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St. Kate’s owns a limited reproduction of The Saint John’s Bible

The Saint John’s Bible is handmade and bathed in color. When complete, sometime in 2011, it will contain about 160 illuminations spread over 1,150 pages.
The Saint John’s Bible is handmade and bathed in color. When complete, sometime in 2011, it will contain about 160 illuminations spread over 1,150 pages.
Rebecca Zenefski 10

In 2008, St. Catherine University hosted an exhibition of special prints and some never-before-seen images from The Saint John’s Bible. The exhibit drew a record-setting 3,000 visitors to the Catherine G. Murphy Gallery on the St. Paul campus. It is this overwhelming interest that would eventually land St. Kate’s its very own limited-edition reproduction of the famed Bible. (More on this later.)

Commissioned in 1998 by Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., The Saint John’s Bible is a modern-day manuscript created in the manner used by medieval monk scribes — on calfskin vellum with quills and paints hand-ground from minerals and stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, silver, copper and 24-karat gold. Even its size is typical of ancient times, says Jim Triggs, executive director of The Saint John's Bible Heritage Program.

Each of the seven volumes that make up the Bible — Pentateuch, Historical Books, Psalms, Wisdom Books, Prophets, Gospels & Acts, and Letters & Revelations — weighs about 35 pounds and opens two-feet-tall by three-feet-wide. “If you were in a procession and you wanted to make a real statement about your faith, showing up with a little book didn't make a lot of sense,” Triggs explains.

Unlike its antiquated counterpart, however, The Saint John’s Bible is written in English (not Latin), and the illuminations have a contemporary spin.

For example, Adam and Eve are depicted as Africans to reflect more recent thinking about the origins of humanity. Jesus' family tree is represented by a menorah, intertwined with spirals suggestive of DNA strands. The “dry bones passage” in Ezekiel has an image of the World Trade Center’s twin towers burning in the background.

“Medieval bibles spoke to that era, to the life and times of the 12th and 13th centuries,” says Triggs. “We wanted this bible to speak to the issues of the 21st century. The St. John’s Bible was created as a gift to the world, and its goal is to ignite our spiritual imagination.”

A Bible for the masses

In 2008, Saint John’s University introduced a fine-art reproduction of The Saint John’s Bible. Only 299 copies of the Heritage Edition will ever be produced. (Pope Benedict XVI received the first one at the Vatican in April 2008.)

St. Catherine University’s very own Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible comes courtesy of Lois Rogers ’63 and her husband, John. They presented the gift to the University in 2009 at the Christmas Vespers service in Our Lady of Victory Chapel.

“We heard that the response at St. Catherine was the most wonderful the [exhibit curator had] received — that people just really, really got the Bible, and they saw the beautiful connections between the illuminations and the Word,” says Rogers of the exhibition “Divine Words, Inspired Art,” which featured 31 prints from five volumes of The Saint John’s Bible.

Fun facts

  • A brand new calligraphy script was created for this Bible and nicknamed “Jacksonian,” after Donald Jackson, the artistic director.
  • Vermillion, lapis lazuli, and other cakes and powdered pigments are mixed with egg yolk and water to make paint that's thicker than black ink.
  • All the species of flora and fauna depicted in the margins of The Saint John's Bible are native to the Minnesota woods surrounding Saint John's University or to the Welsh countryside near Jackson's home.

Learn more about the Bible and its production process.

Rogers and her husband, a graduate of Saint John’s University, were equally awestruck by the vivid and bold artwork and the use of provocative modern imagery when they first saw the original Saint John's Bible.

The couple had been privy to the early folios of artistic director Donald Jackson because Lois Rogers serves on the board of Saint John’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, which oversees programming for The St. John's Bible.

Dreams do come true

As a child, Donald Jackson dreamed of creating a handwritten, illuminated Bible. He conveyed that ambition in 1995 to Eric Hollas, OSB, a monk at Saint John's Abbey and then-director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. Father Eric brought the idea to the monks, and the rest is history.

A team of artists and calligraphers in the United States and Europe are working under Jackson’s direction, including Twin Cities calligrapher Diane Von Arx. Based in Wales, Jackson is one of the world’s foremost calligraphers and the scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

“When I was nine years old, desire led me to copying ancient scripts and decorated letters,” says Jackson, on the project’s website. “I loved the feel of the pen as it touched the page and the breathtaking effect of the flow of colored ink as its wetness caught the light.”

The Heritage Edition, says Lois Rogers, was a chance to give back to her alma mater and to share something beautiful with other people. “The Saint John’s Bible project is huge, and there’s more to come,” she says. “The illuminations keep getting better.”

So far, St. Catherine University has received three volumes (Wisdom, Prophets and Psalms). They are stored in the climate-controlled rare book room of Special Collections in University Archives. Subsequent volumes will be delivered as they are complete.

Ultimately, the University plans to display its Heritage Edition for all to enjoy.

June 29, 2010 by Pauline Oo

See also: Arts, Catholic Identity