Thursday, September 20, 2007

Modern Medievalism: The St. John's Bible

Frontispiece: The Gospel of John
"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God." (NRSV)
(Image from Christianity Today)

Speaking of imagery ... Jennifer Trafton goes beyond the mere cosmos to its precosmic source in an article for Christianity Today, "The Bible in Brush & Stroke," her report on a 'Medieval' project by Saint John's Abbey and University that has commissioned "Welsh calligrapher Donald Jackson to create a 'Bible for the 21st century'":
It is made with medieval techniques, but uses the NRSV translation (including the Apocrypha) and incorporates contemporary allusions in the art and modern technology in the planning.

By the time the Bible is finished (scheduled for 2009), the 1,150 handwritten pages will represent a decade of conversations and labor by artists, theologians, and scholars on two continents. Eventually, the pages will be bound between boards of Welsh oak into seven volumes and displayed in the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library on Saint John's campus.
Now, that's something that I'd like to see, given my neo-Medievalist leanings. Worry not, dear readers, for I also have neo-Modernist leanings. Some neo-Ancient leanings as well. Even a few neo-Postmodernist leanings. I lean in several directions. Like Whitman, "I am large, I contain multitudes." It's a balancing act that keeps me fit and, um, 'lean' ... despite being large.

Anyway, this isn't about me but about the St. John's Bible, which will be an illuminated manuscript. In the image above from "the frontispiece to the Gospel of John, a Christ who is pure gold steps out of the cosmos that was created through him." How is it done? Like this:
A scribe bends intently over a worktable in his scriptorium in Monmouth, Wales. The page before him is vellum -- calfskin sanded to a velvety smoothness. His goose quill pen has been hardened in hot sand and cut with a knife to hold ink and to create a precise line. He dips the end into vermilion pigment mixed with egg yolk for luminosity and begins to shape the first capital letter of a new chapter of the Bible he is copying.

Finishing this page will take a day. If he makes a mistake, he will have to scrape the vellum and write the word or line over again. The pressure is greater because the other side has already been illuminated -- biblical themes spun into a visual tapestry of brilliant colors, evocative imagery, and radiant gold.

But the scribe's hand is guided by long experience and a clear idea of the words' pattern on the page. The line length has already been worked out by computer to ensure a perfect fit. The accompanying illustrations are the result of months of e-mail messages between the scribe and those who have commissioned him, discussing theological interpretation and symbolism. Medieval artistry with a modern twist: That's the achievement and the challenge of the Saint John's Bible, the first handwritten, illuminated Bible in 500 years.
And it's a tough job, as Jackson, the Welsh calligrapher, makes clear in deed and word:
Jackson created a new script for the Bible that could clearly and beautifully express the unique rhythms of the English language. Each large capital letter at the beginning of chapters is unique -- he designed more than 70 versions of the letter T for the Pentateuch alone. He and his team of calligraphers copy text on handmade vellum using hand-cut quills and hand-ground paints. It takes seven-and-a-half to ten hours to write 108 lines in two columns -- a single page. "You can't keep it up, physically," he says. "It's like playing the violin for ten hours at a stretch. It takes absolute concentration."
"Life is short. Art is long." The words of Hippocrates are appropriate here, a man of antiquity whose words could be speaking for this Medieval project. But why go to all the trouble? Why not just use computers and printers and avoid the cost and the time? Well, it's a labor of love for which the artists sacrifice time, a lot of time, to give what they offer a personal effect. Christianity Today, being "a magazine of evangelical conviction," feels a need to explain the reason for images, especially of the sort that recall icons, for Protestantism has often been iconoclastic in its emphasis upon scripture as God's word, so Trafton offers this analogy:
A good reader of the Sunday Scripture passage will not read it in monotone. She will alter her tone, facial expressions, and even body language to bring out the verses' emotion and significance. Calligraphy does all that in ink.
For an excellent example of the sort of expressive reading that draws forth the emotion and significance of scriptural verses, watch what Ryan Ferguson does with Hebrews 9 and 10. From watching him 'preach' those two chapters, I can echo the Catholics and Protestants who have already looked at some of the text's illuminated pages, and exclaim, "Now I understand this verse so much better!" I'd need to see a lot of these illuminated pages myself to discover whether or not I'd have the same reaction to the painted image as to the expressive word, but I probably won't get to do so.

If you live in the States, however, you might have a chance to see some of the finished pages for the St. John's Bible before they're bound in manuscript form:
Saint John's has taken the unfinished Bible on a national tour called "Illuminating the Word." Its 2005 debut at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts drew 60,000 people. Since then it has traveled to various parts of the U.S. and is scheduled to hit Arizona, Canada, Washington, and Alabama in 2008. (See for the schedule.)
Meanwhile, you can see a few images online at Christianity Today. I wish that the site had presented more images and in a larger and brighter format, for I'm not entirely sure what I think of the results, based on what I've looked at, but see for yourself.

Update: I should have checked earlier, but another online exhibition has even more images.

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