quill pens

Though written in the ancient manner -- using goose-quill pens on 2-foot-tall sheets of polished calfskin called vellum -- the Bible also reflects contemporary times. Graceful Minnesota dragonflies with translucent wings rest on delicate sprigs of Yorkshire fog grass in two illustrations. Modern tanks, oil rigs and symbols of 21st-century pestilence -- cancer, the AIDS virus, starving faces -- lurk behind the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in another image, while golden angels soar over a city of bejeweled glass in a third panel.

The project involved a flock of Benedictine scholars who advised Jackson and picked out passages to be "illuminated" with images and elaborate lettering. An international team of about 20 calligraphers and illustrators helped Jackson prepare the English text using a special calligraphic style or "hand" that he designed just for the Bible. The 1,150 pages eventually will be bound in seven volumes that comprise a single Bible. For now, however, the sheets are loose for easier display. When formally announced in 1999, the project was expected to take about six years and cost $3 million. That stretched to 12 years and more than doubled in cost, although St. John's officials declined to put a dollar figure on it.

"There were thousands of benefactors who believed in the project and made it possible through their generosity, from Boy Scout troops who sent a few dollars to several families who gave over $1 million each," said Rob Culligan, St. John's vice president for institutional advancement.

Extremely limited edition

In addition to the single copy of the Bible, the project has spun off coffee-table books, posters, notecards and bookmarks. Exhibitions about it have been presented at museums, galleries and other sites throughout the United States, Canada and in England. St. John's is producing a full-scale, near-facsimile version known as the Heritage Edition. Only 299 copies of that version are being published. Initially priced in 2006 at $115,000 for a seven-volume set, those books have gone to more than 40 collectors, libraries, universities and churches, including the Vatican Library and Museum in Rome and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City.

Jackson, 74, and his wife, Mabel, who live in Monmouth, Wales, delivered the last pages of the Bible to St. John's this spring and were not on hand for the exhibition's debut. He is not a Catholic nor even a religious man by temperament, but writing the Bible was a lifelong dream whose completion has obviously been enormously satisfying, friends say.

"When you have the whole Bible wash through you and then write it out, you are transfigured by it, too," said Eric Hollas, a St. John's official and longtime friend of Jackson. "He may not have been particularly spiritual in the beginning, but the words take over at the end, so in that respect he is a changed man."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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