Imagine reading the Bible in 500 BE. You would have to be a sage or an otherwise educated person to be able to read in the first place.
The Bible itself would be a massive, handwritten text. It would not be like Bibles today.
Not only would the words be written painstakingly by hand, but certain pages would have “illuminations” next to them: pictures that capture the feel of what is going on in the passage. The Bible would also be a collection of art. Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, commissioned just such a Bible.
A team of scribes, artists, theologians and scholars headed by Donald Jackson, Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, took up this commission and set to work on a 15 – year journey that eventually led to The Saint John’s Bible.
Greta Grond, library director at the DeWitt Learning Commons, heard of this project and knew it had to appear on Northwestern College’s campus. She communicated with Saint John’s Abbey and managed to secure several prints of illuminations that appear in the actual book. They are currently being displayed in the north side of the first floor of the Learning Commons.
“It brings modern sensibilities to ancient text,” Grond said. “It shows the manual labor it takes to create beautiful art.”
Grond also encouraged students to see the prints as a fuller dimension of the text of the Bible.
“We often only look at a short passage or lone verse, she said “it can be helpful to see a more artistic take on the whole meaning of a passage.”
The Saint John’s Bible contains more than 160 illuminations, and each of them is a unique and gorgeous take on the passages it accompanies.
In fact, certain illuminations in the book were unplanned. Grond mentioned that, because the Saint John’s Bible is handwritten, there are sometimes unavoidable mistakes. These mistakes are often covered up by a small illumination and replaced by a more beautiful version of the word that was mistaken. A happy little accident, one might say.
This Bible was copied and illuminated in a proper scriptorium in Wales. The theological work was done at the University in Minnesota. Their duties included choosing the version of the Bible that the Saint John’s Bible would copy from, and they eventually decided on the NRSV.
I could spill as many facts, figures, and descriptions of this Bible as you want, but nothing compares to seeing the prints in real life at the Learning Commons I encourage everyone who cares about the good ol’ B-I-B-L-E to take just five minutes to look at some of the pictures. They are genuinely moving and express the Bible in a way we don’t often experience in the current era of digital Bibles.
There is much to be said for the relationship between Christianity and art, but nothing better expresses the power each can have through the other than a proper, old school, illuminated Bible like The Saint John’s.