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As it is written.

Benedictine monks in Minnesota have teamed up with calligraphers at a scriptorium in Wales to create the Saint John's Bible, the first Bible to be written and illustrated entirely by hand in more than 500 years.

Warm 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. Their 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. Worktables 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, stretched back to Abraham. Created for the Gospel of 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.

It was shortly before Christmas 1995 when Brother Dietrich Reinhart, president of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, and Father Eric Hollas, director of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library there, headed south on I-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 handwrite 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. Then he considered the significance of a Bible that could last a thousand years or more. 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 St. 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 529 A.D., a tradition alive and well at St. 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.

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.

Another 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 St. 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.

Theologians at St. 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 Illumination 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--would reflect current times. "Though we are using medieval methods, we are not creating a medieval book," stresses Father Columba Stewart, who oversees St. 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."

To 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.

"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 St. John's hoped the Bible could be 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, St. John's quickly realized it faced some 21st-century challenges.

"In medieval times," explains university fundraiser 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 10 years. But the Bible we're producing is in English. There aren't any handwritten copies of those lying around that we can borrow for Donald and his team to use as models."

Thus one of Jackson's first tasks was to develop a new script. "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."

Jackson 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.

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.

Enter modern technology. Jackson recruited computer expert Vin Godier to work with him. 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.

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. "We need a surface that grabs hold of the ink," explains Jackson, "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.

At the scriptorium this past fall, calligrapher Brian Simpson arrived with a rolled-up batch of completed pages. The group gathered around a large table in the tea room as he 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 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," explains Simpson, "we have to become an orchestra. There is no room for solos here."

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 explains. "Someone will make an e in a slightly different way, and Donald might say, 'I like that.' Then we'll ease our styles into that e. I'm sure to the trained eye, the end of the Bible will look very different from the beginning."

"We can aim for consistency," explains scribe Sue Hufton, "but we're humans, not machines." So 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.

Despite the 4,000 miles that separate the scriptorium in Wales from St. John's in Minnesota, the two halves of the team--the artists and the theologians--are in constant communication.

On the St. John's side of the ocean, a carefully chosen Committee on Illumination and Text 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 to consider.

When Jackson receives a brief, he makes color sketches of the illustration that he then e-mails to St. John's. The committee studies the sketches and returns comments electronically to Wales--a process that continues until the committee gives the OK. Jackson then begins work on what will be an actual hand-illustrated page in the finished Bible.

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 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 are 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."

When 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 OLA and EMILY D'AULAIRE are writers living in Redding, Connecticut. MICHAEL FREEMAN is a photographer based in England. [C] Per Ola and Emily d'Aulaire, all rights reserved. [C] 2000 Michael Freeman. Originally appeared in Smithsonian, December 2000.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
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Title Annotation:Benedictine monks and calligraphers create the hand written and illustrated Saint John's Bible
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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