St. John's Bible

W ARM SEPTEMBER SUNLIGHT ANGLED THROUGH A WALL OF WINDOWS AT THE SMALL SCRIPTORIUM NEAR MONMOUTH, WALES, where several calligraphers and artists bent over drafting tables. They were working on the first Bible to be written and illustrated entirely by hand since the invention of movable type more than 500 years ago.

St. John's BibleTheir concentration was so intense that the only sounds in the room were the sharp scratching of quills against vellum and an occasional soft intake of breath. Work tables held the tools of the trade: small piles of gold leaf, brushes to apply it, blunt hematite burnishers to polish it, jars filled with quills, bottles of soot-black ink, small tins of brilliant hues.

On a large table off to one side lay a painting that glowed with a light of its own. It was the first completely finished illumination for the new Bible, rendered entirely with millennium-old techniques. At its center was a menorah in dazzling vermilion representing the family tree of Christ. Modern touches, such as strands of DNA, twined gracefully up the branches. In bold black lettering, the names of Jesus’ ancestors, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic—for Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, the mother of Ishmael and an ancestor of Mohammed—stretched back to Abraham. Created for the Gospel of Saint Matthew, the illumination is intended to be a stepping stone from the Old Testament to the New, a way of showing the oneness of past and present. It is also a part of what promises to be one of the extraordinary undertakings of our times.

I T WAS SHORTLY BEFORE CHRISTMAS 1995, WHEN BROTHER DIETRICH REINHART, president of Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and Father Erie Hollas, director of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library there, headed south on 1-94 for a dinner meeting in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Hollas decided this was a good time to broach his superior with a question that had been nagging him for months “You know, Dietrich” he said with a casualness he didn’t feel, “Donald Jackson would like to hand-write and illuminate the Bible and wonders if we would support him.”

It was a staggering request. Not since scribes labored inside medieval monasteries had the Bible been written and illustrated by hand. “How could we ever do it?” thought Reinhart at first. “How could we finance it? Aren’t we busy enough already?” Then he considered the significance of a Bible that could last a thousand years or more. Saint John’s University was already known for its manuscript collection. Might it be the perfect place to sponsor, display and preserve such a work? Could it become a historical achievement of epic proportion? Suddenly Reinhart ‘burst out with a response that astonished Hollas: “Wow! Wouldn’t that be absolutely incredible?”

Donald Jackson of Monmouth, Wales, was well-known to both men. Longtime scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office at the House of Lords, and considered one of the leading calligraphers in the Western world, Jackson had led calligraphy conferences at Saint John’s over a 20-year span. A month earlier, Jackson had proposed the monumental undertaking to Hollas.

The Minnesota abbey and university, founded by German monks who migrated up the Mississippi to Minnesota in 1856, was a natural place for Jackson to present his lifelong dream. Benedictines have been copying and preserving manuscripts since Saint Benedict founded his first monastery in Italy in AD. 529, a tradition alive and well at Saint John’s today. The university houses more than 10,000 rare books, as well as the world’s largest collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts on microfilm, some 90,000 in all

Though aware that convincing both the university’s board of regents and the monastic chapter of the abbey to agree to the project would be a daunting task, Reinhart and Abbot Timothy Kelly, leader of Saint John’s 200 Benedictine monks, determined to forge ahead. It took years of debate, and some tough, backroom bargaining— but in 1998 both the university and the abbey gave the plan their thumbs-up, ----- provided the new Bible be “contemporary, ecumenical, multicultural and prophetic.” What had once been a vision now had a name: THE SAINT JOHN’S BIBLE.

For Donald Jackson, it was a calligrapher’s dream come true. It was in 1970 that Jackson first uttered aloud what he himself had known for years. As calligrapher to the Queen, during a trip to New York he was invited to appear on the “Today” show. When asked what his greatest wish in life would be, he responded almost immediately: “I would like to write the Bible.”

Though raised a Methodist, Jackson’s desire stemmed not from religious intent. It was pure love of handwritten text. For Jackson, writing the Bible is what he calls a calligrapher’s Sistine Chapel. “When a calligrapher puts his heart and soul into his work,” he explains, “the words themselves have to be worth it. Perhaps more than any other text, the Bible has language into which you can pour great depth of feeling and it won’t be misplaced.”

His own words that day fell on barren soil. It was at Saint John’s that the seed ultimately found fertile soil and took root, though two and a half years would pass between Jackson ‘s lunch with Father Eric Hollas and the joyous news that the Bible project had been accepted. On September 13, 1998, Abbot Timothy and Brother Dietrich officially commissioned Jackson at a ceremony at Saint John’s, during which both the calligrapher and his tools were blessed.

St. John's BibleAnother year and a half of intensive planning lay ahead before Jackson could actually begin. First he had to assemble a team to work with him in Wales, select his materials and create a new script that would pass the scrutiny of the monks . At the same time, a committee formed at Saint John’s to decide how many volumes there would be (seven), which books would be in which volume, and how many illuminations there would be (160). The Bible will contain 1,150 pages, and measure two feet tall and close to three feet wide when opened. Then they had to estimate how much all this would cost ($3 million originally, now up to $4 million) and how they would raise the money.

The initial concept was to find a handful of generous donors. But when Brother Dietrich approached the first potential donor, the Frey family of Minneapolis, the process took a different turn . Recognizing the significance of the endeavor, and realizing there were undoubtedly countless people who would like to be involved in it, the family made Reinhart a counteroffer: a $5oo,ooo challenge grant to be awarded only if it was matched by other donations.

Though still not turning away major backers, Saint John’s made public a sponsorship plan that allows individuals to purchase a single verse for any donation up to $1,000. larger sections for incremental amounts, or an entire volume for $250,000. “The response was overwhelming,” reports Rob Culligan, a vice president of the university. “People from all over the country, even the world, did want to have a part in this Bible.” (Sponsorship information is available at the project’s official Website,, where progress on the work can be monitored as well.)

Indeed, to date, public participation has been so overwhelming that Saint John’s plans an eighth volume, “The Book of Honor,” that will list all contributors and will he penned by a separate calligrapher.

Theologians at Saint John’s also had to choose which Bible translation Jackson would use. “Though this is obviously a Christian Bible,” states Father Michael Patella, chair of the Committee on Illuminations and Text, “we wanted to create a work of art that would appeal to people of faith the world over.” The committee selected the New Revised Standard Version, for its contemporary translation, gender-inclusive language and wide use by Catholics and Protestants.

Illuminations and marginalia—decorations added in the margins, as was done in medieval manuscripts—would reflect current times. ” Though we are using medieval methods, we are not creating a medieval book,” stresses Father Columha Stewart, a bibliophile with a keen intellect and dry wit who oversees Saint John’s rare books collection. “We want this Bible to speak to what the church is today. Certainly there will be more emphasis in the illustrations on women in general than in earlier Bibles.”

St. John's BibleTo anchor the Bible at its Minnesota roots, the monks and assistants began gathering and photographing flora and fauna from the 2,400-acre campus to send to the scriptorium in Wales. Thus the Bible may include colorful drawings of prairie grass, acorns, jack-in-the-pulpits, squirrels, sandhill cranes, even the unofficial state bird of Minnesota, the mosquito.

“Think of the scientific and technological changes that have occurred since the Bible was last handwritten and illuminated,” marvels Jackson. “No one knew then about evolution, DNA, spaceflight or black holes. Certainly no one could imagine viewing an earthrise from the Moon. They thought the world was flat. There’s so much for our imagination to play with in what we include, to make this a Bible that will give future generations an idea of what life was like in our time.”

Because the monks at Saint John’s couldn’t afford Jackson s services indefinitely, and because they hoped the Bible could he ready for the 150th anniversary of the abbey, completion was scheduled for 2006. Though the actual writing and illuminating would be done exactly as medieval monks did it more than a thousand years ago, Saint John’s quickly realized it faced some 21st-century challenges.

“In medieval times,” explains university fund-raiser Rob Culligan, “if a monastery was going to produce a Bible, one of the monks would walk 40 miles or so down the valley to another abbey and ask if he could borrow a Bible for ten years. When he returned, the monks would unbind it and give the different sheets to different scribes to reproduce. A lot of these guys couldn’t even read, though they did know how to precisely copy the alphabet in a given script. But the Bible we’re producing is in English. There aren’t any hand-written copies of those lying around that we can borrow for Donald and his team to use as models.”

Thus one of Jackson’s first, and notably demanding, tasks was to develop a new script for a new Bible. “I wanted to draw on the rich medieval manuscript tradition,” he notes, “so the script needed to be classic as well as contemporary. This is, after all, the Word of God; the seriousness of the words demand reverence.”

The soft-spoken artist has always loved the handwritten word. He was born in 1938 in Leigh, England, a gritty city of coal mines and cotton mills where hard work took precedence over “sissy stuff” such as art or literature. Jackson, however, whose father owned a bicycle repair shop, was lucky. The headmaster at the school where he enrolled at the age of 5 was an accomplished calligrapher and artist. sensing the boy’s talent, the teacher encouraged him to study calligraphy in his spare time.

At 13, Jackson received a scholarship to attend art school. “It was everything I had ever hoped for,” he recalls . “Four days of nothing but art and then one day when they crammed in all the academic subjects, plus football, which I skipped out on. It was bloody heaven for me.” After completing art school at the age of 19, Jackson moved to London for post-graduate studies and taught art to teenagers at a secondary school in London’s rough-and-tumble East End. It was there he met Mabel Morgan, a home economics teacher from Wales, whom he married in 1962.

Jackson soon realized that teaching youth was not his calling. It was calligraphy that he was born to do. He resigned his position and the security that went with it. Jackson plugged away, getting commissions to pen awards, invitations, diplomas. His work so stood out above others’ that in 1964 he was chosen to be one of the Queen’s two official scribes, a job that includes writing letters sent to each new peer of the realm.

Being the royal calligrapher, however, brought more prestige than pay. Thus, in 1969, Jackson gathered up his work, which included Shakespearean sonnets, pages of poetry, even an ornate map of Texas, borrowed airfare from his fhther and flew to New York.

Through calligraphy connections in New York, he did well. Three weeks later he had sold everything he had brought with him and garnered several new commissions. More trips to the United States followed, where he not only sold out his work but began lecturing to groups of established and would-he calligraphers. His was now a name to be reckoned with in calligraphy circles.

Jackson drew from the depths of his experience as a world-class calligrapher as he considered the script he would use for the Saint John’s Bible. He had to take into account that he was dealing with a different language than that of his medieval counterparts . “Because English is more staccato than Latin, its shorter words create a choppy effect,” he explains. To compensate, and to make sure the calligraphy could hold its own against illuminations and decorations, Jackson designed his own script . That final script is a work of art in itself beautiful to behold and real easy to read.

There were more hurdles to cross before work could begin. If several calligraphers were to be trained by and work simultaneously with Jackson, which was the only way the Bible could be completed in time, they had to have a precise format to follow. They needed a word-by-word, line-by-line template of each volume, including spaces where the illuminations would go. Only then could one scribe begin working on one page while another worked on a different page, each knowing how many letters 4nd words to fit onto each line and where to leave the proper space for the illuminations that would be added later.

Enter modern technology. Jackson recruited computer expert Vin Godier to work with him in a renovated machine shop where the wealthy Charles Rolls once tinkered with motorcars and aeroplanes at the turn of the 20th century. The grimy shop is now a clean, sunny scriptorium with drafting tables, a computer corner and a small addition containing tables, chairs and cooktop for the obligatory British tea breaks.

Under Jackson’s direction, Godier searched for a computer font closest in size and style to the Jacksonian script. With that, he began producing a computer-generated layout of each book and volume, fitting the text into the allotted 1,150 pages while leaving spaces for the illuminations.   In a process that continues today, Godier prints the pages in the same size that the final handwritten pages will be, then sends them to Atlanta for scrutiny by proofreaders for the National Counci l of the Churches of Christ, which owns the copyright to the New Revised Standard Bible. When the printouts are returned, and then stamped with an angel to show they’ve been proofed, Godier makes corrections and Jackson distributes them to the scribes for copying.

On March 8, 2000 —Ash Wednesday— Jackson chose his own first marks for the new Bible from the opening of the Gospel According to John. Dipping sharpened goose quills into vermilion and black ink, the master calligrapher took a very deep breath. Then, with astonishing deftness and swift but sure strokes, he penned the words that seemed to thunder down through the ages as they took form on the page: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” He held his breath as each letter formed, then exhaled in relief Donald Jackson had begun his life’s dream—and the creation of a work of art that will last for generations to come.

As did medieval scribes, Jackson and his assistants work on vellum: calfskins that have been steeped in lime, scraped and sanded before they reach the scriptorium, where they get a final surface treatment to produce the perfect texture. The ink needs to flow freely hut not so freely that your pen slips and slides,” explains Jackson. “We need a surface that grabs hold of the ink, so the mark we aim for is the mark we get.”

It’s not that mistakes aren’t made. When that happens, the scribe scrapes away the error with a fine blade and then brushes the area with sandarac, a kind of tree resin, ground into powder. Catastrophe has struck only once: a hole was scratched during the correction process, requiring that a sheet of vellum be scrapped.

St. John's BibleThe work of the calligrapher is indeed painstakingly precise, requiring extraordinary patience and concentration. But to the calligraphers it is much more. Sally Teague, one of the scribes, reveals the magic of the art form. Now 49, Teague was a 30- year -old accountant and mother of four when she took a wrong turn in London’s British Museum and stumbled upon her first medieval manuscript . “I made an instant connection with that manuscript,” she recalls. “I fell in love; it’s as simple as that.”

Balancing parenting with studying, Teague ultimately graduated from caligraphy school. “My family could never understand that I could sit and make pages and pages of one letter,” she chuckles. “But sometimes you find that piece of magic when you become .fully connected: eye, heart, pen and vellum. You need to reach for that space, and it’s a wonderful place to be when you find it—almost a form of meditation.”

At the scriptorium this past fall, Brian Simpson, one of the calligraphers who works mainly from home, arrived with a rolled-up batch of completed pages. The group gathered around a large table in the tea room as the genial Simpson prepared to unroll the newly finished work from the book of Genesis.

The pages were breathtaking. The letters leaped off the vellum with a life of their own, perfection it seemed. Yet before Simpson returned to his home in the Midlands, 120 miles away, with a new supply of blank vellum, there would be close scrutiny and discussion by the team to make sure he wasn’t developing any idiosyncrasies that strayed from the style. “Working as a team,” explained Simpson, “we have to become an orchestra. There is no room for solos here.

“The first time I put a quill to a real page, he added, “I was terrified beyond all reason. It turned out to be fine, but I’m sure that page won’t be my best one.” He claims that he can look at completed pages and see where he struggled, when there was stress in his life, where the work flowed effortlessly. “It’s an evolving process for us,” he explained. “Someone will make an c in a slightly different way, and Donald might say, ‘1 like that.’ Then we’ll ease our styles into that c. I’m sure to the trained eye, the end of the Bible will look very different from the beginning.”

Sue Hufron, a mother of two who also writes from her home, returning every five weeks to spend a few days working alongside the other scribes, finds the greatest challenge is adapting her style to the Jacksonian script. “It’s different than when I do my own calligraphy,” she explains. “Even though I’m copying Donald’s style as precisely as I can, how I write is different from how Donald writes because I’m not Donald. We can aim for consistency, but we’re humans, not machines.” For that reason, assignments have been made so that pages by different calligraphers won’t appear side by side. But the slight differences in style will give the Bible a unique human quality that a printed text can never match.

No one can perform, or describe, the art of calligraphy with the eloquence of Donald Jackson, whose home, the Hendre—Welsh for winter pasture—nestles behind hedgerows directly across the lane from the scriptorium. Beyond the half-timbered house, sheep graze on green hills. About a dozen miles to the south, on the banks of the Wye River, rise the graceful ruins of Tintern Abbey, founded by an austere branch of Benedictine monks in the 12th century. It is a peaceful, and fitting, place to create a Bible for the new millennium. Jackson himself is a complex, reflective man with pale blue eyes that at times seem to penetrate the depths of one’s soul. At other times he seems distracted, as if he is choosing which of the dozen ideas racing through his mind he should pursue to its concluion. “Calligraphy is a performance,” he observed, catching hold of one of those thoughts. “It’s like dancing or ice skating. You do a pirouette, or a figure eight, and you’ve got to do everything right at that precise moment or you’ll fall downi And then there are the illuminations to consider, “a complex mix of the surreal and realistic,” he says of his artistic style.

Despite the 4,000 miles that separate the scriptorium in Wales from Saint John’s in Minnesota, the two halves of the team—the artists and the theologians—are in constant communication thanks to fax, e-mail and digital photograph attachments of the works in progress. On the Saint John’s side of the ocean, a carefully chosen Committee on Illumination and Text (C1T) prepares a written theological “brief” for each of the passages that Jackson will illustrate.. Each brief contains an explanation of the text, scriptural cross-references, free associations about the passage that come up during the group’s brainstorming sessions, and a list of local references for Jackson to consider so that, according to a brief written for the Nativity, everything in the illumination will coincide with “historical, cultural, liturgical and archaeological data.”

Completing a single brief is an intense process that takes three months of meeting several hours each week. When the group of eight—monks, sisters and laypeople who are also artists, medievalists, biblical scholars and art historians—have finally agreed on all the aspects they feel Jackson need be aware of for an illumination, they e-mail the results to Wales. Then, mission accomplished, they celebrate with a round of champagne and chocolates.

When Jackson receives a brief, he makes color sketches of the illustration in question that he then e-mails back to Saint John’s. The CIT studies the sketches and returns comments electronically to Wales—a process that continues until the CIT gives the OK on theological content and emphasis. Jackson then begins work on what will be an actual hand-illustrated page in the fInished Bible.

“It’s another example of the marriage of the old and the new in this project,” notes Fatella. “We could never do this without computers and e-mail—unless Donald and his team pulled up stakes and moved to Minnesota for the next six years.

Though Jackson uses modern materials for his sketches, for the final illuminations he turns to the tools and materials employed by scribes more than a thousand years ago: quill pens, antique ink sticks, gold and silver . He paints in tempera, a technique in use before the advent of oil painting. To do so he grinds lapis lazuli for brilliant blues, vermilion for startling reds, malachite for glistening greens. To reds and other warm colors he adds the yolk of an egg, which serves as a binding agent and adds luster and depth to the pigments. Cooler colors get a dash of egg white for the same results. Fish glue, sugar and powdered white lead combine for gesso. Jackson applies the gesso and, when it has dried, breathes on it gently through a slender reed. This provides the moisture that will allow gold leaf to adhere so it can be burnished to a dazzling and lasting brilliance.

For Jackson, however, there is far more than physical beauty in his creations. “I reach deep inside myself to make images that mean something to me, because then they will mean something to others. I want people to say ~Ah’ when they look at the Saint John’s Bible, not only because they arc dazzled by the gold and vermilion, or awed by the calligraphy, but because they discover something inside themselves, something they may not have known was there”

Each member of the team working in Wales is aware of the immensity of the project. Most, however, say they take it a day at a time, page by page. “If you dwell too much on the idea that you’re creating a work that will be here a thousand years from now, explains Jackson, “it would simply overwhelm you. What happens is, if you get a nice ci, or you swing into a y and it works, you get a little thrill. Your feelings are never much farther than the next mark you make, not a thousand years in the future.”

But the fact remains that not only are Donald Jackson and his team writing a Bible for the new millennium, they are doing it on a strict deadline—which does overwhelm them at times. (About eight to ten hours arc required to complete a single page.) “We considered getting T-shirts printed that said, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time,”’ jokes Jackson, who, bearing the ultimate responsibility for the physical creation of the 1,150 handwritten and hand-illuminated pages, concedes that at moments the burden seems almost crushing. “I ought to have known what 1 was taking on,” he admits, “but I didn’t.”

When Donald Jackson penned his first deft stroke, it was a moment of living history. But the final stroke, that instant when the Saint John’s Bible is complete, and ready for display at the university, will be even more momentous. The last word will be, appropriately, from the final verse of the last book in the Bible, the book of Revelation, which ends with a simple word: Amen.


Per Oia and Emily d’Aulaire wrote recently

                                                   for SMITHSONIAN on King Arthur Flour.

                                                   Michael Freeman is based in England.



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