Beginning in 1995, the community of Saint John’s Abbey and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, began planning The Saint John’s Bible—the first handwritten, illuminated Bible to be commissioned by a Benedictine monastery in five hundred years. Yet, the project wasn’t intended to separate the modern world from the ancient biblical traditions held sacred in the middle ages. As, Father Eric Hollas, Oklahoma City native and former executive director of the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University explains, this extraordinary manifestation of the illumination tradition brings to life a contemporary and communal project.
“We’re not looking to create a twelfth century bible in the twenty-first century, rather we’re creating a twenty-first century bible in the twenty-first century.”
However, Saint John’s Abbey didn’t necessarily represent the only interest in creating an illuminated Bible for the new millennium. Donald Jackson, Senior Scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office, expressed a lifelong dream of creating an illuminated Bible in media interviews throughout his career, beginning in 1970. After a Saint John’s sponsored calligraphy presentation at the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1995, Jackson and Father Hollas finally had the opportunity to discuss the possibility of creating an illuminated Bible for the twenty first century. Saint John’s navigated the cost of the project between 1996 and 1997 with Jackson completing his first samples and theologians developing illumination composition—a process that would eventually lead to an official commission of The Saint John’s Bible just one year later.
Finally, the first words of the project were brought to life March 8, 2000. Each letter was rendered by hand on calfskin vellum using turkey, goose, and swan quills with natural handmade inks, hand-ground pigments, and gold and silver leaf gild. Twenty-three scribes, artists and assistants headquartered in a scriptorium in Wales under Jackson’s supervision, finished the last words May 9, 2011.
Undoubtedly, The Saint John’s Bible is a testament to hand-made craftsmanship that will still be in existence at least five hundred years from now due to the nature of the materials used in this momentous creation.
View the video below for an introduction to The Saint John’s Bible with Father Eric Hollas and Donald Jackson!
Photo credit: Michael Freeman, Michael Freeman Photography, London, England.