First Handwritten Illuminated Bible in 500 Years

For several centuries, monks spent countless hours diligently making copy after copy of the Bible by hand in beautiful script and adding colorful illustrations of some passage or parable along with highly ornate, illuminated lettering.

But once Gutenberg came along and printed the first Bible with moveable type around 1455 in Germany, the medieval Benedictine monks stopped all their hand-copying of the Bible. There was no need any more since now Bibles could be made in many copies in short time.

It was not until the time of this new millennium that monks once again looked toward a hand-produced Bible when the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., commissioned the first hand-written and illustrated Bible in 500 years. The result is the St. John’s Bible, a monumental work completed in May 2011 when calligraphic artist Donald Jackson finished copying in beautiful script the last word — “Amen”.

The story of this project and its results is now on exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum in downtown New Haven. Called “Illuminating the Word of God: The Saint John’s Bible,” it fills four galleries and includes 68 of the 1,178 original pages in addition to numerous items connected to making this unique Bible.

This is no pocket-sized Bible. Surprisingly, the pages are two feet high and nearly a foot-and-a-half wide. They will be bound into seven volumes, but for now the sections are being exhibited in various locations for some time yet so that many people around the country can see the incredible results.

The script all done by hand is striking. It looks straight from the Middle Ages, as if monks labored years over the whole work. Yet at the same time, there is something slightly different about it.

That new-old difference might be because this graceful script was created by the person who headed the project and had the idea in the first place: Donald Jackson. Appropriately, it is called the Jacksonian script.

Jackson happens to be one of the best calligraphers in the world and is the Senior Scribe to the Queen of England. He has stated that it was his dream since childhood of one day completing a handwritten Bible after the ancient practice.

To do that, the St. John’s Illuminated Bible project enlisted Jackson and five more scribes working with him in his scriptorium in Wales. A number of aides joined them.

While a computer was used to plot out the pages showing where every line should be placed, and the same for the illustrations, the rest of the work was basically carried out in the centuries-old manner that the medieval monks would recognize and use.

The pages are the same time-tested and time-honored vellum, which is from calfskin which was prepared in the traditional centuries-old manner.

The black ink for the script itself was prepared from rare 19th century Chinese ink sticks. The red ink dates to the 19th century and the vivid blue from lapis lazuli. Just as did the monks of old, Jackson and his scribes began each chapter with a fancy capital letter. Only in this case, they are not quite as ornate as the medieval monks made them, at least in the major examples existing from centuries ago.

As quite a surprise, and yet no real surprise considering the project’s goals, all the script was done in the same manner as from well over a thousand years ago. Jackson and scribbles used quills they prepared by hand from turkey, swan and geese feathers. Not only are examples of these tools on display, but their use is demonstrated by way of a video.

The illustrations themselves are often quite colorful and even dazzling because of the abundance of sparkling and gleaming gold leaf in several of them. But here they differ in most part from the medieval sources. Most on display in this exhibit and presumably in the rest of the Bible are modernistic in their appearance, symbolism and metaphors. Sometimes they even lean to being somewhat abstract. They were intended to tilt toward being ecumenical.

While there are a couple of Byzantine icon-like illustrations from John Chapter 8, an illustration of the Sower and the Seed parable has a modern look with the sower working blue jeans and sweatshirt.

In the Book of Revelation, the illustration of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is likely meant to reflect chaos with its mostly abstract images that do include identifiable elements like the tanks of modern warfare. But there is abstraction in the beautiful swallowtail butterflies that sometimes grace the pages.

For this handwritten and illustrated Saint John’s Bible, the committee in charge used the New Revised Standard Version (not the New Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition).

Considering the historical foundation and the work and talent that went into this project that took over a decade, The Saint John’s Bible is an epic work. It indirectly pays tribute to all those nameless monks who toiled with such patience for God and his Church. This major exhibit runs through November 2 at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven.

Click to view high resolution samples: Vision of Isaiah | Sower and the Seed | Valley of the Dry Bones