Eleven years ago, Donald Jackson, calligrapher to Queen Elizabeth, offered to make the Word of God live on the page. His offer to officials at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn., has become the first handwritten version of the Bible commissioned by the Benedictine monastery in 500 years.
The Saint John’s Bible, considered by Jackson to be his Sistine Chapel, is created in the same manner as that of early scribes with every letter and illustration meticulously drawn.
The $4 million, seven-volume project is nearly completed and Blessed Savior Parish will be the temporary recipient of the volume Gospels and Acts, a massive 23-pound book measuring 25 by 16.5 inches.
Thanks to parishioners Rusty and Sharon Tym, who met director of public programs and education Tim Ternes while visiting the abbey and university last fall, the volume will be on display and incorporated into Blessed Savior’s weekend Masses the weekend of Oct. 10 and 11.
“We met Tim Ternes and learned about their agenda, called the Pilgrimage of the Book,” Tym said. “It is designed to get the book displayed in as many venues as possible. This program allows those who request a copy of the book to actually receive it at no cost other than shipping and insurance.”
The completed 1,150-page Bible will include: Pentateuch, Historical Books, Psalms, Prophets, Wisdom Books, Gospels and Acts, Letters and Revelation. Upon completion, it will reside in sealed glass cases in its own building at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library on the St. John’s campus.
“Six volumes are completed,” Tym said. “The remaining volume, Letters of Saint Paul, is expected to be completed by the end of 2010.”
Jackson and his team of artists in Monmouth, Wales, use goose or swan quills with ancient inks prepared using the yolks of eggs from free-range chickens near Jackson’s scriptorium as a binder. The words are written on large sheets of prepared vellum, or calfskin, which are then illuminated or brought to light with gold, silver or platinum to form the artwork.
According to Ternes, the project is a work of art and spirituality for the new millennium.
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“Although this project is done in a 12th century way, it is very modern,” he said, adding, “And it is designed to last 4,000 years” Gospels and Acts has more than 25 illuminations, including full-page opening illuminations for each of the four Gospels. Some of the prominent illuminations include the Genealogy of Jesus, the Birth of Christ, the Raising of Lazarus, the Crucifixion, Christ Our Light, the Last Supper, the Road to Emmaus and Pentecost.
The volume that Blessed Savior will receive is not the original, but the life-size copy. A smaller, standard book size copy can be purchased for personal use.
While there is a waiting list for parishes, museums and organizations eager to be part of the pilgrimage, Tym was stunned that the volume was available on the date they requested.
“We are only one of a few selected locations for presentations during liturgy,” he said. “We will be witness to the 21st Century illuminated Bible using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The project reinforces the tradition of illuminated manuscripts in the service of both biblical Scripture and book art.”
To secure use of the volume, Blessed Savior needed to guarantee the proper safe storage in its facility, the funds to pay the cost of shipping and $30,000 worth of insurance coverage, as well as several other conditions.
“We used funding derived from the budget substantiated through dues paid by the members of the Young At Heart organization in our parish with additional help, if needed from the parish,” said Tym. “Without the full endorsement and enthusiasm of our pastor, Rev. Greg Chycinski, this project would not have been able to reach fruition.”
The Saint John’s Bible project was commissioned to Jackson to celebrate the new millennium and the 150th anniversary of the monks’ arrival. Saint John’s Abbey is one of the largest Benedictine monasteries in the world with about 200 monks, and Saint John’s University, founded by the abbey in 1857.
The Benedictines, founded in Italy by St. Benedict in 530, have a long custom of manuscript sharing and preservation. The first words were written on Ash Wednesday 2000, and from the moment he learned of the project, Tym was captivated.
“I was eager to see and understand more,” he said. “That’s why my wife, Sharon, and I accepted an invitation from the director to go to Saint John’s Abbey and University to see the original manuscripts.”
The couple purchased the book, “Illuminating the Word-The Making of the Saint John’s Bible,” by Christopher Calderhead, Liturgical Press, to gain a deeper appreciating of the enormity of energy and creativity involved in the project.
Viewing the Saint John’s Bible has intensified the couple’s faith.
“This was a mammoth effort required to fulfill the creation of this work of art, the beauty and conception it took to finish, and the cooperation between the institution and artists,” said Tym. “It brings into the 21st century a new way of looking at and interpreting the marvelous meaning of God’s Word.”
In the opening procession, the Gospels and Acts volume will be carried to the altar and placed in a specially fitted ambo for its proclamation at each Mass.
Following each liturgy, Rusty Tym will present a short lecture on the history of the Saint John’s Bible.