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Artists Replicate Handwritten Medieval Bible


The first handwritten and illustrated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine monastery* since the invention of the printing press over 500 years ago is touring historical institutions in the United States. Amanda Cassandra has the story on the Saint John's Bible.

The Saint John's Bible is a contemporary work created in the tradition of handwritten medieval manuscripts. The new Bible melds techniques of traditional scribes with modern computer technology. Still a work in progress, the completed St. John's Bible will consist of seven volumes with more than 1,000 pages, all hand-gilded. A selection from the Bible is on view at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York.

The Benedictine monks of St. John's University and Abbey in Minnesota commissioned the Bible in 2000. Since then, artists and scholars have labored on the massive text using quills (a hollow end of a bird feather used for writing) and paints made from hand-ground precious stones like lapis lazuli, silver, copper and 24-karat gold to adorn the pages.

The Bible is displayed at the museum along side 50 embellished prayer books and individual leaves, which Curator Holly Flora says help visitors to understand the history of scripture production.

"The tradition that the St. John's Bible is based on is that of a handwritten and hand embellished and hand illuminated, which is a word that basically means, 'the giving of light' and it refers to the use of gold in the actual pictures and script to give the sense of reflective quality to the pages," said Holly Flora. "But it also, of course, refers the idea illuminating someone mentally and intellectually through the word itself, so it's kind of a double meaning."

Flora says The St. John's Bible is about returning to a time of reverence for the art of making holy books.

"When the printing press was invented, bibles were printed and mass produced," she said. "But in the Middle Ages, you have these handmade Bibles that were really treasures in themselves. They were part of church treasuries, monastic treasuries and they were designed to used on special occasions to be revered as sacred objects and I think essentially that is what the St. John's Bible is also about."

The director of the project, Carol Marrin, says St. John's Bible is intended to help people reconnect with it in a new way.

"Our culture today is pretty visual," said Carol Marrin. "We're accustomed to television and computers and iPods and pod casts, so we're used to seeing things. And so the illuminations and the special treatments and the art in the St. John's Bible are really intended not to give you a picture, not to be a literal interpretation of a passage, but rather to say read this differently. Read this scripture for today."

The St. John's Bible is bigger than most traditional biblical manuscripts. It is 61 centimeters high and when opened, a two-page spread is almost one meter across.

Marrin says senior calligrapher Donald Jackson believed the dimensions of the Bible should be grand to reflect the content.

"If we really take this seriously, there should be something monumental about it, so that's really what got him to think about doing something of this scale and this scope," noted Carol Marrin.

The pages of original medieval manuscripts are too fragile to be handled and must be protected from light. The St. John's Bible is more durable so visitors will be able to touch the Bible and turn the pages.

The St. John's Bible is scheduled for completion in 2008, when it will be permanently housed at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John's University, available to scholars and the public.

* - Clarification issued 12 October 2006: Report initially stated it was the first handwritten and illustrated Bible since the invention of the printing press.